Organic Agriculture: Fifty (Plus) Shades of Gray

Caption Photo by GRACELINKS on flickr

Food Bank for Westchester Gardens 2011

“All natural.” “Farm-fresh.” “Cage-free.” Thanks to phrases such as these, consumer confusion is common when it comes to understanding and buying food. The battle raging in California over the labeling of genetically modified foods illustrates just how much labels do indeed matter — to consumers as well as to corporations. The recent paper by Stanford researchers claims that organically grown foods are no better for our health than conventionally grown foods, further complicating the debate over which labels can and cannot be trusted.

Headlines about the report seek to simplify: A New York Times headline read, “Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce; "CBS News claimed, "Organic food hardly healthier, study suggests" and the Washington Post wrote, "Is organic healthier? Study says not so much, but it’s key reason consumers buy."

Others have already pointed out that organic food is about more than just nutrition, but it’s worth mentioning that there are manycompelling reasons to buy organic that go beyond one’s personal health, including:

  • minimizing pollution,
  • reducing harm to farm workers and
  • reducing the public health risk posed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Further, the study did note one major personal health reason for supporting organic: limiting one’s ingestion of pesticides. But the paper’s key finding – at least, as reported by the mainstream media – is that organic foods do not contain significantly (some have questioned the researchers' methodology) higher levels  of nutrientsthan conventional foods, and that’s what made the headlines.

While the analysis by the Stanford researchers seems fairly conclusive, the implications of its findings are actually extremely narrow given the infinite variety in agricultural practices.  The range of products produced under an organic label range from those produced on an “industrial-organic” scale to those produced by small and mid-scale farmers who go well beyond the USDA’s standards with their methods.

At one end of this scale are companies like Horizon Organic, which sells USDA-certified organic milk. Horizon is owned by Dean Foods, the sixth largest food company in North America. Large food corporations of this scale wield immense power to influence organic standards. Walmart, which sells the Horizon brand and is the largest retailer of organic milk in the country, has been involved in multiple lawsuits over the use of the word organic on various product labels and in the case of Horizon’s organic milk, whistleblowers found it was actually being produced in large-scale factory farms without adhering to organic standards, like access to pasture. Instead, The Cornucopia Institute found that Dean Foods was confining as many as 10,000 cows to large buildings and feedlots and operating “phony ‘organic' feedlot operations.”

On the other side of the scale are reports that show vast nutritional differences in animal products coming from small-scale, grass-based farms. One recent report put out by Compassion in World Farming looked at the difference in nutrient value in animals raised in “higher-welfare” settings (on pasture, with space to graze and forage for natural grass diets) versus those raised in intensive confined, “lower-welfare” settings (in confined feedlots, eating diets designed to pack on weight as fast as possible, including grain and daily doses of non-therapeutic antibiotics). One key finding was that the proportion of omega-3 fatty acids in milk from pasture-based systems was between 53 and 184 percent higher than the milk from animals raised in confined, intensive settings. The report also found higher amounts of vitamin E and beta-carotene in milk from pasture-based systems versus conventional ones.

In terms of organic versus non-organic meat, the Stanford paper says that there is no difference in nutrition between the two. Again, research has shown that there are significant differences when it comes to pasture-raised meats. A report put out by Animal Welfare Approved states that ruminants raised on pasture alone have milk and meat that contains three to five times the amount of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Various studies have shown that CLA is protective against cancer, can lower levels of LDL cholesterol, prevents atherosclerosis and reduces blood pressure. The Compassion in World Farming report found that pasture-raised beef has a higher proportion of omega-3 fatty acids and a more favorable (lower) ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids compared with intensively-raised beef. The report also states that pasture-raised beef contains more vitamin E and beta-carotene than conventionally produced beef.

Just as the quality of animal products depends largely on what the animals were fed, the nutrition content of vegetables is dependent on the quality of the soil in which they were grown. Vegetables grown in mineral-rich, healthy soil (that hasn’t been depleted by chemical fertilizers, lack of biodiversity and little to no crop rotation) have been found to be far more nutritious than vegetables grown on monocropped, intensive farms. Various studieshave shown that the nutrient density of vegetables, including many crucial vitamins and antioxidants, have dramatically decreased over the years with soil depletion due to industrial farming methods. Again, the Stanford paper does not discern between vegetables grown on an industrial-organic scale versus those grown on biodiverse, multi-crop farms.

Eric Herm, an authorand cotton farmer in Ackerly, Texas explained how significant he believes the difference is between produce grown on the industrial organic scale versus produce grown on biodiverse farms. “What I've seen over the years, is that crop rotation is not only the key to healthy soil, it is vital in the long term health of all living creatures. There is far more microbial activity, plants are healthier and more resistant to disease, drought and insect damage,” he wrote in an email. “The soil feeds the plants that feeds us. Sick or weak soil will grow weaker plants with less fruit and vitality. The healthier the soil, the more vitality within the plant and the fruit it produces, therefore giving us more vitality. It’s common sense really. Organic monocropping will not have the long-term benefits of a diverse farming operation.”

Farmer Kira Kinney of Evolutionary Organics farm, a multi-crop farm in New Paltz, New York agrees. “I definitely think there is a difference in what I grow compared with industrial organic. To me these two things are nothing alike. There is no holistic approach to industrial organic — it is all about yield, yield, yield,” she wrote in an email. “They do whatever it takes to get the most out of any given crop. Large scale organic is much the same as conventional agriculture in that it is all numbers — get the most yield in the fewest days.”

Given the wide-range in practices that can be lumped under the term “organic” and the fact that the bulk of organic foods bought and sold in America come from systems that are more accurately described as “industrial organic” the true impact of the Stanford findings becomes less apparent.

Recent events in California’s fight over the labeling of genetically modified foods indicates that companies that sell industrially-produced organics do not necessarily support the ideals their customers do:  the largest organic food brands in the country, including Kashi, Cascadian Farm and Horizon Organic have joined the anti-labeling effort, contributing millions of dollars to defeat the ballot initiative, Proposition 37. The parent companies to these organic brands are Kellogg Company, General Mills and Dean Foods, respectively.

“It’s ironic this [Stanford] study is coming out of California, where food companies have spent more than $25 million this year trying to battle Prop 37 and prevent the labeling of GMOs in the state of California,” Herm wrote.

Labels do matter — and what the Stanford analysis brings to the fore is the need for deeper, more comprehensive studies on the infinite shades of gray when it comes to agricultural practices. Are we satisfied to continue lumping foods under two simplistic categories — organic or conventional? With Big Food corporations now heavily invested in organic foods, what does the organic label actually mean? As producers, consumers and advocates this paper should push us to have conversations that are not so black and white.

This post is by Kristin Wartman, a food writer based in New York City. She has a Masters in Literature from UC Santa Cruz and is a Certified Nutrition Educator. Kristen focuses on the intersections of food, health, politics, and culture. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Civil Eats, and Grist. Read more at kristinwartman.com and follow her on Twitter @kristinwartman.

Responses to "Organic Agriculture: Fifty (Plus) Shades of Gray"

  1. organic farming

    Thank you for the very informative blog. It is really very good blog.

  2. Todd@BigBlogOfGardening

    Thank-you for pointing out the weak results of the Stanford paper. I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but the timing of the paper is curious, considering Prop 37 on the California ballot in November. I wrote more about that here: http://www.bigblogofgardening.com/stanford-organic-food-vs-conventional-food-study-a-political-misinformation-campaign/

  3. Kevin

    I operate a high altitude farmers market. We have rigorous production standards. We personally visit and audit each producer. We prize product accountability and business hospitality in our growers. They are rewarded appropriately if they qualify. Our farmer market is in the top 2% of earners for the Rocky Mountain region and we have a very small population base. We have grown our sales 400% in the past 5 years. Clearly people will seek out authentic product if it is marketed and labeled correctly. The job of a farmer market manager educating the consumers, of which I am one, is never done. Thank you for your thoughts. All food is not created equally. Know your farmer. Know your food. Respect yourself!

  4. Jennifer

    Maybe Monsanto gave Stanford College a large Anoymous Donation...hmmmm..I hope the Citizens of California Vote for Labeling GMO.

Leave a Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on topic. You represent that comments submitted do not infringe upon anyone's rights including copyright, trademark, privacy or other personal or proprietary rights.


We need to make sure you're a human and not a spambot. Please answer the following question. What is 16 + 20 equal to?

By submitting a comment here you grant us a perpetual license to reproduce your words and name/website in attribution.