Asking if Organic Food is Just Better For Your Health Isn't the Right Question

Sheri/CC BY-ND 2.0

All day I've been mulling over the Stanford study on the benefits of organic foods on individual health, sort of dreading everything about it—especially the tedious public reaction and inevitable debunking and parsing of what was allowed into it, what was left out, and what should've or could've been.

Earlier today on TreeHugger Melissa wrote about one aspect of the study that has mostly gotten buried in the coverage: That pesticide exposure is much reduced when you eat organically-raised food. Whatever there comparative nutrient differences between organically and petro-chemically raised foods, it certainly seems that lower exposure to pesticides is a good thing.

But this is just a hint of what I think the major shortcoming in all this is, particularly in much of the reporting: It's a fundamental mistake to look at the benefits of organic agriculture on individual health without simultaneously considering the benefits for the system as a whole, that is human communities, non-human communities, and the intersection of these.

Never mind that there have been a number of studies showing that at least for some crops, organic varieties have significant nutrient benefits over non-organic. When you look at ecological well-being small and medium-scale organic agriculture has systemic health benefits—often better carbon sequestration in soil, better resilience to drought, et cetera. And each individual, human and non-human alike is part of that system. In other words, there are health benefits present for the whole that may not be as apparent when you drill down to the individual.

This is a problem not limited to the specifics of this study and the reaction to it. It's a problem that dogs many environmental issues, a problem of framing, of asking the appropriate questions and setting the right parameters.

If you compare the ecological impact of making a plastic bag, a paper bag, and a reusable bag and then assume that single use is the norm or the ideal and set aside the issue of littering, the plastic bag actually looks really good—it requires less energy to make than all three. But assuming single or even double or triple use to be a desired trait of a bag is improper framing, delusional, distorted based on a century of cheap energy and blinders regarding waste disposal. If you assume that a bag is meant to last for a couple years at least, be reused and be durable, then the initially higher environmental impact of the cloth bag wins out over disposable with ease.

With organic versus non-organic agriculture, the impact on individual health is only part of the wider, more appropriate perspective that needs to be taken. It may even be one of the smaller parts, even if for many people it is a worthy way in to investigating the issue.

Really you need to take into account the effect on individual health and diet of the food itself, any residues on it, the effect on farmers' lives, on community's lives, on the health of the animals in field, of the crops and the crop yield, on the climate impact, on runoff into rivers, streams and oceans, on the economic system in which the farms operate, and more.

On any one factor, and in any given place or crop, the balance may tip to one side or the other (or remain neutrally weighted) towards organic or non-organic agriculture, but you can't just say organic doesn't have x benefit in one aspect, in isolation of the others, and be done with it.

Tags: Health | Organic Agriculture