The Real Value of Organic Food

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A few weeks ago the UK's Food Standards Agency published a report concluding that organic food was no healthier than conventionally produced food. Advocates of organic food erupted in charges of gross scientific misconduct: The FSA cherry-picked the data. It didn't take into account the impact of synthetic fertilizer and insecticides. It failed to consider the growing evidence on the connection between pesticide exposure and Parkinson's Disease. Many factors, all agreed, still had to be measured and compared.

These objections were sound. Still, as I watched the organic defense unfold, I experienced a grim sense of déjà vu. If the past is any indication, those of us who follow these matters are now doomed to wade through a heap of future studies examining the relative health benefits of organic versus conventional food.

A similar argument played out a generation ago over the question of agricultural yields. Could organic compete with conventional when it came to output? We still have no definitive answer. Nonetheless, the din of debate continues, with advocates arguing that organic can feed the world while detractors insist it would cause mass starvation. The only clear result of all the research has been to push interested parties to the extremes.

The moment organic agriculture began to compete in the numbers game is the moment it began to lose its identity.

Ironically, the founders of organic agriculture cared very little about yield, nutrition, or even concrete environmental outcomes. Pioneers such as Albert Howard, Rudolf Steiner, and Lady Eve Balfour embraced organic agriculture not for its quantifiable benefits but for its philosophical appeal.

To grow organically was, for these pioneers, to directly oppose the excesses of industrialization. A farm, these men and women argued, shouldn't be a factory. Nature, unlike an assembly line, could not be dissected into a scattering of individual pieces and rearranged to maximize productivity. Its inputs and outputs were beyond the logic of measurement. "Nature," Howard wrote, "is the best farmer." Numbers were irrelevant to such a perspective.

This was a heady stance to take, and it could be acted upon by buying food. The market share for organic produce has increased 20 percent a year since 1990. But the philosophical underpinnings of the organic movement have weakened. When defenders of organic agriculture start whipping out studies proving, say, that an organic tomato has 97 percent more flavinoids than a conventional one, they fall into a fatal trap.

The science behind the statistic might be dead on, but this kind of science--one that reduces quality to a numerical comparison--is precisely the kind of science that the movement's founders disdained. It's why they started the movement in the first place. The moment organic agriculture began to compete in the numbers game is the moment it began to lose its identity.

Organic may or may not produce enough food to feed the world. It may or may not produce healthier food. It may or may not save the environment. Scientists will always grapple with these questions. None of these debates really matters. What matters is that organic does one thing that no other method of food production can claim to do: it works from the premise that nature has an economy all its own, an economy that transcends facts and figures, places nature ahead of short-term profit, and operates according to a logic that cannot be quantified. For those who believe that food should be produced without strict adherence to a balance sheet, comparative studies like the FSA's will mean next to nothing. What we're talking about here is spiritual, not statistical.

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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