Food Policy

Is Organic Food a Waste of Money?

A new study challenges the conventional wisdom on organic food.

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Everyone knows by now that organic foods are aren't objectively superior to their conventional counterparts. Right?

Exactly.

Many of us have been told for years that organic food was healthier (for people, streams, bees, cows, Gaia, etc.) than conventional alternatives.

But others have disagreed.

"Organic foods may cost nearly twice as much as ordinary foods without offering consumers extra nutritional values."

That was the conclusion reached by a USDA official in a report issued in 1974.

The debate raged. But this week a report issued by Stanford University researchers attempted to answer the question once and for all.

The study, a meta analysis of more than 200 studies over the past decade looking at the nutrient and pathogenic content of organic food and conventional food, concludes that organic food is a big fat waste of money.

Organic critics pounced.

Roger Cohen of The New York Times writes he "cheered" the study's results. Reason magazine's own Ronald Bailey pointed to the study as evidence in support of his conventional-is-king beliefs.

Among those not openly cheering for the conventional alternative, responses to the study have ranged from measured to somewhere between snarky and unhinged.

But is the Stanford study really the final say? There are reasons to be skeptical of the research.

"[M]eta-analysis has many well-known pitfalls," write a trio of Harvard School of Public Health faculty in a 2001 letter to British Medical Journal editors. "These include lack of homogeneity of the studies, failure to consider important covariates, inadequate understanding of the scientific subject in question, failure to consider quality of the studies, and biases in including or excluding certain studies."

Meta analyses also tend to feature multiple articles on the same topic by the same author. The Stanford study is no different. For example, footnotes 50, 52, and 53 of the Stanford study point to three separate articles on antimicrobial resistance by J.M. Miranda and co-authors. Footnotes 59, 60, and 63 point to separate insecticide articles co-authored by C. Lu C. Notes 62, 66, 69, 259, and 260 cite B.A. Stracke's various research on nutrient content of foods.

This is not to impugn in any way the work of Miranda, C, and Stracke—nor that of the Stanford study authors. They may all do fine work. But a "meta" study of 223 studies becomes much less meta—and in fact appears much more beta—when it turns out the study is in fact just a literature review pointing to a series of different studies by many of the same authors.

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?

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