September 9, 2012

Our View: 'Organic' label just one piece of good information

A study that disputes the value of organic produce ignores what people really like about it.

For decades now, organically grown produce has been the choice of health conscious, environmentally concerned Americans who have been willing to pay a little more for certified meat, fruits and vegetables.

click image to enlarge

Kassandra Weese of Albion selects some cucumbers and squash from the Snakeroot Organic Farm stand at the Waterville farmers market at The Concourse on Thursday afternoon. “I buy organic food for two reasons: to avoid pesticides and buy locally,” she said.

File photo/Michael G. Seamans

Now a Stanford University study has reported that there is no evidence that these products have any more nutrients or vitamins than conventionally grown produce. Have the organic consumers been getting ripped off? We don't think so.

First of all, "organically grown" just means that the farmers did not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides. It is not a claim of super nutritious meat, fruits or vegetables, but a promise that it is free of the most toxic chemicals. In other words, it's not about what's in the produce, but what isn't in it.

But for many consumers, the organically grown label has become a kind of shorthand for a lot of things that those consumers prefer, which go beyond fertilizer and pesticides.

Even though there are large industrial scale farms and orchards that produce organically grown produce, many people associate the label with small, family farms. And they also like to know that the meat, fruits and vegetables they buy were not produced in a way that causes unnecessary damage to the environment, which is another implied promise of the organically grown label. And, even though we see organically grown bananas from South America and organic mangos from the Caribbean on Maine store shelves, the "certified organic" label means "local" to many of the people who seek out these products.

Those are all important values to Maine consumers, and the Stanford study does not address them.

Small farms, whether they are organic or conventional, are a great contributor to the Maine economy, as well as being a great way to productively preserve open space and prevent sprawl development. The kind of practices used by small farmers -- especially organic farmers -- do less environmental damage than large factory farms.

The Stanford study appears to have been asking the wrong questions, or at least not enough questions.

Vitamins and nutrients are important, but they are not the only thing that goes into a consumers' decision-making process.

Consumers benefit from having as much information as possible about where the produce comes from and how it was raised.

This study should not, and most likely will not, discourage people from buying organically grown products. But it should encourage everyone to ask more questions about their food.


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