By Rodney North, The Answer Man
You may have heard about a new meta-study by researchers at Stanford University that looked into the health benefits of organic foods. It was covered by the New York Times, NPR, TV news programs and others.
Unfortunately many will not read past the often misleading headlines that suggest, or outright declare, that organic foods are not healthier for you than ‘conventional’ foods (meaning those foods grown with the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, GMOs and – for livestock – with artificial growth hormones, antibiotics, etc.). We believe that a careful reading of the study does confirm that for many foods there is a demonstrable health benefit in eating organic, either directly because the organic foods can be more nutritious, or indirectly by reducing one’s exposure to chemical residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. To learn more about this perspective on the study’s findings please check out this message from the Organic Trade Association, and their nutritional information page.
But today we think it’s even more important to remember that organic farming is about much more than just the amount of chemical residue on that apple you’re eating. It’s equally about protecting, and promoting, the health of…:
- Farm workers
- Their families, nearby communities, and those living downstream
- The soil
- Ground water
- Our fisheries
- Our atmosphere
It is also about challenging an increasingly industrialized, homogenized, large-scale form of agriculture that seems to work only for large ag corporations (think of Monsanto, Cargill, ADM, ConAgra) and food conglomerates (Kraft, Nestle, etc), but not for farmers, workers or farming communities.
A broader look at ‘health’
In the U.S. alone over 1 billion of pounds of pesticides are applied annually. Globally over 5 billion pounds of pesticides are used every year. And much of it ends up not just on your food, but in the soil, streams, rivers, estuaries and bays. It also ends up on farmers and farm workers, and in their lungs, and so on. Every year there are about 1 million serious accidental pesticide poisonings world-wide. A close look at the use of synthetic fertilizers also raises many important environmental problems, especially around climate change.
At Equal Exchange we’ve been working with farmers for 25 years and consequently think about conventional, chemical-intensive farming through this broader lens. And ever since we imported our first shipment of organic coffee (around 1990) we’ve been trying to maximize our support for organic farmers. Today about 98% of the coffee, tea, cocoa, sugar, bananas and other foods we import are certified organic (and even some of the remaining 2% are crops from not-yet-certified organic farms).
So – what have we learned that has made us so committed to organic farming? Let’s just say “a lot”. We could write a book on the virtues of organic farming (but others already have*) so for today we’ll just offer you this partial list:
Organic farming is:
- Healthier for the planet, for farmers, farm workers, the families of both, for everyone who lives on, or near, or downstream from a farm
- Helps improve soil quality
- A great tool to combat climate change (aka “mitigation”)
- A great tool for coping with climate change (“adaptation”)
- Better for helping farmers cope with droughts
- A tool to prevent the growth of “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake bay, & elsewhere
We could go on, for example, about the many ways organic farming benefits wildlife, or it how strengthens the economy of farming communities, but we think you get the picture. Now I think I’ll end this post and go have some organic mac ‘n cheese.