Time Magazine Explodes the Organic Myth, Kind Of

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Failing to Distinguish Organic, Local, Seasonal, and Humane

Turns out, the author had no idea what he was talking about. It became clear very quickly that Kluger did not differentiate between organic (a word with specific legal meanings, as defined by the USDA) and everything else having to do with the Profood movement. He conflated organic with local, seasonal, small-farms, and grass-fed (when talking about meat). He managed to roll all those different ideas up in a single sentence, without even acknowledging the differences. Talking about the "organic-vs-commercial debate over meat", he cites the nutritional advantages of eating grass-fed beef, never mind that not all (or even most) organic beef is grass-fed, nor is all grass-fed beef organic. The two standards are completely different.

Nevertheless, he does emphasize the importance of choosing organic when eating meat, dairy and eggs, for ethical reasons...oh wait, organic and humane are completely unrelated too. Damn.

Talking about vegetables, Kluger made a point of arguing that organic is not necessarily superior, mainly because some organic veggies are sprayed with bio-pesticides anyway, and the extra cost of manure fertilizer and other inconveniences doesn't make up for the hassle, especially since there is no ethical issue with eating inhumanely raised carrots. He leaves us undecided, pointing out that "you can start a lot of arguments about whether organic crops actually have better, fresher, more complex flavors than industrial crops do, but without a double-blind test, there's no way to know." I agree completely with that statement. If your only criteria is 'organic' vs. non-organic, then it would be pretty hard to tell, since most organic-certified food is grown on an industrial scale. I can still get organic tomatoes in December, and they taste about the same as conventional tomatoes. However, the tomatoes I buy from the farmers market in the middle of summer are so mind-blowingly full of tomato-ness there is no comparison.

Still, Kluger's warnings not to assume only the best for organic foods is legitimate. Consumers ought to be aware that organic foods may still have high environmental costs, and that they may not have better nutritional profiles. You can see this by buying organic bananas in New York. Definitely not local, definitely not seasonal, but still organic. But if he is going to help consumers navigate the misleading and confusing claims of food companies, he might want to clarify his terms. By associating organic food with small, local farmers and seasonal eating, Kluger is himself misleading readers.

A Chip on the Shoulder

The thing I don't really understand about these articles is the glee they seem to take in bashing the Profood movement. It becomes clear pretty quickly that the standard line - organic/local is just another hippie trend and not all its cracked up to be anyway and we're delusional if we think it will actually help in the long run - is mainly a way to be controversial. Kluger starts his article artfully building some suspense, leaving us hanging and wondering if organic can be redeemed. He then proceeds to argue that, yes, organic (which here means small-farmed, grass-fed or pastured) is much better for you, the environment and animals.

This concession is pretty short. Most of the article is taken up arguing why organic in the case of vegetables is less obviously a good thing. He cites some nutritional studies, in which organic veggies were shown to have similar levels of key markers as conventional veggies. While admitting that the study didn't take into account certain vital micronutrients, he takes this as evidence that the extra cash spent on organic food for the sake of nutrition might be better spent on other things. Of course, he doesn't specify whether that organic test apple came from Wal-mart's Organic bin, and originally from Chile, or if it came from the local apple orchard up the road.

Asking the Experts

The next article in the feature also took the stance that organic food is over-hyped. And to prove it, Ozersky, the author, decides to review the opinions of eight chefs in taste and cook test comparisons. He points out that, "While the organic or small-farm product won more often than not, there were a few surprises." I was expecting an upset or two, with non-organic coming out on top. Not so.

There were two draws. One was a carrot. The other was goat cheese. Both chefs said they liked the organic, just not significantly more than the supermarket.

One 'surprise' was that the preferred beef was not grass-fed. It was grass and grain fed. Fair enough.

At least Ozersky gave a passing acknowledgement of the fact that organic and small-farmed are different things, though that didn't come into play in the actual chef tests. I guess if they had used a supermarket organic tomato instead of a locally grown one, the outcome would have been different, but as it was, the organic, locally grown tomato won out over the supermarket variety.

Media and Marketing Hand-in-Hand

It's not that I have problems with the fact that locally sourcing all our food may be impossible, or that local, seasonal or organic food may have similar taste and nutrition to conventional food. While I don't actually believe that is the case, I grant others the right to argue it. What I do have  a problem with is confusing terms and concepts that actually make a huge difference when you're talking about food. Based on the two articles mentioned here, your average reader can expect to hop down to the local Wal-mart, pick up an organic tomato, and have it taste like Italy in the summer.

Of course, disappointed tastebuds are the least of our concerns. Implying that organic produce always comes from small farmers tells people that by buying organic, they are supporting their local farmers and can lead them to make poor purchasing decisions. When it comes to animal rights ethics, the implication is that organic beef and milk comes from cows grazing contentedly on summer grasses, and organic eggs come from happy hens clucking around barnyards. Furthermore, from reading this article, I'd think that buying and eating organic beef is guaranteed to give me all the benefits of eating grass-fed beef, including the improved fatty acid profile. That's a health concern, and therefore a very personal issue for a lot of people.

Informing Confusion

Overall, as I'm sure I've made clear, I was disappointed in the Time feature. Time took an issue that it had a great opportunity to clarify for a large number of readers, and actually worsened it by failing to make key distinctions that have a very real impact on peoples' buying decisions, their conscience, and their health. Both articles play right into the hands of large food corporations, who use the organic label and cookie-cutter images of bucolic farmyards to lull consumers into acceptance, all the while getting them to spend a bit more.

I'm not going to tell people what to buy or eat. And I don't expect Time Magazine to either. But I do expect a well-read and well-known media outlet to at least help inform people. That's all I think is reasonable to ask of people: that they be informed about their food - where it comes from, how it was raised, what impacts that has on society and the environment. People can buy organic Chilean apples (I do when I must), but at least they should be aware that it's not the same thing as a local apple in season, from a farmer who knows her trees and respects the land.

Comments? You know where to leave them.

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