Is organic just a trend?

It was announced this week that El Paso is getting it’s first Whole Foods grocery store. Most people I’ve talked to are happy that they’re coming and so am I. They’re a Texas based company that has succeeded in the competitive marketplace and they deserve the niche they’ve achieved for themselves.

So, this is not a knock against Whole Foods as a business. Rather, it’s a critique of some of the reasons people cite in their preference for “organic” food over “non-organic”. Things such as…

Organic Food is So Much Healthier

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Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
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A ny website devoted to touting the benefits of going organic lay this out as a simple fact. There are many, many PhD’s in agriculture and nutrition aren’t so sure. Studies like this one here, here and here, seem to show little if any difference in organic vs. conventional produce. Most of these links are to fairly dense, scholarly papers and meta-analyses. If you don’t feel like reading all this post-grad level stuff, I think one conclusion from National Institutes of Health paper summarizes it pretty fairly:
The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.

Maybe you object to the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides on conventional crops. While it’s true that FDA organic standards ban the use of synthetics, they still have to use some kind of fertilizer and pesticide. The organic version of fertilizer is good ol’ fashioned poop. Either animal or human, fecal matter is what primarily makes your organic foods grow. That’s why organic food accounts for only 1% of total food sold but accounts for a disproportional 8% of E-coli outbreaks in the past dozen years.

Buying Organic Helps the Local Farmer

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Stephen Chernin/Getty Images
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Not if we’re talking about an operation as large as Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. These are multi-million dollar, multi-national companies that exist to make profit. Which is wonderful! Both of these companies are real capitalist success stories. But the idea that Whole Foods shelves are stocked with the produce from your local farmer is a fantasy. If you want to buy locally grown food, what you’re looking for is a Farmer’s Market not a huge business concern like Whole Foods. In fact, one of the criticisms of Whole Food from devotees of organic food is that it’s become some popular it takes business away from the local little guys.

It is a fact that most of the “organic” food sold in the U.S. comes from the same handful of large producers that make most of their money from selling non-organics. They’ve just found another market to serve (people who don’t mind paying substantially more for the “feeling” that organic is better in some way.)
It’s Better for the Environment

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Scott Olson/Getty Images
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This is the organic argument that is the least based in fact. Actually, organic farming techniques are more harmful to the environment. By not using modern farming techniques and genetic tech, it takes nearly twice as much acreage to grow the same amount of organic food as it does conventional. I consider myself an environmentalist. I like having trees and forests that don’t have to be plowed under to run an organic operation so some hipster vegan in the city can have his artisan beets. Also, sorry starving people of the world. You’ll have to starve because I don’t approve of modern, efficient farming because there’s no way I’m eating non-organic soybeans in 7 bean salad.

It’s Ingenious Marketing

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Keith Bedford/Getty Images
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This is the one harsh truth referenced in the title. So, if organic food isn’t healthier, it’s not better for then environment and it really isn’t local…why are people willing to pay so much more for it? Simply put, you’re being marketed to. The largest food producers know that there are certain consumers who are willing to pay more for the “feeling” of being healthier or more green. That’s why food producers diversified into organics in the first place. They identified a demand and found ways to cater to it. Some people like buying groceries that are cheap. They have ways to cater to that (Loew’s). Some people value being able to do all their shopping in one place. They cater to that (Wal-mart). Some people like to buy in bulk. That’s why you have Sam’s and Costco. If you like the feeling you get buying organic food, then Whole Foods is going to be a godsend. But you’re going to pay a premium for it. Just don’t fool yourself. If you eat a sensible diet, high in fruits and vegetables, lower in fatty meat and processed sugar it really won’t matter whether you get the organic or the conventional version. The only real, tangible difference will be to your grocery bill.