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And then there’s the question of what is really “organic.” In order for food originating in this country to be sold as “organic” here at home, USDA rules require that the farm where the food originated must be certified by one of 49 private bodies around the country.
Organic certification can cost thousands of dollars. As a result, many small organic farmers choose not to undertake the costly and tedious process of certification. Hence, these farmers and their products—like most one might buy at a farmers market—are not “organic” and likely not included in any of the studies reviewed as part of the Stanford report. And yet these non-organic organic foods—rather than those produced on large monoculture certified organic farms—are the very foods most organic advocates point to (correctly or not) as being higher in nutrients and other superlatives.
Another concern I have with the study is the high prevalence of fraud in the conventional alternative market. Simply put, lots of non-organic producers falsely claim their products are organic. How might this fraud influence the results of the Stanford study?
Picture a study comparing the horsepower of engines from cars made by automaker X (known for its value and dependability) and the more expensive automaker Y (known for its power and higher cost). Let's say the study compared engines from X cars with engines from Y cars—but that this latter group (unbeknownst to the researchers) included a significant percentage of cars made by X that unscrupulous car sellers had labeled as coming from cars made by Y. You would expect the fraudulent Y engines both to be exactly the same as actual X engines and to skew the results of the study in such a way as to conclude Y engines are more like X engines than perhaps they actually are in real life.
In much the same manner, because organic food may boast "unobservable quality attributes" that are less evident than something more readily measurable than horsepower, fraudulent producers can “enjoy a higher price with lower production costs”—as this good organic game theory article notes.
While the Stanford study likely misses the mark in these regards, the critics of organics who latched onto the study may do the same. Ronald Bailey, for example, seizes on the term “higher quality” as a meaningless one (absent further information), yet then embraces a Swiss study that notes only minor differences in “food quality” between organic and conventional agriculture. Is “quality” meaningful or not?
And the Times' Cohen cites a conventional ice cream producer in England, Martin Orbach, whose Shepherds sheep’s milk ice-cream is wildly popular in some circles. While Cohen is right that Shepherds is not organic, Orbach tells me that organic rules can be so arcane for organic producers to follow that organic ice cream producers “can't use small batches of seasonal fruit” from, say, a local farm—because all ingredients first have to be certified organic.
Finally, consider that organics critics like Cohen and Bailey attack the high cost of organic food while failing to mention that conventional food production—from soy and sugar to beef and dairy—is highly subsidized. Organic food production, on the other hand, is not.
But rather than dwell on the negatives this study raises, I’d like to close on a positive note. I'll do so because I look at the Stanford report as delivering some important good news for supporters of both organic food and conventional alternative food.
The takeaway for me from this study is that there is lots of healthy food (organic and conventional) available to consumers of all income levels. If it’s true that a wealthy consumer eating organic lettuce that reflects their values is getting the same level of nutrients as a low-income person eating conventional lettuce that reflects financial value, then that’s worth celebrating. Right?