Perplexed: The “organic” movement


Update: Fantastic responses from Nic, Sam and Catherine in the comments section. Check them out.

I don’t want this to be a critique.

Nonetheless it is probably going to sound that way. I’m just struggling to understand what the “organic” movement is actually all about — what are its goals, values and core principles? The movement seems to be defined by a hodgepodge of discordant elements, some relating to the environment, some relating to local communities and some related to “natural” production techniques.

Here is one definition of organic food from the Organic Trade Association (with no shortage of words and commas):

Organic refers to the way agricultural products—food and fiber—are grown and processed. Organic food production is based on a system of farming that maintains and replenishes soil fertility without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers. Organic foods are minimally processed without artificial ingredients, preservatives, or irradiation to maintain the integrity of the food.

I’ve come across essentially four justifications for why organic food is worthwhile:

1) Organic food tastes better

2) Organic food is “natural”

3) Organic food benefits small farmers / local communities

4) Organic food is better for the environment


1) Organic food tastes better

Why is this inherently good? Goes without saying

My guess is that we are seeing correlation without actual causation here: Expensive, well-managed, carefully handled food tastes better. Organic foods tend to be all of these because of the nature of its customers (wealthy, discriminating). If there were a market for expensive, well-handled, carefully grown inorganic food it should be as good (and possibly better without the “organic” handicap limiting its production methods). There just isn’t a big market for inorganic, high quality food. If you are paying 50% mark-up you want the organic sticker.

2) Organic food is “natural”

Why is this inherently good? A little fuzzy to me what the inherent value of “natural” is or what it actually means to be “natural” but I’ll let it pass because …

… is organic food actually natural: NO!

All of our crops are Frankensteins of the field — the product of thousands of years of systematic, outdoor eugenics. There is nothing more natural about that organic tomato than there is about a Aliza Shvartz pregnancy. God/Darwin did not create the large red, organic tomato. That was the work of agri-scientists dating back to Babylon.

The organic movement seems to tolerate genetic modification, but only if done outdoors and not in a laboratory.

I’m always surprised when my iPod totting, Twittering friends turn into Luddites when confronted with a food issue. We allow technology and science to improve the production processes and quality of almost every aspect of our life. Why is the line drawn at food? What is the issue here?

3) Organic food benefits small farmers / local communities

Why is this inherently good? Stick it to Big Agra?

Your organic dollars are just as likely to go to Big Agra as that family farm in upstate NY. There is one place you can be sure they are not going though — the poorest, neediest farmers in the world. Their goods are not being marketed as “organic.”

What is the fundamental reason someone wants to support a “local” upstate NY farmer instead of another farmer in another part of the country or world? What is the principle behind this desire?

4) Organic food is better for the environment

Why is this inherently good? There are multiple aspects of this claim to consider. There are 1) carbon emissions associated with farming 2) run-off and soil erosion 3) land use and ecosystem impact.

I’m not in a good position to comment on any of these, but from what I can gather the jury is still out. Most of this comes down to the inherent tension is between conscientious use of land/resources and efficiency (organic farms yield 20% less per acre according to Wikipedia).


Next time I’m in the States I’m going to poll Whole Foods patrons and ask why they buy organic. Better yet, can someone try this for me? I’m truly curious what they’d say. People are clearly voting with their pocketbooks here. I’m just perplexed as to what exactly they are voting for.


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5 Responses to “Perplexed: The “organic” movement”

  1. Nic Says:


    Good post. I tend to agree with a lot of this, but wanted to add a couple of things:

    1) If there were a label for tastier, better handled food, I would buy it, even if it cost more. Prior to the surge in organic food, kosher was that label. The kosher stamp of approval generally meant food production was monitored by somebody not as interested in the financial results of food production. That tended to mean (sometimes) better quality food. Organic food seems to be a label that suggests food that is cared for, and not chosen only because it yields the most weight per dollar input (i.e., value to the reseller).

    2) I’m going to send you an article I read in Harpers a while back on the state of the pig farming industry. Really good look into what’s going on there. Basically, the desire to lower the cost per lb of pork has resulted in pretty bad tasting pork and a terrifyingly small gene pool for pigs in the farming system. The ease with which people make farming decisions for short-term gain can result in pretty devastating long-term consequences. In this particular example, the natural way (i.e., no artificial insemination) turns out to be part of a philosophy that results in tastier, more sustainable, albeit more expensive, pork.

    3) Reason to support local farmers has to do with reducing transportation costs of food, eliminating the focus on preservatives and other processes that make food last longer, while possibly diminishing their ‘natural’ qualities, and potentially making small farms (where small = natural/organic/good) sustainable.

    4) The term ‘organic farming’ is very loose. There are some who hold to a much more strict version of the term, and others – I believe Horizon dairy products in particular to abuse the phrase to get more money from their milk products – who do not. But it’s the philosophy behind it that’s ultimately important. Organic is meant to mean natural, normal, sustainable food producing methods. Not, abusive or clearly wrong from any normal sense or perspective. If you’re packing so many cows into a tiny dairy farm that the resulting manure has to be chemically treated because it would otherwise cause ecological problems, it’s probably not natural or normal. If you need to wear full germ suits before going in and checking in on the pigs at your farm, because the introduction of foreign germs may wipe all of them out, it probably isn’t normal. If the rice that you plant is not capable of producing any seeds of its own, and you have to buy seeds annually from a company that specifically designs them that way, it’s probably not natural.

    I’ve begun cooking a lot more. In part because I believe our jobs alienate us from our labor (yes, just like Adam Smith said) and removes the satisfaction we get from completing something and seeing the fruits of our labor. Cooking restores some of that satisfaction. I can start with raw ingredients, and end with a meal and know I (with some assistance from Cook’s Illustrated) did it.
    It also gives me some insight into what else goes into the food that we eat on a daily basis, that you tend to leave out when you cook for yourself. I don’t know how easy it is for you to feel the difference, but cooking for myself for a couple of days in a row makes me feel incredibly different than if I were to eat out every day. That feeling suggests that food prepared with ingredients that I don’t know about, see or approve of makes me feel worse than ingredients I have chosen consciously. If that’s the case (which I grant it may not be), then why not actively choose the best ingredients? (I will concede that by ‘best’ I generally mean what people (read: Whole Foods) tell me is the best. But in the end, the stuff is going into my body. Shouldn’t I at least try to do what’s best?)


  2. Sam Says:

    Provoking post, Phil, and great points, Nic.

    One thing on the environmental side: some people might say “the environmental issue shouldn’t matter because it’s the producer’s land anyway, and he won’t be willing to destroy his own land with pesticides, unless it’s actually economically efficient to do so.” In other words property rights are defined, costs internalized, and the market works out the rest.

    The typically cited answer from the organics crowd is: “the producer has an overly short time horizon to make a profit, and isn’t thinking for long term value.” This isn’t compelling to me, although I think there’s another point to consider that is often overlooked: often, costs can be external. Pesticides run off into streams or other people’s land. Soil becomes eroded. Biodiversity is decreased. In addition to the owner of the land, other people bear the cost. Tragedy of the commons can lead to an inefficient outcome.

    Another related point with GM crops. As I understand it, GM corn easily spreads and takes over cornfields that are meant to be non-GM. Hence, if you want to plant non-GM corn, you often don’t have a choice if your neighbor (or even someone farther away) decides to plant it. Thus, the market doesn’t necessarily work efficiently. You can’t just “let producers and consumers decide.” You have to make policy choices that allow or ban the crops. The market is not necessarily efficient.

    People are interconnected. That’s one reason that markets sometimes don’t work the way they should in economics 101 models.

  3. Catherine Says:

    Lots of interesting points here, Phil. Here’s my opinion, as someone who is probably above-average conscious about what I eat.

    First, I think part of the confusion that you bring up in the opening part of the post is due to the fact that the organic food movement (such as it is) is going through an identity crisis. The original movement was a la Alice Waters and Michael Pollan and started decades ago (even though Pollan’s book just came out last year). It emphasized organic, local food, humane animal husbandry, eating in season, farmer’s markets etc. The reasons were all of those you list (which I’ll address later), plus ‘organic food is better for you’, plus a sort of amorphous ‘being in touch with your food’ that echos the Slow Food Movement. The idea with the last point is that modern Americans are disassociated with their food—they don’t think past the shrink-wrapped chicken breasts ($1.50 each! Heh, if that were true in Norway maybe I could afford to eat meat!) to how the chickens were raised. Americans take food and eating for granted, and that has contributed to, among other things, the obesity epidemic (see: French woman paradox) and a disassociation with the natural order of things (namely, that we should not be so disassociated with the most important input in our lives). It’s a bit romantic, but that’s the gist of it. Read Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, or any of the others for a more eloquent explanation. In sum, ‘organic movement’ isn’t really an accurate name for this movement—it is about much more than just not using pesticides or GMOs. I’ve heard ‘ethicurean’ used to describe this (ethical + epicurean = ethicurean). It’s a bit highbrow for me, but lacking a better term….

    Okay, so when the organic food movement went mainstream, it also went industrial (surprise!). Now we have huge (okay, not Cargill huge, but still) corporations like Earthbound farms and Horizon (and now even Walmart is in the game) producing organic food, and the only value of the original movement they represent is the not-using-chemicals-or-hormones one. This type of organic movement appeals very much to the people who want to feel good about what they eat (think Whole Foods shoppers) but don’t want to put in the effort to go to the farmer’s market, or give up tomatoes in January (even though tomatoes in January taste like cardboard). This is the kind of ‘organic’ that the USDA organic label certifies—your local farmer may farm organically, but the process of getting labeled is oftentimes too expensive for him, so he won’t bother. This also says nothing about whether your beef is pastured, or the beaks of the chickens were clipped etc….(There are other, mostly meaningless USDA labels that claim to address those issues, but they’re pretty toothless).

    So you can see that it is easy to get confused about what exactly people mean when they take about the organic movement. Now to your points about why organic is ‘better’. Let me say here that in some of these points, you don’t seem to really mean ‘organic’, you seem to be referring to the whole gamut of values that the original organic food movement (ethicurean) is after.

    1. Organic tastes better
    Does it? I have no idea. I guess you’re right that it’s carefully handled &c &c, and the organic sticker identifies that. But I think that the more common argument is that local food tastes better, which is different. Local food is a) in season and b) picked when it’s ripe, rather than green so it can travel for a few days/weeks. Regarding carefully handled inorganic food tasting better because it doesn’t have organic limitations, I don’t think that’s true. The pesticides etc. used in inorganic food are just to increase yield, not to improve flavor.

    2. Organic food is natural
    Phil, this is a straw man argument! No one is arguing that we should only eat food that hasn’t been tinkered with by man. They’re arguing that we shouldn’t eat food that, say, is corn with fly genes implanted in it. They are not the same at all. And the reason that people are against GMOs are: it can spread beyond the fields where is was planted, as Sam says (a Canadian farmer just lost a court case to Monsanto where he was held responsible for growing Monsanto GMO corn without paying them for the seed EVEN THOUGH it had spread via natural means (animals, wind) and he DIDN’T WANT IT) and that it decreases the available gene pool, rendering the crop vulnerable to disease (consider, the Cavnedish banana problem—of course you can argue that GMO can also help with this problem).

    More importantly, the ‘natural’ argument is mostly about pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, etc. Namely, that they’re bad for you and bad for the environment. Antibiotic use in animals is hypothesized to be at least partly responsible for the increase of antibiotic resistant bacteria ( Bovine Growth Homone (rBGH) is banned in the EU and Canada due to potential human toxicity, but allowed in the US (oops, there’s Monsanto again; Other hormones have been linked to speeding the onset of puberty and messing with aquatic life ( Pesticides, of course, cause all kinds of problems from the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico to human toxicity (

    3. Organic food benefits small farmers/local communities.
    Here you are definitely conflating the organic pillar of the ethicurean movement with the local pillar. Buying organic doesn’t benefit local farmers, buying local benefits local farmers (who, by the way, are also not usually being marketed as organic). Here is a question for you: are my non-organic dollars going to benefit the poorest, neediest farmers in the world? Somehow I don’t think so.

    The principle behind wanting to support local farmers is that you are building a community, which has intrinsic value. I can give my food dollars to Farmer Joe up the road, where I can see how the food has been grown/raised, whose children play with mine, who will spend those dollars in my town, or I can give them to Cargill and contribute to their 86% jump in quarterly earnings (at least someone is benefiting from higher food prices!).

    4. Organic food benefits the environment.
    YES. I’ll dig up some LCAs for you if you like. Re: the Nature article you link to, all it says is that so far organic looks to be the better option but there haven’t been enough long term studies to have a definitive answer yet. The weight of evidence we have is that organic is better.

    Regarding carbon emissions, I think it is pretty conclusive that the food-miles thing doesn’t work—you can’t assume that closer=fewer emissions. Pesticide production is the most significant source of emissions from conventional farming, which is an advantage for organic. Same with ecosystem impact—acidification and eutrophication are serious consequences of pesticide use. Biodiversity is a huge plus for organic.

    To Sam’s tragedy of the commons comment—of course!! The environment is the greatest market failure we have seen. Now we can get into a discussion about if a market system as we know it can ever adequately internalize today’s externalities, but maybe I’ll save that for later…

  4. Conflationary effects « The Invisible Hand, in your pants Says:

    […] Catherine made a few great points about the various movements now attached to the organic food bandwagon. The original intention, “eat local food,” has become conflated with other peripheral […]

  5. Acai Berry Pills Says:

    I’m always into discussions on anything organic, so this read made me feel at home.
    I’ll bookmark the site and subscribe to the feed!

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