There’s Money in the (Fresh) Market

In 2012, with consumers focused more intently than ever before on health and lifestyle, the world is buying more organic food than ever before, swallowing the extra dollars in an effort to eat better and protect the environment. According to The Organic Trade Association, sales of organic foods totaled $29.3 billion in 2011, but a recent report from Stanford University found that organic food may not be worth the extra cost.

After studying more than 40 years worth of research comparing organic and conventional foods, the Stanford scientists determined that organic fruits and vegetables were generally no more nutritious.

The study drew quick response from individuals like Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, who disagrees with the study, citing his own experience as an organic farmer. But his disagreement, like the foods his stores sell, is only natural. Organics fetch prices roughly 25% higher than conventional foods, depending on the crop and time of year. The price premium doesn’t seem to be hurting Whole Foods’ stock. The company has outgained the S&P 500 threefold in so far this year.

In reality, the evidence for the superiority of organic food is mostly anecdotal and is based largely on assumptions and wishful thinking. The way that the media treat “green” issues and glorify healthy lifestyles is largely responsible for the notion that organic is always better. But being “natural” or “organic” does not make a food safer, nor does being synthetically treated necessarily make one unsafe. Organics do not offer special protection against disease, nor, as the study suggests, are they any “healthier” than food produced by conventional farming. Organic farming is not necessarily better for the environment than conventional farming – organics may not even be free from the pesticides and harmful chemicals we fear so much. There are over 20 chemicals commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops that are approved by the US Organic Standards.

Many claim to be able to tell the difference in taste, but the bottom line is that fresher is always better. Organic produce that travels thousands of miles to market is inferior to the same produce from local farmers, organic or not.

The moral is not to malign organic foods are inferior or harmful, but the industry has grown incredibly quickly and deserves scrutiny as we decide the future of our food culture. Organic foods are a name, a movement, an ethos. The marketing machine behind agriculture has capitalized on the health revolution in the US, selling consumers on the image of the small farmer and the fit lifestyle. Next time you are in the checkout line, just remember that chomping into that delicious $2 apple is part of a $29 billion dollar proposition.

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