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Tilling the Soil

A new crop in the organic food debate

By Joshua Brooks

Published November 15, 2012

Over the last two decades, the organic movement has become a prominent part of our food lexicon. But, so has the scathing language of its proponents and opponents. So, when the results of a Stanford study comparing organically and conventionally grown foods came out in September 2012, the fervor should have been expected.

The study indicated that there was no nutritional difference between organic and conventional, but did show that organic reduced the risk of exposure to pesticides in agricultural goods and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in organically raised meat.

Within days, the paper became the heart of a heated debate. News outlets reported the findings on their front pages, dissenters questioned its conclusions and slandered the Stanford researchers, and a change.org petition called for the journal that published it, the Annals of Internal Medicine, to retract the study.

But, all the anger in this debate may be wasted energy. It misses the broader issue with the American foodscape entirely. In its current form, the choice for or against organic is one reserved for a small proportion of society rich and empowered enough to access and pay for it. This debate marginalizes a large proportion of Americans without access to healthy, nutritious foods—organic or not—to begin with.

THE CONVENTIONAL DEBATE

Let’s consider the current debate to help frame a potential new one.

On one side, opponents of organic foods embrace the Stanford findings, criticizing what they see as high prices without any payoff.

In the middle, some researchers accept the results, but question the hypothesis. After all, organic farming was never about improving nutrition, but rather natural farming, environmentally sound techniques, and the reduction of pesticides and antibiotics in our foods.

Staunch proponents of organic foods, were up in arms. Some saw the study as an assault on organic foods. Pro-organic researchers submitted formal critiques, claiming questionable use of multivariate statistics to manipulate the truth. Some called the nutrition question a straw man argument against organic food.

Organic proponents were clearly the most impassioned. But, is there a better use of their energies?

ONLY THE RICH

“People who care about organic food enough to spend a little more money for it are not so stupid,” read a comment in response to a Los Angeles Times story on the study.

“Common sense tells us that organic is always a lot better than pesticide flushed, genetically modified, lab rat created anything,” the commenter continued.

Exposure to pesticides has, in fact, been shown to be a risk factor for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, pancreatic cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease in the elderly and leukemia and multiple myeloma, among other diseases. And, exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a growing concern as common antibiotics become less effective.

But, in its current form, the question of the health benefits of organic food only applies to the small proportion of society wealthy enough to have this choice in the first place: Organic, on average, can cost 50 to 100 percent more than conventionally grown foods.

In the U.S. alone, 43.6 million Americans lived below the poverty line in 2009, earning as low as $21,954 per household for a family of four. It’s no wonder then, that purchasers of organic produce were more likely to be Caucasian and have higher income and education according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

So, while organic food proponents extol the many benefits of organic and argue that everyone should eat it whenever a paper questions its benefits, the conversation implicitly marginalizes swathes of the U.S. population who can’t even afford healthy food—organic or not.

But lacking access to healthy foods isn’t just a matter of budget.

Intertwined with the issue of cost is the issue of access. A systematic review of the food access studies in U.S. neighborhoods showed that low-income, minority, and rural neighborhoods were less likely to have access to supermarkets and healthy foods.

Low-income consumers know that their food options aren’t the best, but don’t feel they can afford or access anything else. For people with limited budgets, food choices are more about the energetic bang-for-the-buck or convenience than nutrition or reducing exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

According to a 2004 study, high-energy foods made of refined grains, and added sugars and fats are often the lowest-cost food option for low-income consumers. It’s no wonder, then, that those faced with food insecurity or living in neighborhoods with “food deserts”—areas with little access to healthy supermarkets—tend to choose these low cost foods over healthier options.

This is of particular importance because the least well off suffer the highest burden of obesity and diabetes.

In 2010, the U.S. had obesity rates over 35 percent and nearly one in three children were obese or overweight. Obesity, in turn, increases the likelihood of other health problems like sleep apnea, asthma, heart disease, type two diabetes, stroke, many types of cancer, osteoarthritis and depression.

A NEW DEBATE?

What do the consumption habits of the less fortunate have to do with the organic food debate more broadly?

It’s a matter of economics.

Today, there is a shorter supply of organically grown food than conventionally grown food—hence the high price.

But, the extent of the price difference is largely artificial. The U.S. government spends about $20 billion a year subsidizing conventional farms and keeping conventional food artificially cheap. In comparison, the U.S. Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 provisioned a comparatively scant $130 million for organic farming support and research programs through 2012.

Agricultural economists have predicted that price premiums for organics are likely to decrease when more firms enter the organic food industry and economies of scale emerge. But, in order to do this, conventional farms need to be convinced that investing in organic is worth the time and money—that requires demand and access.

How can proponents of organic foods help?

They could start by contributing to programs that build access to healthy foods for low-income Americans, either by influencing policy or lending a hand directly.

Creating new health food consumers could at once provide healthy foods to low-income Americans, and—more importantly for many organic activists—facilitate demand for more organic food and, over time, pressure a subsidy re-appropriation to emerging organic farmers eager to tap the market.

NEW (OUTDOOR) MARKETS

While solving the food access and affordability problem is largely the domain of smart, progressive public policy, citizen efforts can be helpful.

Some advocates—be they champions of organic food or conventionally grown, healthy food—have taken action. The Holcomb Farm Community Supported Agriculture Farm distributes roughly 40 percent of its local and organic produce to low-income communities in Hartford, Conn. Just Food in New York City and Western Massachusetts Food Bank provide similar services.

These efforts have inspired policy efforts, too. The Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program has provided federal and state funding to give vouchers to some 1.9 million low-income women, children and the elderly in 2011 alone, opening up 4,079 nation-wide farmers’ markets with fresh fruits and vegetables. Many farmers’ markets, including Harlem’s recent pop-up green market, have started to accept electronic benefit transfer (EBT) so food stamp recipients can simply swipe their cards to buy local, healthy food.

Philadelphia-based non-profit Food Trust has done some impressive work, in particular, creating an $85 million grant and loan program intended to encourage the development of supermarkets in underserved neighborhoods throughout Pennsylvania. They have funded 88 fresh-food retail projects in 34 Pennsylvania counties, providing healthy food to low-income individuals and expanding employment.

While promising, even the staunchest advocates realize these projects are mere Band-Aids to a knife wound. But, they’re a start.  Whether one agrees a full transition to organic is the best way forward or not, expanding access to healthy, affordable foods is a potential first step to creating demand.

These programs may serve a similar role in leveraging a new market in order to get more affordable, healthier food—even organic food—for low-income families, the way employers have reduced health insurance premiums for their employees.

Though this is one small step, organic food advocates may find their strongest ally in the population that they often overlook. By working with low income groups to find avenues of access—not as benevolent experts telling them what to do, but as advocates—the pro-organic community can potentially achieve a broadening of the organic market, while improving healthy choices for the most disenfranchised.

Of course, they’re free to dispute research like the Stanford study all they want, but if their collective voice is not as loud when championing healthy food for all, they risk further marginalizing a large swathe of our society without access to it—and in the end, their own goals for a healthy foodscape.

Edited by Abdul El-Sayed. Additional research by Lauren Weisenfluh.

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The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the authors and do not represent those of the Department of Epidemiology, the Mailman School of Public Health, or Columbia University.