Thursday, August 20, 2009

The organic conundrum

Warning: a long, possibly biased rant with no pictures or recipes.

I trundle up the organic aisle not sure what I will find. I watch the seasons come and go by the availability and price of the produce. Cavolo nero, our new best friend has been looking a little weather-worn in recent weeks while the chard has stood proud and glossy. An easy segue from one leafy green to another, unique in flavour but close enough to substitute. This week my friend has picked up her frilly skirt and run, perhaps we won’t see cavolo nero til next winter.

I can live with that. Sure I get a little toey at this time of year when the Australian grown, organic garlic is hard to find and pricey when you do but I’m getting better at planning ahead for that seasonal eventuality.

This week’s market haul featured no new stars but a greater variety of affordable basics – broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, new season potatoes and leafy greens. Not quite a cornucopia but ten different types of vegetables plus an expensive local bulb of garlic and some fresh turmeric. Enough veg for two massive consumers to eat their way through over a week at a cost of $40. We’d easily get 5, often 7 plus, serves of vegetables a day. Sadly the Significant Eater consumes fruit at too higher rate for us to be completely organic at this time of year.

Australian Food News yesterday reported that an average basket of organic groceries costs 70% more than its conventional counterpart. This includes things I don’t eat such as meat and dairy (the former having the highest price difference and the latter being at the lower end) or buy (like biscuits, baked beans and sugar). Taking all this into account, the premium for organic fruit and vegetables alone, according to the report, is still a hefty 60%.

Before we plunge headlong into the latest organic debate regarding nutritional value. I’d suggest that any canny shopper doesn’t do the “standard basket” approach. We buy what is in season at a reasonable price, allowing for the odd weakness (garlic or fair trade organic chocolate). We make choices over what tastes better (organic strawberries) and what we don’t mind compromising on (Coff’s Harbour conventional but naturally ripened bananas and passionfruit). Heading off to shop with a flexible grocery list and to somewhere like Vic Market where there is some healthy competition, rather than an organic superstore (like Macro when it existed), certainly reduces the organic premium. Sometimes a particular organic fruit or vegetable is cheaper than the conventional but overall with savvy shopping I’d estimate it’s less than 30%.

So is it worth it, this sizable mark up at the cash register? Last month a British report stating that ”Organic has no health benefit” hit the headlines. While the independent study commissioned by the Food Standards Agency crunched the data and could not find any strong evidence to support the nutritional benefits of eating organic produce, there are some inherent flaws. The biggest problem is study size. The bigger the study the more it costs to fund. Oil companies, the manufacturers of conventional agricultural chemicals, have the money to potentially fund big research projects that can select limited nutritional criteria when comparing organic and non-organic produce. The organics industry however, cannot. Study size determines whether it can be included in the meta-analysis. The many smaller studies that overwhelming proved case for the nutritional benefits of eating organically were excluded.

But ignoring my paranoid ravings for a minute, The Organic Center has gone over the original report with a fine tooth comb and their analysis of the flaws in the FSA study make illuminating reading. Before you swallow the version the media has served up for you, read a little more deeply and make up your own mind.

Ironically, on the BBC news page that I linked above I noticed today’s top health story is “Primary liver cancers 'soaring'”. No link with eating conventional produce? Well, that hypothesis hasn’t been tested yet.

Buying organic produce is a luxury and it is about personal choice. But making an informed decision remains a vexed issue.

A few links to studies demonstrating the nutritional benefits of organics

Biological Farmers of Australia (I heard the fabulous BFA nutritionist, Shane Heaton, speak at the Organic Expo)

Organic Trade Association (USA)

The issues around the potential health risks of pesticides and herbicides touched on in the Food and cancer report included a suggestion that “a precautionary approach is wise for women of reproductive age”.

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Blogger Ed said...

Interesting times. My bias that fewer chemicals is better but sometimes I baulk at the price of organic in these tough times. Plus sometimes some producers are more concerned with the organic label rather than the integrity of the product although that is usually more to do with manufactured organic products. On George Biron's advice I planted a stack of garlic on the solstice and have a couple of dozen shoots coming up. A couple of bulbs are yours when they are ready. Remind me if i forget when I inevitably blog it. Chemical free, but dog poo maybe composted into the soil. That sounds worse than it is.

3:04 pm  
Blogger steve said...

A good read AOF. Your dead right about organic being a luxury & until it becomes less exxy, it will mostly be consumed by people with more dough than others.
Persnally I have no doubt that organic means better for me & better for the evironment however as you say, big agribusiness has a lot invested to keep the status quo. But like all businesses, they'll change if the demand is there & this could explain why many of them are dipping their toes into the organic sector, a sector which is gaining huge momemntum in the USA & Europe.
What is working aginst this though as Ed pointed out is the 'attainment & status issues' that many producers focus on sometimes to the detriment of the product. Throw into the mix the 'greenwashing-fatigue' that is fuelling some elements of consumer backlash & it might be a while yet until organic becomes more everyday.

3:35 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Ed - will definitely take you up on the garlic. We planted a few cloves that had sprouted last year - randomly, not consulting the moon or the calendar and wished we'd planted more. Easy.

Steve - glad you enjoyed the read. The silliest greenwashing I ever saw was an "organic" shampoo, it was 'organic' in the organic chemistry sense not a biological farmers kind of way. The amount of "green" cosmetics at the Organic Expo was frightening.

I heard on NPR or KCRW (one of the alternative US radio stations) a while ago that Walmart was introducing organic produce but to do so they managed to get legislation passed redefining the term organic. A bit of a worry.

3:57 pm  
Blogger steph said...

This is a really excellent post, thanks for writing it.

10:47 pm  
Anonymous Em said...

great post. Not buying organic foods makes me feel inadequate as a provider for two young children, but like Steve said, until it become less expensive, it is a choice I can not justify. Its bizarre to think that I have to weigh up the cost of the food with the health of my babies, but truthfully, I just baulk at paying sometimes 3 times as much for a lettuce. Sad I know, but true none the less.

9:44 am  
Blogger Lucy said...

As someone growing her own veg (I must give you some silverbeet - are you interested?), I know that doing it organically is a whole lotta hard work. Growing any veg is, so I don't mind paying more. I'd rather see the people growing my vegetables treat the land respectfully, in the way that I would love to myself to tend one day.

Great piece - loving the transitional market-ing this week, too.

4:02 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Thanks for the positive feedback. These are subjects dear to my heart - food, health, the fallibility of science and shopping for organics.

Em, guilt/feeling inadequate aint healthy, maybe Lucy has the key. Do you have to room to start supplementing with home grown veg?

Lucy - yes please (silverbeet and parsley if you still have them:)

9:13 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Given that I generally shop in the company of a whining toddler, and have to choose between the organic local shops or the supermarkets, I find the local organic shops work out cheaper in the long run. The lettuce and milk may be more expensive, but I don't impulse buy a packet of something, or stickers/toys/whatevercrapola they'reshovingat kidsthisweek

I spend the same amount of money all up, the shopping experience is much more pleasant, and I only come home with the stuff that was actually on the list. Also, it's quicker.

2:57 pm  

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