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by Joanna Shaw Flamm

A few articles published over the past week underlined the fact that when it comes to food, there still isn’t a whole lot of alignment between most of our assumptions about labels like ‘organic,’ ‘natural,’ and ‘conventional,’ and the reality on the ground.

On the Scientific American blog, author Christie Wilcox takes on what she calls the “myths” of organic farming, challenging many popular beliefs about organic foods and farming. In one section, she highlights the use of pesticides on organic farms.

“…there are over 20 chemicals commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops that are approved by the US Organic Standards. And, shockingly, the actual volume usage of pesticides on organic farms is not recorded by the government.”

Wilcox goes on to argue that organic food is not healthier than conventionally grown, and that organic farming isn’t inherently better for the environment.

Tom Laskawy at Grist responds, taking issue with several of Wilcox’s claims, including the idea that science has come to a conclusion on the nutritional value of organic foods.

“…science isn’t nearly at a place where anyone can definitively make that claim. Some evidence shows conventionally grown food is decreasing in nutritional quality, and we’ve collected credible data showing organic food is more nutritious.”

Separately, Mark Bittman writes about his recent trip to Iowa, where he visited Becker Lane Organic Farm and Niman Ranch Pork.  Both farms raise pork, and although Niman Ranch isn’t organic, Bittman comes to this conclusion:

“To me, the biggest issue is not whether pigs are raised organically or “naturally”; it’s whether they’re raised well.”

So, what should we make of all this? As Laskawy wrote, “there should be no sacred cows,” and we need to ask hard questions about the best way forward for our food system, but this requires us to take on a lot of responsibility. We like labels because they mean someone else has done the footwork for us– if an item has that USDA Organic symbol on it, it’s just easier to assume that someone else did the research to make sure the product was up to snuff (whatever that means). Having to make that decision ourselves for every single item we buy is exhausting, but as Bittman notes, the label is often the least important indicator of the practices behind a product.

We consumers have a host of factors to weigh when we choose our groceries: nutrition, taste, price, social, environmental and economic effects. Each of us is going to have different priorities within that list, and that will mean different solutions for different people. What these articles point out is that there is no silver bullet, which in a way is liberating, because it means there is no single right answer. What we can do to promote transparency in the food system is to educate ourselves by asking questions, researching and reading what we can, talking to producers when possible in order to be able to make educated choices about the food we buy.  Unfortunately, we will sometimes learn things that contradict what we thought we knew to be true.  But the choices we make matter.

And of course, after all that, we need to relax and enjoy great food together whenever we can!

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