Good Food, “Organic” Food, and Fixing the Gap Between the Farmers Market and the Hypermarket

So, the Stanford “debunking organic produce” study was all over the news last week. (Mother Jones is skeptical about the methodology.) Per the NYTimes:

Like many people who are seeking better-tasting, healthier food, Ms. Todd had heard about a recent study on organic food from Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy.

Based on data from 237 previously conducted studies, the Stanford report concluded that when it comes to certain nutrients, there is not much difference between organic and conventionally grown food.

But it also found that organic foods have 31 percent lower levels of pesticides, fewer food-borne pathogens and more phenols, a substance believed to help fight cancer….

People have moved beyond organics, those on the forefront of the local food movement say. Over the last couple of decades, food has become a platform for social issues and environmental causes, a rallying point for improving schools and a marker of cultural status. Farmers’ markets are seen as an indicator of community revitalization, and visiting them is a regular weekend activity for families. The Department of Agriculture has counted 7,864 of them this year, an increase of 174 percent from 2000…

…[I]ncreasingly, small-scale farmers like Greg Brown, who for six years has been growing okra, green beans and other vegetables on a few acres in Barnesville, Ga., are opting not to apply for federal organic certification.

He thought about going for an organic label, but the packet of requirements was more than an inch thick and the cost to get certified too high in proportion to his profit. Instead he farms under the less expensive certified naturally grown label, a national program that has sprung up as an alternative to the federal organic program and that has nearly 800 farms as members.

The program, which relies on farmers to inspect one another’s farms, does not certify processed foods like cereal. It requires that farmers use most of the same techniques as the federal organic program, but without the paperwork….

At the most local, “micro” level, we all want, like Nicholas Kristof, to eat from a place “where cows are happy and food is healthy“:

… Let me introduce Bob Bansen, a high school buddy of mine who is a third-generation dairyman raising Jersey cows on lovely green pastures here in Oregon beside the Yamhill River. Bob, 53, a lanky, self-deprecating man with an easy laugh, is an example of a farmer who has figured out how to make a good living running a farm that is efficient but also has soul….

For Bob, a crucial step came when he switched to organic production eight years ago… Bob’s big worry in switching to organic production was whether cows would stay healthy without routine use of antibiotics because pharmaceutical salesmen were always pushing them as essential. Indeed, about 80 percent of antibiotics in the United States go to farm animals — leading to the risk of more antibiotic-resistant microbes, which already cause infections that kill some 100,000 Americans annually.

Bob nervously began to experiment by withholding antibiotics. To his astonishment, the cows didn’t get infections; on the contrary, their health improved. He realized that by inserting antibiotics, he may have been introducing pathogens into the udder. As long as cows are kept clean and are given pasture rather than cooped up in filthy barns, there’s no need to shower them with antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals, he says…

Granted, such a humane attitude may be easier to apply to dairying than to poultry. It’s tough for cage-free poultry farms to compete economically with huge industrial operations that raise millions of birds jammed into cages, and healthy food that is good for humans and animals in some cases will cost more.

Moreover, we’re never going to revert to the kind of agriculture that existed a century ago. Bob’s 600 acres used to be farmed by five different families, and that consolidation won’t be undone. But neither is it inevitable that consolidation will continue indefinitely so that America’s farms end up as vast, industrial, soulless food factories…

It’s getting from my-neighbor-the-farmer to where-can-I-buy-tonight’s-dinner that will take both thought and effort. Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, explains “Why Local Food Belongs on Grocery Shelves“:

Several years ago, South Carolina dairyman Tom Trantham presented me with a conundrum. “We grow great peaches here,” he said, “some of the best in the country. But once they’re picked, they disappear – at least for a little while.” After harvest, the South Carolina peaches were shipped to California, where they were repacked and sold wholesale to companies that supply the nation’s major grocers. “And then those peaches get put on another truck and shipped right back to South Carolina, where they end up on our store shelves,” Tom said. “Can you explain how that makes any sense?”…

…[T]here are tremendous untapped opportunities for producers to sell their products locally, further fueling the U.S. economy and expanding agriculture’s impact. When South Carolina peaches are sold directly to South Carolinians, there are uniquely local economic benefits. When the farmer, the packer, the wholesaler, and the retailer all prosper in the same region, it creates opportunity for home-grown jobs, draws more people into agriculture, and fosters relationships between the people who buy food and the people who grow it.

This is happening in places like Charlottesville, Virginia, where Local Food Hub aggregates products from more than 70 farms in the state, markets them to institutions, restaurants and grocers, and distributes them to more than 150 locations in the region, including the cafeteria at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The “food hub” model is gaining traction nationwide as a vehicle to help small and midsized farms supply buyers they cannot reach on their own, and for these buyers to access large volumes of local product…

I think one of the economic benefits of local farming should be better known by economists worried by the dearth of dependable career opportunities for young people:

A second reason why regional food systems are on the USDA’s agenda is because they can offer important opportunities for young and beginning farmers. The average age of an American farmer today is 57; for every farm operator under the age of 35, we have six over 65. Unless a young person inherits land and equipment, it is unlikely that he or she will have any chance at getting into – let alone surviving in – the global marketplace. On the other hand, with a relatively small plot of land, new farmers can build a profitable business selling high-value crops like produce directly to consumers. I see tremendous energy among young and beginning farmers for entering farming through local and regional sales….

33 replies
  1. 1
    raven says:

    Our Farmer’s Market has a nice mix of young and old farmers. The are very serious abut keeping it real as far as organic and even have a program where SNAP folks can get $2 in tokens for $1 food stamps.

  2. 2
    pseudonymous in nc says:

    Another thing that state ag boards have been trying is hooking up local farmers’ markets to SNAP, often in arrangements that provide more than the monetary value of the benefits.

    The Stanford study seemed like a distraction to me — the argument has always been about supporting better agriculture and getting farmers off the monoculture / monopsony treadmill.

  3. 3
    MikeJ says:

    That study ignored another reason to eschew pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones: it may not make any one meal more nutritious, but it makes the farming ecosystem healthier. If you don’t put poison on the crops you don’t have to worry as much about where water runoff goes and what gets poisoned besides the targeted pests.

    I would like for my food to be more nutritious but I would also like the world to be better. It’s bizarre that people who one minute worship the free market will the next minute argue that market forces can’t have any real world impact so you shouldn’t try.

  4. 4
    srv says:

    But it also found that organic foods have 31 percent lower levels of pesticides

    synthetic or biological?

  5. 5
    Heliopause says:

    So, the Stanford “debunking organic produce” study was all over the news last week.

    Yes, and it all missed the point. Higher quantities of vitamin C (or whatever) in your produce is only a secondary or tertiary reason for organic farming.

  6. 6
    WereBear says:

    I’ve been saying for a couple of years now that there should be grants for young people to start their own farms and sell locally; or make stuff like cheese and jam which ships well.

    A friend and I have been going to the Farmer’s Market this summer and once you have local peach jam, there is no going back.

  7. 7
  8. 8
    Herbal Infusion Bagger says:

    I have a problem with the first three assertions in Philpott’s Mother Jones article referenced in the first paragraph of the OP.

    It isn’t detection of pesticide residues that’s a health risk, it’s whether the levels detected are going to have a toxicological impact. Because of advances in analytical chemistry, we’re getting better and better at detecting trace chemical residues. But being better able to detect the trace chemicals doesn’t change whether there’s a health impact from those traces.

    And the Stanford authors point out that these residues are below the EPA reference doses, which themselves are typically 2-3 orders of magnitude below the lowest doses that you see impacts in test animals.

    Saying that the Stanford results are still preliminary (it’s gonna take years to decades for some of the studies they will base their conclusions on to yield results) is a bit more defensible than what Philpott argues.

  9. 9
    Emma says:

    There’s another reason to buy local: the things taste better when they’re ripened on the vine. We live near a farm that is run by an Amish family that comes down from the Philadelphia area. They plant tomatoes and strawberries for people to pick, and they have a vegetable garden. The moment everything is ripe they open their stand. The place is mobbed. The most beautiful onions you have ever seen, and zucchini, and tomatoes that taste like tomatoes and strawberries that melt in your mouth.

    I’ve decided that I’m going to take advantage of the Miami weather and I’m going to set up a “winter” crop in our side yard. And buy local where I can’t grow. We already get mangoes, gherkins for pickling, and grapes (yep, Florida grows a grape, weird but very grapey tasting) and a few other fruits out of the yard. Might as well get tomatoes, and onions, and red peppers too.

  10. 10
    👽 Martin says:

    @pseudonymous in nc: There’s also a program to hook up local farms to school districts for local sources for produce in school lunches. The farm up the road that I favor (yes, we still have some farms in the OC) participates in this.

  11. 11
    Mnemosyne says:

    Yeah, I’m not so sure about this part:

    He thought about going for an organic label, but the packet of requirements was more than an inch thick and the cost to get certified too high in proportion to his profit. Instead he farms under the less expensive certified naturally grown label, a national program that has sprung up as an alternative to the federal organic program and that has nearly 800 farms as members.
    __
    The program, which relies on farmers to inspect one another’s farms, does not certify processed foods like cereal. It requires that farmers use most of the same techniques as the federal organic program, but without the paperwork…. (emphasis mine)

    There’s a reason we generally try to use outside inspectors rather than letting an industry police itself. There’s waaay too much opportunity for corruption once you decide that a group of people can get together, inspect each other and — surprise! — declare that they’re all a-okay.

    I think there’s a good argument for making more FDA programs applicable to smaller farms rather than gearing everything towards industrial production, but I can’t really get on board with industries policing themselves, because human nature means that it rarely works out.

  12. 12
    Dennis SGMM says:

    It’s just me but, the term “organic food” seems odd to me. I mean, who eats inorganic food?

    OTOH, once you’ve mastered cooking a limestone souffle, grocery shopping become much more interesting.

  13. 13
    Maude says:

    It also depends on what the definition of organic is in some states.
    I don’t buy organic produce in the supermarket because it tastes lousy. Our local supermarket has a ton of organic stuff. Ewwww.
    A lot of it is getting higher prices.
    E coli is also organic. /snark.
    Take a look at your toilet paper rolls boys and girls.
    They are more narrow. They has made the rolls smaller that way instead of just charging more money.
    A can of tuna was up by fifty sense. Gonna stage my own little food riot one of these days.

  14. 14
    Bubblegum Tate says:

    @Dennis SGMM:

    It’s just me but, the term “organic food” seems odd to me. I mean, who eats inorganic food?

    I’ve always found the term to be funny as well.

  15. 15
    Maude says:

    @Dennis SGMM:
    Marketing. Makes some folk feel pure and very special.

  16. 16
    Applejinx says:

    Anything to struggle against the death grip of Monsanto and Con Agra etc.

  17. 17
    draftmama says:

    We grow all our own stuff because (a) we know its healthy, all heirloom varieties, no hybrids (b) it tastes better (c) since I sell tomato and pepper plants at the local farmers market in the spring, and raise eggplant for a local restaurateur who uses them in her vegetarian paninis and therefore my gardening habit actually makes money and everything we eat is free (d) have horses and chickens and compost the hell out of everything (e) don’t use any chemicals and (f) just makes us feel good. Each afternoon after work I go out in the garden to choose what’s for dinner. Beats Safeway any day. We also raise 50 free range meat chickens, two pigs and a steer every year. Poor little steer when it arrives is terrified of our draft horses but I think they are more frightened of him. All it takes is a couple of freezers and a large root cellar, and our grocery bill is almost negligible. We just have 10 acres and live in Montana so its a lot of work, but boyo, with the price of food going through the roof we feel its all worth it.

  18. 18
    greenergood says:

    Buy local (less traveling time so less vitamins disappear), buy organic (less crap in the soil) this is obvious, but what I read recently is that food like grains, lentils, peas, beans, etc. are much less nutritional nowadays because the mineral content (e.g. selenium, iodine) of the soil is so depleted, leached, as far as I can tell, by overuse of fertilizers. The only thing that can regenerate mineral content is organic (i.e. non-pesticide dependent) farming. Sorry, there’s loads of links about this, but you’ll have to do it yrselfs – off to work.

  19. 19
    chopper says:

    @Maude:

    A can of tuna was up by fifty sense

    i heard the price going up.

  20. 20
    Feudalism Now! says:

    @chopper:
    Smells fishy to me

  21. 21
    Keith G says:

    Can organic and local be scaled up to feed 400 million on ever shrinking amounts of prime agricultural land? Would be nice if it could. Just today, I bought green beans and ‘maters from a nearby county, but it isn’t always easy and often not cheap. I am more concerned that poverty level children get consistent access to fruit and veg at all, so I less concerned about the “organic” discussions.

  22. 22
    What Have The Romans Ever Done for Us? says:

    That SC farmer speaks to me. A couple years back I recall going into a Whole Foods during the peak of Peach season here in Maryland. The peaches you could buy at farm stands and farmer’s markets were at peak ripeness – just fantastically sweet and juicy. Instead of selling these local beauties Whole Foods was selling rock hard peaches from California. I remember thinking it made no sense at the time.

  23. 23
    Lori says:

    Organic food means that the field workers (many of whom are children) don’t get exposed to concentrated pesticides. I buy the organic food for them, not for me.

  24. 24
    Increase Mather says:

    Organically-grown food is expensive, but you can recoup a lot of the cost if you eat it all. Think of how much food we waste. I feel like I toss a good deal of my supermarket produce.

  25. 25
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Keith G:

    I think we need to think more in terms of regional food distribution than strictly “organic foods.” As others have said, it seems awfully silly to grow corn in Illinois, ship it to a distribution center in California, and then re-ship it back to Illinois for sale.

    Right now, it’s cheaper for the big agricompanies to have a single processing center, so we would probably need to pass legislation to change the incentives so we’re not shipping food all over the country just to return it back to where it started.

  26. 26
    justawriter says:

    But it also found that organic foods have … more phenols, a substance believed to help fight cancer

    This amuses me to no end because as a group phenols have been “blacklisted” as endocrine disruptors such as the infamous bis-phenol-a (BPA).

  27. 27
    Keith G says:

    @Mnemosyne: Ah, if we only had $7/gal gas.

    Seriously though, I agree with local distribution, and that is a separate issue from my point vis a vis organic and small batch agriculture.

    In 2010, an estimated 400,000 children in the greater Houston area received food pantry support. An earlier study indicated 11% of households (12 million) nation wide faced food insecurity with underconsumption of fruit and vegetables on the part of children being a primary concern.

    No matter what the distribution logistics are used, this is the issue we must tackle.

    Edit: This is a national security issue and little is being done to confront it…by anyone.

  28. 28
    pseudonymous in nc says:

    @Keith G:

    Can organic and local be scaled up to feed 400 million on ever shrinking amounts of prime agricultural land?

    Can the industrial/intensive model do that in the same way it does now, with a large chunk of it devoted to producing corn for animal feed? You don’t have to be a militant vegan to think that the resources devoted to producing cheap, crappy Meat Product in the US are an extravagance that won’t last.

  29. 29

    […] Juice – Good Food, “Organic Food,” and Fixing the Gap Between the Farmer’s and the Hyperma… An analysis of Stanford’s “debunking organic produce” […]

  30. 30
    Jasmine Bleach says:

    Yeah, organic foods are primarily important for the following reasons:

    –Not having pesticides runoff into waterways or sprayed into the air (environmental contamination)

    –Not having farm workers work in a pesticide-filled environment (their health)

    –Not having food with residual amounts of pesticide or antibiotics (in the case of animals) to promote health of the population

    Local foods are equally important–promoting local economies, reducing pollution from transport, and promoting the freshness of foods.

    There are many problems with organic certifications, for sure. But I can’t stand folks who denigrate organic foods because “it’s a marketing ploy” or other such nonsense.

  31. 31
    nixnutz says:

    @Jasmine Bleach:

    Yeah, the main problem is that organic labeling doesn’t actually guarantee any of that.

    So buying from the farmers’ market makes sense if it’s available to you and you can afford it but paying the 40% markup at Whole Foods for South American raspberries might not.

  32. 32

    Organic farming may be traditional but can even have great benefits compared to the conventional one. It is good for the environment, produces great-tasting food and can save us from too much chemical intake that can be found in conventional products. Preparing an environment free of the possible diseases should be the main focus of farmers so that organic farming can be feasible.

  33. 33

    Organic foods are good than conventional foods. But i have read a post from economist Tyler, he mentioned that organic foods are just marketing label. This thought was not only for Mr.Tyler but also most of the people thinking like same.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Juice – Good Food, “Organic Food,” and Fixing the Gap Between the Farmer’s and the Hyperma… An analysis of Stanford’s “debunking organic produce” […]

Comments are closed.