Are Organics Better? – The Stanford Study, and a Softer Focus View of the Debate

In the past few days, there has been a lot of talk about the Stanford study on organics, and specifically the nutritional content of organic foods. In fact, if you just Google, “Stanford Study Organics” you can read articles from a variety of sources that claim mainstream media has been duped by the study because of the special interests (namely, Big Tobacco) which funded the work.

Basically, if you haven’t heard about the debate, the Stanford study says organic foods and conventionally grown foods have about the same nutritional value. The evidence that counters this claim speaks to the special interests of Big Tobacco, and of Cargill — a major donor to Stanford University, and addresses how demonstrating a similar nutritional quality between conventional and organic foods would work well for some of these major lobbies/donors.

Eggs, from a small-scale (but still bigger than a family farm) laying facility

Okay, so perhaps a lot of us would like to believe that it’s just as good to eat non-organic foods as it is organic (and here we’re not getting into the debate over organic/imported versus non-organic/local), especially as more and more of us are feeling the pinch of the economic recession. But there’s a lot that the Stanford study doesn’t take into account (aside from the many studies which have countered this idea and shown that organic food is, in fact, more nutritional). In the interest of full disclosure, as always, I’d like to point out that I don’t always buy organic foods. Sometimes I can’t afford them. Or the thing I want isn’t available organically. Or, I’d rather support the farmer whose practices I know because I’ve visited the farm — often, these are organic practices, at least with the farms I’ve visited, but organic certification is expensive and small farmers can’t always foot the bill.

Milking Shorthorn, at a CAFO dairy farm

Tim Philpott, on Mother Jones, nicely breaks down “5 Ways  the Stanford Study Sells Organics Short,” an article well worth 10 minutes of your time. I’d like to take the time to think about the bigger picture: the environment. To grow conventional, often mono-cropped food items, on large farms requires a large amount of pesticides and herbicides (for plants) or antibiotics (for animals). Although much of what I’m about to write will be familiar to many of you, I believe it’s important to address, at least briefly, what this means for the environment at large–as well as what initial evidence indicates it means for humans. It’s important to address, and to remind ourselves, the ways we’re all engaging in magical thinking.

Plants: Fertilizers, Pesticides, and Herbicides

Despite what we would like to believe about feeding the world (especially if we’re American and listening to Big Ag), conventional agriculture as we know it is a direct result of World War II — when America had to figure out what to do with the chemicals it had been manufacturing for war. That’s right: fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Most of these agricultural crutches (as an all-encompassing term) are petroleum-based, and are applied broad-spectrum which means that even sections of crop that don’t need to be treated are treated anyway. This can also create drift, which is what happens when the agricultural crutch catches the wind and strays into another field (or in through your kitchen window and onto your cornflakes).

In the case of Big Ag, in particular, the process of growing primarily commodity crops such as corn and soybeans means that crop-rotation often decreases and the presence of mono-cultures (instead of intercropping or companion planting) leads to quicker soil depletion and higher instances of pests. Thus the need for ever increasing amounts of fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides. We need to add fertilizer because the quality of the soil has depleted (or, to be more straightforward: frequent use of heavy machinery, combined with the application of pesticides and herbicides kills beneficial plants and microorganisms that are key to health soil), and then some of that fertilizer runs off into our watersheds, which ultimately empty into the ocean. We need to apply more herbicides because, oh no, “weeds” (which might actually increase soil health) are invading our fields–potentially choking out the plants we want to grow, or at the very least, making harvest a bit more cumbersome. And then come the bugs–and application of more pesticides, which harms beneficial insects as well as whichever insect the farmer is targeting.

Chicken Prowling around an Integrated Farm

Of course, there are less destructive means of pest control. When a farmer practices frequent crop rotation, the number of insect-pests that attack the field the following year often remains lower (this has to do with insect larvae & eggs being sewn into the ground near a good food source). When a farmer practices companion planting, frequently this means planting two plants together that either mutually support each other (i.e. – through pest control and/or attracting beneficial insects, providing nutrients, or climbing support), or at the very least provide benefits for one of the plants without harming the other. Farmers can also opt into other natural pest control methods (like rinsing an aphid covered plant with water, or introducing ladybugs), depending on the crop and the problem.

As consumers though, we don’t have many options readily available to us regarding the use of pesticides, herbicides, and petroleum-based fertilizers on our food. Either we buy organic where these practices are slightly more regulated, or we buy conventional and imagine that our actions aren’t killing the planet. 

Animals and Antibiotics

Conventionally raised animals have a lot more issues than antibiotics. I’ve written before about conventional meat production, though not in probing detail. If you want to better understand some of the atrocities brought upon animals raised in Big Ag (or for that matter, Big Pharma), you can check out a number of videos put forth by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), or the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). Because these organizations, and others have done a fantastic job raising the issues associated with mass production and exploitation of animals — as well as what this does to the people who perform these jobs — I don’t want to spent a lot of time on it.

I do specifically want to talk a few minutes about antibiotics. As regular readers know, when I lived in the Midwest, I had the opportunity to travel to a number of different farms, animal processing plants, and dairies. I specifically want to talk about the farms and dairies. A couple of the large-scale farmers I had the opportunity to visit spoke specifically of having animal care dictated to them by large corporations, such as Cargill — who were essentially paying them to raise the animals, which would later be hauled off for processing. This included administration of antibiotics and growth hormones (of which residual amounts sometimes remain in the meat, and which wind up being applied to fields via manure application). This almost makes me feel bad for the farmers — even if they wanted to stop treating their animals with antibiotics and hormones, they don’t feel they can without losing the contract to raise (“grow”) the animals. Further, the close living conditions (not to mention frequent open sores) and high levels of shit (yes literally) in which these animals live provide a prime breeding ground for the rapid development and spread of disease.

These are attached to a cow’s udders at a large-scale milking facility

Organically raised animals, however, don’t necessarily have better living conditions.

As consumers, we need to begin making humane choices. For some of us, this probably means not eating meat. For others, this must mean understanding the living conditions under which the animal you will eat is raised, and how it is killed. By extension, this must mean taking ownership of the fact that when you eat an animal, it had to die. I believe this should mean that those of us who choose to eat meat become reacquainted with the process of slaughter. 

Hogs, in close quarters, at a CAFO

At one of the dairies I had the opportunity to visit — a regional dairy that’s just growing to national distribution — I had the opportunity to learn about the co-operative nature of the dairy: a lot of small farmers pool their milk to send to the dairy, where it is processed and distributed (to date, only the yogurt is distributed nationally, to the best of my knowledge). The dairy tests every truckload of milk that comes in for antibiotics. The dairy visits the farmers, builds relationships with them, tries to understand how the milk is handled from udder to bottle, and witness the treatment of the cows and goats which produce the milk.

By contrast, a large-scale dairy I visited milks its cows three times a day. Cows are given special hormones to keep them lactating. They’re feed conventional feed and kept in close quarters. The cows I saw had wide eyes and startled away from humans — their torturers. The milk itself may or may not be laced with antibiotics — I’m sure the industry would be happy to tell me that trace amounts won’t hurt me. The dairy manager spoke about how the whole debate about synthetic recombinant bovine growth hormones (rBGH) in milk is silly (I don’t think it is), and how people are worried for nothing. The dairy industry, of course, supports this claim while others without strong financial investment in the dairy industry argue otherwise.

We already know that human hormones wind up getting flushed down the toilet, and entering our water system. Let’s add to that the growth, and other, hormones given to animals. Let’s think about what this means for ourselves, and our loved ones. For people we’ve never met. Let’s think about our water supply, and how the world depends on it.

Drainage, coming off of Midwestern monocropped fields in late summer

Three Questions

But what about the people?? Don’t the people need to eat?
Yes. And the results are still mixed about whether organic farming or conventional farming yields (significantly) more. But, here’s something to consider: one reason that people in other parts of the world are starving is because the land they used to depend on for small, mixed farms is now being turned into mono-culture plantations for soy, corn, palm, and other commodity products. Particularly with conventional farming techniques (but also with organic), this also results in deforestation, depletion of soil quality, loss of habitat, and loss of traditional ways of life among many other things.

But what about the people? What happens to the people who work on conventional farms?
Farm workers are exposed daily to the chemicals and hormones used in conventional farming. Often they are poor, or otherwise disenfranchised, and minorities. Consider it a quiet genocide.

What can I do?
I’d love to tell you how effective I think it would be if you just voted with your dollar or wrote your representatives, but that would be a lie. Sure, that might help. It won’t hurt, if you have time and can afford to do so. Buying organic at least reduces the number of petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides to which farm workers are subjected.

But part of what we, as consumers, need to do is united against these practices.

  • We need to support organic farms, and be vocal about it.
  • We need to understand the practices behind our food supply.
  • We need to stand up for worker’s rights — including (especially) those of undocumented workers.
  • We need to stand up for the environment — and stop the outright destruction of the very things that sustain us.

More on these actions in another post.


One thought on “Are Organics Better? – The Stanford Study, and a Softer Focus View of the Debate

  1. i just found your blog through erica! i am blurry edges of love! 🙂 what fascinating stuff you write about. my husband and i really try to hold ourselves to a higher standard in what we consume… but i know we have so much more to learn. thank you!

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