Deep into organic

When it comes to “going organic” these days, there’s one thing you can count on: the government making it more costly and confusing for us all.

The “organic” food movement began after World War II. This is when people began to show concern about increasing use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, as well as mass production of crops and mono-cropping (the practice of growing a single crop year-over-year in vast acreages on the same land).

In fact, it was mono-cropping itself that led to more use of more chemicals. On traditional smaller-scale farms, a diversity of different plants prevented pests who favored one type of plant from ruining an entire crop.

In my mother’s home province in France, farmers plant flowers among their vegetable gardens. This may seem like another example of French artistry. But the fact is, carefully placed flowers also act as natural pesticides among the crops.

Different plants contain various natural compounds that protect them from insects, fungi, bacteria, and animal predators. (By the way, these kinds of biologically active natural compounds are also what make plants such rich sources of herbal remedies.) And since one predator’s delicacy is another’s poison, one plant “protects” another. No need for chemical pesticides. Also, with different plants growing in the same soil, the ground does not get exhausted. Which reduces the need for fertilizers as well.

But of course, now that the government has stepped in, the world of “organics” has become a confusing mess.  

Ten years ago, in 2002, the federal government came up with a complicated bureaucratic process for doling out “certified organic” designations. As I reported in a prior Dispatch (“Big food takes over the organic market), the big food industry, as usual, moved far more quickly and effectively than the government. And the process got sold out almost before it began. As a result, federal “certified organic” has become essentially meaningless.

In reaction, small “organic” farmers took matters into their own hands. These farmers couldn’t pay the thousands of dollars required to have their produce “certified.” Nor did they have legions of lawyers standing by to complete inches-high piles of bureaucratic paperwork. So they created their own national “certified organically grown” label.

There are now nearly 1,000 small food producers in the U.S. offering “certified organically grown” produce. These farmers inspect each other’s farms (an agricultural version of medical “peer review”). Which is a far more effective process than anything the government could come up with. And you can bet they are a lot more motivated, effective, and competent than some federal bureaucrat sitting at a desk. (Who has probably never gotten his hands dirty, let alone spent any time working on a farm.)

But as effective as this system is, it has also muddied the “organic” waters. And, unfortunately, consumers often really have no idea which products they can actually trust.

Now to add to the confusion, a new study from Stanford University Center for Health Policy has cast more doubt on “organic” farming. Researchers examined data from 237 previous studies. And they found that when it comes to certain nutrients, there is not much difference between organic and conventionally grown foods.

But the Stanford study also found that organic foods have one-third lower levels of pesticides, fewer disease-causing bacteria, and are higher in non-vitamin constituents such as phenols—which are also important beyond what the government recognizes as “nutrients.’

Of course, a “meta-analysis” of so many studies involves the kind of statistical shenanigans I have warned you about in Insiders’ Cures. And some have even claimed that the Stanford study was “spoiled” by funding from biotech giants such as Monsanto (which manufactures pesticides then genetically engineers the foods they’re used on) and the high-tech obsessed Gates Foundation.

But you don’t need a convoluted study—or more complicated and useless federal “organic” bureaucracy—to know what to eat.

We have wonderful metabolic equipment at our disposal. Let your senses of taste and aroma (and millions of years of evolutionary biology) be your guide. Your senses are just common sense when it comes to eating healthy foods. You can tell from the first bite whether a fruit or vegetable was picked when ripe—or picked too early in order to accommodate mass-produced shipping and storage.

In the 1970’s, chef and restaurateur Alice Waters became known for offering delicious fresh fruits and vegetables. Her restaurant, Chez Panisse in Berkley, California, has become one of the most awarded and renowned restaurants in the world.  And the reason her food tastes so much better?

Properly grown and harvested produce simply tastes good. Prematurely harvested produce shipped from thousands of miles away is often tasteless or worse. And that makes eating healthier that much easier.

Ann Intern Med. 4 September 2012;157(5):348-366