Other people's business

RSS

Study shows that the health benefits of organic produce are negligible

A tomato by any other name would taste exactly the same.

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

It is a scientific fact that people who buy organic food are smugger than your average fertilizer-guzzling pleb. Anecdotal case-in-point: I once knew a guy who was reluctant to eat anything at my house because it was from Tesco’s (shakes fist at soulless corporate bastards) and non-organic. Obviously, I was unfortunate enough to cross paths with the wretched 0.001 per cent everyone talks about - you know, the kind that is rude enough to look down on perfectly fine food because it’s non-organic. Consequently, I am a worse, more bitter person for it, so please take the following blog post with a pinch of fleur de sel.

And so, although the organic food debate has been done to death since about 2005, I’ll take recent research evidence from Stanford (a meta-analysis of 237 studies written in English) as an opportunity to smugly point out that organic food may very well be the most effective marketing ploy of recent times. As the New York Times highlights:

They concluded that fruits and vegetables labeled organic were, on average, no more nutritious than their conventional counterparts, which tend to be far less expensive. Nor were they any less likely to be contaminated by dangerous bacteria like E. coli.

The researchers also found no obvious health advantages to organic meats.

Conventional fruits and vegetables did have more pesticide residue, but the levels were almost always under the allowed safety limits, the scientists said. The Environmental Protection Agency sets the limits at levels that it says do not harm humans.

As noted by Businessinsider, the main finding in favour of the organic food cause was that organic produce is 30 per cent less likely to contain traces of pesticides. The researchers note that small levels of pesticides don’t hurt anyone, but also point to various studies have shown that children who consumed fewer pesticides had higher IQs later in life. (I haven’t actually read these studies, but am, on the outset, skeptical of accepting causality – the types of parents who actively worry about feeding their kids fertilizers are probably as concerned in other spheres as well). Of course, for the sake of fairness, it is worth pointing out that the US ‘certified organic’ label is a bit of a fraud anyway, and may have distorted the study.

Still, most people don’t pay a 10 to 40 per cent premium for the added nutritional value. Many cite environmental concerns as their main reason for doing so. But the environmental benefits of forgoing potentially ecosystem-disrupting pesticides in favour of less efficient, more resource-intensive crops are at best contentious.

Not to mention the fact that were it not for the Green Revolution, we’d probably be eating each other in an apocalyptic Malthusian nightmare. (But at least we’d be eating pesticide-free thumbsticks).

But this isn’t about rehashing the pro/cons of organic eating. It’s about the fact that there is a new Organic Café on Kingsland Road, a few shops away from the Organic Supermarket. What does that even mean? A café “of, relating to, or deriving from living matter”? The organic label has made hitherto undifferentiated commodities into bastions of socially acceptable snobbery, artificially (rather than organically) distinguishing “luxury” or premium goods from normal - or in some people’s eyes - inferior, products (cf. opening anecdote - not at all resentful). The fact that there are no appreciable benefits to organic produce can only mean that an organic tomato has become a Veblen good for which demand increases with price. It is not a Gucci bag, but the principle is more or less the same; in this case, consumption is slightly less conspicuous in the sense that it points to a certain lifestyle rather than serving as an explicit demonstration of wealth (which would be crude). 

Tags:Food