Is Organic Always Good?

organic market

We all know Gansie is a huge proponent of farmer’s market/local produce, and that the nation’s First Lady has recently been a prominent supporter of vegetable garden fun. A lot of my friends belong to this CSA or that CSA. And everyone I know seems to be buying or farming organic these days. Organic is one of those words that often gets bandied about in the local-foodie/farmer’s-markety circles. I was reminded of this fact when ES fan and new ES commenter NeeNee, who also happens to be one of my best friends from undergrad, recently reported to me:

I’m getting my green thumb on. I’ve had a severe problem at garden stores this spring, but we hope to be totally overflowing with veggies this summer. However, good plants grow in good dirt, and our dirt is friggin terrible. It has no organic matter, and we can’t possibly make enough compost to make it good. I’m ashamed to say that I’m not a very organic farmer….

Sorry, NeeNee, I didn’t ask for your permission before I broadcasted your addiction to gardening to the whole world via the interwebs! But as I was saying, I recently read this Huffington Post article on organic farming, Organic vs. Conventional: Have you been robbed?, that led me to question whether organic is really all that good. Now I’m not sure that NeeNee has all that much to be ashamed of. The author of the afore mentioned article,Makenna Goodman, a sustainable-living blogger and free-range egg farmer from Vermont, describes the reason she chose not to farm organic eggs, but instead opts for feeding the chickens cheaper grain and letting them roam free on her bucolic Vermont farm. Makenna argues:

…Organic may not mean the food is better for you. Organic may not mean the animal was treated right. Organic may, in fact, be little more than a sweet notion and marketing campaign that rests easy the hearts of the eco-conscious consumer. Organic, in other words, is not always the right choice. Sorry, but it’s true.

Wow. Provocative! The thing is, Makenna’s article kind of got to me, especially the part about her love for the free-range hens who spend their days consuming rose petals and basking and frolicking about (can chickens frolick?) under the weak Vermont sun (okay she didn’t really say they eat rose petals, but I imagine that would be the ideal life for an egg-laying hen, no?).

Organic veggies make sense to me: No one wants to eat veggies drenched in chemicals. But organic eggs? The article pretty much convinced me that there is not necessarily anything inherently good about eating eggs from hens that were only fed organic grain. Of course Makenna’s article does conflict with Mari Beautyman’s assessment of the virtues of organic eggs and organic milk, also published in the Huffington Post over a year ago. But my gut instinct is to side with MaKenna Goodman’s assessment in this debate. Granted, I’m no scientist…. just another biologist’s daughter (I think I may have mentioned that before). I guess I could look for more info in the much lauded peer reviewed journals…. But I prefer to put it to the blog.

And for the meat eaters among us, I’m wondering whether you all buy into the idea that organic meat is any better than conventional meat. Apparently it doesn’t indicate a difference in the actual treatment of the critters. Putting it to you foodie types on ES. Do you buy the organic hype?


ESer Liza points us to the Daily Show’s  excellent piece of investigative journalism slamming “the limousine liberal” elitist local organic gardening trend that Gansie’s always pushing on us 😉

(Photo: Beaches Local Food Market)

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  • westcoast May 15, 2009  

    I can tell you, with certainty, that the hormone cows are injected with (rBGH), to produce more milk than is natural, is a cancer-causing agent. I know of someone who has seen internal information about this from the company who patented the synthetic hormone. I would imagine there are similar hormones used in meat and egg production, but not sure. Also — huge argument for eating organic veggies and fruit (including bananas!) — the chemicals they spray and dust the plants with are eventually ending up in our water systems!!

  • NeeNee May 15, 2009  

    I’d buy Ms. Goodman’s Vermont eggs and chickens. 1. Because I love Vermonters. 2. Because instead of eating rose petals they are probably drinking maple syrup. 3. Because, to me, it matters more how the animal was raised than whether they were eating organic grain. Put those animals outside in the grass where they belong!

  • NeeNee May 15, 2009  

    More importantly, I hope the Pollan craze and the Obama Victory Garden starts an educational movement about our food system and diet in general. True story – I was walking past the meat case in a suburban Whole Foods when a mother inquired about the grass-fed beef being advertised. Innocent enough. The butcher explained that it’s beef from cows who ate grass versus cattle raised “normally.” (He clearly didn’t know what the “normal” was, but it seemed sufficient for her.) Then said Mom asked if eating a grass-fed beef steak would get more greens in her diet.

    Steak = spinach salad? Nice try, but no cigar. You still need to eat vegetables.

  • BS May 15, 2009  

    @NeeNee – classic! grass-fed steak totally counts as a vegetable.

  • Maids May 15, 2009  

    @NeeNee – did he laugh in the Mom’s face? Did you?

  • Valerie May 15, 2009  

    Well, there are two separate questions that often get conflated in the organic food debate: What’s more environmentally friendly and what affects food quality?

    I personally think that when it comes to organic fruits and vegetables, the use of possibly dangerous pesticides is what affects the quality more than the use of chemical fertilizers. But both issues have environmental impact.

    With animal products, I think being free range and hence not pumped up with excessive anti-biotics is more important in terms of quality. And of course, this is also more environmentally friendly if the animal feed is pesticide and chemical fertilizer free.

    What’s tricky about this whole debate is that it’s likely not possible to feed the earth’s current population with only organic farming. This paper shows how nitrogen (the main component of fertilizer) is the limiting factor in food production and how using the Haber-Bosch process for extracting nitrogen is essential for feeding the worlds population.

  • Sara May 15, 2009  

    I buy it to some extent. Definitely for veggies, meat, and most dairy. Not so much for organic cereals and candies, etc.The thing is if I am eating an animal or some sort of animal byproduct, I like to know that what the animals were eating is not full of nasty stuff that will be harmful to me. That is why I try to exclusively eat organic meats.

  • miked. May 15, 2009  

    Did anyone see the nyt op-ed/anti-free range hit-piece back in april? ( anyone know this guy, James E. McWilliams? It seems pretty plausible that free-range pork is more likely to be infected with salmonella, trichinosis, and other little nasties, as was found in the study (published in a ‘scholarly journal’ ;-)) cited by McWilliams. Not that nasty bacteria are the only problems with pork–and indeed, the solution of antibiotics and megafarms obviously have their own problems, like viruses ethical questions, etc.

  • Maids May 15, 2009  

    the pigs forced to wallow in their own filth in industrial pig farms are more likely to have tons of bacteria in their flesh. I heard that on a piece on factory farming democracy now! Lefty propaganda? Maybe. Did I almost cry useless tears for the mistreated piglets? ya betcha.

  • NeeNee May 15, 2009  

    @ Maids – I’m from Montana, remember. I slowed my roll and did a triple-take so I could listen to the whole convo. The butcher noticed my eavesdrop and managed a civil, “Well, no ma’am. It’s still a steak. You’re still eating steak.” I L’edMAO inside, but then I decided to feel sorry for her child for fear that her mother is trying to teach her something. E-gads. Eat your Doritos, honey, you need a serving of corn.

  • Maids May 15, 2009  

    @Liza – Loved it! Everyone must watch that video

  • erica May 15, 2009  

    I can tell you this: since I started eating a cleaner diet, more organic stuff, no weird chemicals, etc, my tinnitus is gone and i have much less “fibromyalgia” pain. I don’t eat all organic but do eat it quite a bit.

    Consider this: DDT, a dangerous chemical that has been illegal in the US for quite a while, is legal in many other countries. In those countries your food is grown and then shipped here. You eat it. Newborn babies are testing positive for pesticides, chemical fire retardants, all kinds of nasty stuff that affect development of the fetus. For an interesting read on the effect of DDT and other pesticides in childrens’ food supply I recommend Gabriel Cousens’ “Rainbow Green Live Food Cuisine”.

    On the whole, I would be much more worried about GMO foods than pesticides, though they both are awful.

  • erica May 15, 2009  

    Aw hell, I had some pepsi last night. Let’s just say I try to keep it clean but I refuse to be my own nazi.

  • Henya May 15, 2009  

    It’s definately not good to consume chemicals that we’re developed specifically to kill living things (weeds & insects). Organic is a huge leap in the right direction, its only shortcoming is the premium that it usually comes with. I found that by joining a local CSA, you can save alot of money and get amazing quality organic fruit and veggies. I’ve joined a San Francisco based CSA – and have cut produce completely out of my grocery list. Now my family simply eats organic 100% of the time and it costs us about $30 a week. If you live in the Bay Area, I would highly recommend them, it will change your eating habits for the better.

  • Lyndsay May 17, 2009  

    It depends what is meant by organic. Perhaps there needs to be more detailed labeling or a website consumers can go to that tells them what it means when it says that product is organic. I think a lot of organic things are more of a good thing for the environment than for our health.

  • Panache Nosh May 20, 2009  

    So this past weekend I was reading the brochure from the dupont farmers market/FreshFarms and I wanted to share this statement. Something like 26.2 million pounds of antibiotics are given to animals each year but only 2 million pounds are administered to remedy an ailment. If any of you have read The Omnivore’s Dilemma then you know that cattle are given antibiotics as a preventative measure to control disease due to the poor conditions they are processed in. I will only buy organic meat and grass fed if at all possible. Still looking to hear both sides of the story and educate myself on these matters.

  • diet foods June 25, 2009  

    organic foods is the best food to consume. because the use of animal growth hormone and pesticide farmers use in their live stocks and farm foods for a high return on their money

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