|Is organic superior to regular food?
|By Cliff Bowden
Consumers with a taste for the organic can chew on
a smorgasbord of issues in the coming years as large companies vie
for a healthy slice of a very lucrative market. While big business
pressures government to change standards for what can be certified
organic, proponents of healthy eating identify "locally grown"
as the most palatable option.
Shoppers no longer have to visit specialized stores
to find organics. Feeding on jitters about pesticides, genetically
altered produce and irradiated meats, supermarket chains across
the country are offering their own lines of organic foods. The label
goes on vegetables, dairy products -- even frozen pizzas and instant
dinners -- significantly driving up their cost.
Skeptics call it a scam. There's no evidence, they
say, that organically produced foods are any healthier, while advocates
say the mainstreaming of the trend introduces concerns that go far
beyond the totals on sales slips.
Definition of organic
While putting "natural" on a label may be no more than
an advertising ploy in the food business, use of the word "organic"
label is strictly defined by U.S. Department of Agriculture standards set in 2002 as part of its National
Organic Program. Produce must be grown using environmentally
sustainable production methods, without the application of pesticides
or fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge.
To earn the organic designation, meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products
must come from animals that are not given antibiotics or growth
hormones -- nor can they be confined in pens. No claims are made
about country of origin or health value.
The logistics of small-scale farming are one reason
organic products traditionally have been more expensive, says Guillermo
Payet, founder and president of Local
Harvest, a California-based advocacy group.
For the uninitiated, comparison shopping in any market would confirm
that. Pricing is inconsistent -- it varies by season, market location
and store policies -- but you can usually count on paying more for
organic food in a chain supermarket than in a health food store.
A pound bag of conventional carrots, a mere 69 cents
in one chain's produce section, was $1.49 in its organic section
a few aisles away. At the health-food store, they sold for 99 cents.
Conventional chicken was $1.59 a pound at the chain
market; eggs $1.29 a dozen. The health-food store was selling free-range
chickens at $2.29 per pound, eggs at $3.69 a dozen. House-brand
milk at the chain was $2.09 per half gallon. The same store's organic
milk was $3.19. Competing brands started at $3.79 -- 20 cents more
than the same brands cost at the nearby health-food outlet.
As a rule, organic food costs anywhere from 15 percent
to 100 percent more than conventional food, says Ronnie Cummins,
president of the Organic
Consumers Association. One reason is higher small-farm production
costs: Organic farmers cannot produce and distribute as efficiently
as competitors. But, Cummins says, other long-term factors are not
With organics, he says, "there are no hidden
costs passed on to the public, as there are with conventional food."
Established firms get publicly subsidized to lobby for supportive
legislation to the scientific development and use of hormones, as
well as fertilizer and pesticides, he explains. Cummins says conventional
prices are kept low through the use of industrial agriculture practices
that severely damage the environment. While the cost at the cash
register may be less, eventually "you pay in taxes and the
cost of health care."