Debating Organic Food

Is organic food healthier than non-organic food? Who grows organic food - and how? Students explore these questions in two readings, with discussions questions and a research assignment. 

To the Teacher:

In the last decade organic food has grown into a $28 billion industry. Many people buy organic as a way of eating healthier and reducing environmental impact, or because they think food grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers tastes better. But organic food also has it critics. Some critics question the health benefits of organic food. Others argue that organics have been taken over by corporate agribusiness.
This lesson examines these criticisms and the current state of the organic food movement. The lesson consists of two readings. The first reading explores whether eating food with the organic label is healthier. The second reading looks at concerns about the corporate takeover of the organic industry and what advocates are doing to promote a more robust vision of naturally grown food. Questions for student discussion and a small group research project follow.


Ask students:  What is organic food?
Work with students to come up with a definition:  According to the Organic Trade Association, organic food is grown without the use of standard agribusiness inputs such as synthetic pesticides, petrochemical fertilizers, antibiotics, and growth hormones.
Now ask:  Do you ever eat organic food? Or would you eat it, if you could afford it? Why or why not? Record students' responses in a T-chart, writing "Reasons to eat organic" on the left side, and "Reasons not to eat organic" on the right.
Tell students that today we'll be learning about some debates people are having about organic food.

Student Reading 1
Is Eating Organic Healthier?

In the last decade organic food has grown into a $28 billion industry.  
Consumers have sought out organic foods for a variety of reasons, including:

  • they view organic foods as healthier in general
  • they want to avoid personal exposure to pesticides
  • they want to keep farmworkers safe from pesticides
  • they want to support more environmentally sustainable agricultural practices

However, some people question whether organic foods really are healthier.  In 2012, scientists at Stanford University released a study arguing that there was little difference in health benefits between organic and non-organic foods. In a press release about the study,
Michelle Brandt, Associate Director of Digital Communications and Media Relations at the Stanford School of Medicine, writes:

[The scientists] did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives, though consumption of organic foods can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure...
After analyzing the data, the researchers found little significant difference in health benefits between organic and conventional foods. No consistent differences were seen in the vitamin content of organic products, and only one nutrient — phosphorus — was significantly higher in organic versus conventionally grown produce (and the researchers note that because few people have phosphorous deficiency, this has little clinical significance). There was also no difference in protein or fat content between organic and conventional milk, though evidence from a limited number of studies suggested that organic milk may contain significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
The researchers were also unable to identify specific fruits and vegetables for which organic appeared the consistently healthier choice, despite running what [lead author of the study] Bravata called "tons of analyses."

Critics of the study say that it is misleading. To many organic farming advocates, the nutritional value of organic food (e.g. the amount of vitamins, minerals and healthy fatty acids it contains) is the wrong measure by which to evaluate the health benefits of organic foods.  What matters most, they say, is that organics don't rely on chemical pesticides and fertilizers, which benefits both consumers and the environment.
Writer Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, discussed the Stanford University study in a conversation posted by National Public Radio on September 4, 2012. He argued:

I think we're kind of erecting a straw man and then knocking it down, the straw man being that the whole point of organic food is that it's more nutritious. The whole point of organic food is that it's more environmentally sustainable. That's the stronger and easier case to make...
If you're concerned about pesticide residues in your food, you're much better off buying organic. The study said all these pesticide residues in conventional produce are permissible under EPA rules. They may be, but there's a question of how adequate those rules are. Because there are questions about whether those levels are okay for children and for pregnant women...
It's great media fodder and it's terrific that people are looking at the issue and debating it. But people should take a hard look. So much of the story depends on what do you mean by "significant health benefit?" The meta study found less pesticide residue, higher levels of anti-oxidants - plant phytochemicals thought to be important to human health; and less antibiotic-resistant microbes in organic meat. But then they say it might not be significant. I don't think they defined significant.

Technology writer Brian Fung makes similar criticisms of the Stanford study in a September 4, 2012 article in The Atlantic entitled "Organic Food Isn't More Nutritious, but That Isn't the Point":

It's worth keeping in mind that organic refers only to a particular method of production; while switching to organic foods can be good for you insofar as doing so helps you avoid nasty things like chemicals and additives, there's nothing in the organic foods themselves that gives them an inherent nutritional advantage over non-organics. In other words, it's not wrong to say organic food is "healthier" than non-organics. It's just unrealistic to think that your organic diet is slowly turning you into Clark Kent...
Still, there are important reasons beyond nutrition to choose organic foods... [W]e should remember that organic began chiefly as an argument about the environment... [T]o buy organic is to respect the land your food came from. It means taking pains to ensure that your farms remain bountiful and productive, even decades from now...
Buying organic is also a statement about public health. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of antibiotics. Conventional farms have been putting the stuff in animal feed for decades -- even though we've known since the 1970s about the health hazards that the animal use of antibiotics poses for humans. Reducing society's chances of inadvertently creating a superbug is a good reason to purchase organic foods.
There are the more immediate health benefits of buying organic: you'll avoid the chemicals, preservatives, and hormones that conventional farms often use to treat their foods. In the Stanford study, just 7 percent of organic foods were found to have traces of pesticides, compared to 38 percent of conventionally-farmed produce. Again, that doesn't mean organic foods will supercharge your health -- you'll just be at less risk of exposure to potentially harmful substances, for whatever that's worth to you...
And then there's the reason many people find most compelling of all: the health of workers in the field. For some consumers, buying organic is a human-rights issue. Reading Atlantic contributor Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland on the ruinous health problems of tomato planters and pickers in Florida because of the use of herbicides and pesticides is enough to make almost anyone choose organic over non-organic.


For Discussion:

  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2. According to the Organic Trade Association, what is the definition of "organic" food?
  3. Scientists at Stanford University questioned the health benefits of organic food. What was the basis of their argument?
  4. How do organic food advocates respond to the Stanford study? What arguments do they give for the benefits of organics?
  5.  What do you think? Do you believe that organic food is healthier than non-organic food?
  6. Organic food is typically somewhat more expensive than non-organic food at the grocery store. Do you think it is worth the greater sticker price? Why or why not?


Find an organic brand

Before students begin the next reading, ask them: If you've ever consumed organic foods (perhaps milk, yogurt, eggs, cereal, produce....), can you name any of the brands?   

If students come up with brands, list them on the board. Tell them we'll be coming back to this list at the end of the lesson.

If they haven't eaten organic food or can't name any brands, assign them this task:  If possible, find one food in the store or at home that is labeled "organic."  (Let students know that many major grocery chains now carry organic brands.)  Suggest that they pick a food or product they might be interested in eating themselves.

Ask them to bring the name of the food and the brand to school the next day.  (Alternatively you can skip the assignment and use this list of organic foods for the small group project that follows the reading below.)

After making the assignment, ask students: Do you think it matters what company makes your organic food? Why or why not?   


Student Reading 2
Has the Agribusiness Industry Taken Over "Organic"?

As organic food has gotten more popular, an increasing number of large corporations have gotten into the business of selling food produced without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. The involvement of major multinational corporations in the market has raised concerns about whether the original principles of the organic farming movement are being watered down.
In its most narrow definition, "organic" involves growing food without synthetic chemicals. However, the original organic movement promoted a far more robust vision of "sustainable farming."
The pioneers of organic agriculture believed in challenging industrial agriculture's vast fields of uniform crops, its exploitation of farmworkers, and its love of heavily processed food. In his 2006 book The Omnivore's Dilemma, author Michael Pollan writes, "Acting on the ecological premise that everything's connected to everything else, the early organic movement sought to establish not just an alternative mode of production (the chemical-free farms), but an alternative system of distribution (the anti-capitalist food co-ops), and even an alternative mode of consumption (the 'countercuisine')."
With the rise of organic food as a big-business market, this more radical vision of organic food is becoming harder to find. As New York Times correspondent Stephanie Strom writes in a July 7, 2012 article:

The fact is, organic food has become a wildly lucrative business for Big Food and a premium-price-means-premium-profit section of the grocery store. The industry's image — contented cows grazing on the green hills of family-owned farms — is mostly pure fantasy. Or rather, pure marketing. Big Food, it turns out, has spawned what might be called Big Organic.
Bear Naked, Wholesome & Hearty, Kashi: all three and more actually belong to the cereals giant Kellogg. Naked Juice? That would be PepsiCo of Pepsi and Fritos fame. And behind the pastoral-sounding Walnut Acres, Health Valley and Spectrum Organics is none other than Hain Celestial, once affiliated with Heinz, the grand old name in ketchup.
Over the last decade, since federal organic standards have come to the fore, giant agri-food corporations like these and others — Coca-Cola, Cargill, ConAgra, General Mills, Kraft and M&M Mars among them — have gobbled up most of the nation's organic food industry. Pure, locally produced ingredients from small family farms? Not so much anymore...

Big food has also assumed a powerful role in setting the standards for organic foods. Major corporations have come to dominate the board that sets these standards.

As corporate membership on the board has increased, so, too, has the number of nonorganic materials approved for organic foods on what is called the National List. At first, the list was largely made up of things like baking soda, which is nonorganic but essential to making things like organic bread. Today, more than 250 nonorganic substances are on the list, up from 77 in 2002.

As major corporations have gotten involved with organic food, they have adopted practices that some people would think of as inconsistent with the original principles of organic farming. In a July 9, 2009 Denver Post article, food writer Ari LeVaux argues:

Here's the sad news: Even as the demand for organic food continues to explode, organic farmers in America are getting thrown under the very beet cart they helped build.

The Chinese are taking over market share, especially of vegetables and agricultural commodities like soy, thanks to several American-based multinational food corporations that have hijacked the organic bandwagon they only recently jumped onto.

When mega-corporation Dean Foods acquired Silk soy milk - which I used to drink as if it were the staff of life - the prospects looked good for American organic soy farmers. Silk had always been committed to supporting domestic organic farmers, and with the new might of Dean Foods behind it, I assumed that Silk would likely grow. Silk did grow, but it also dropped its commitment to domestic soy.

When Midwestern farmers and farmer cooperatives in the heart of American soy country were told by Silk they had to match the rock-bottom cost of Chinese organic soybeans, they found it was a price they simply could not meet. Organic agriculture is labor-intensive, and China's edge comes largely from its abundance of cheap labor.

"Dean Foods had the opportunity to push organic and sustainable agriculture to incredible heights of production by working with North American farmers and traders to get more land in organic production," says Merle Kramer, a marketer for the Midwestern Organic Farmers Cooperative, based in Michigan. "But what they did was pit cheap foreign soybeans against the U.S. organic farmer."

Few Silk products are certified organic anymore, and some are processed with hexane, a neurotoxin listed as an air pollutant by the EPA. Yet this country allows hexane-processed soymilk to be labeled "natural," and if it contains organic ingredients, the label "made with organic ingredients" can still be used...

Consumers buy organic for several reasons: They are worried about the heavy environmental impacts of agribusiness; they want cleaner and safer working conditions for farmworkers; and they believe that organic food is simply healthier to eat - or at least less likely to be contaminated with toxic chemicals.

Unfortunately, the import-fueled corporatization of so-called "organic" food is making it less likely that your food will have all of these attributes.

Organic farming advocates point out that these criticisms do not mean that the idea of organic food—and the desire to support a more environmentally and ethically responsible agricultural system—should be abandoned. Those who want to promote a more robust vision of naturally grown food are now working to create new ways to inform consumers about the conditions under which their food is produced.  

This includes the use of a new label, "Certified Naturally Grown." Food that is sold under this label would have to meet a more rigorous set of standards than do organics produced by industrial agribusiness. The website of the Certified Naturally Grown organization explains:

CNG participation requires a full commitment to robust organic practices... To be granted the CNG certification, farmers don't use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified organisms. CNG livestock are raised mostly on pasture and with space for freedom of movement. Feed must be grown without synthetic inputs or genetically modified seeds... [CNG] promotes farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing about best practices and fosters local networks that strengthen the farming community.


For Discussion:  

  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2. What values did the original founders of the organic food movement intend to promote?  What do you think about them?
  3. What are some of the practices used by industrial agribusiness corporations selling products that the original founders of the organic movement might find problematic?
  4. According to the reading, what are some of the aims of the Certified Naturally Grown label?
  5. Defenders of corporate agribusiness argue that industrial practices are needed to bring organics to a broad public, instead of to just a small elite. What do you think of this argument? How might critics of industrial agriculture respond?


Small Group:
Research a brand 

If you assigned students to find organic brands as a homework assignment, ask them to report what they found, and list the names on the board.

If they went to the store, was it hard to find organic foods there?  If students had trouble finding organic brands, draw from this list.   (If students found that their stores did not carry organic foods, you might want to give students this alternative research assignment:  Has access to healthy food been an issue in your community, or communities like yours?  What steps have people taken in communities around the country to address this issue?)

Once you have your list of brands, ask students to break into groups of four or five. Assign each group one of the brands to research. Have each group decide how they will research this brand, including the questions below. Ask students to add any other questions they have to the list, and research those as well. 

  •  Who owns this brand?
  •  How big is the company?
  •  Does the company market only organics, or both organic and non-organic food?
  •  Are there criticisms of the company's organic practices? If so, what are they?
  •  Would the company or brand live up to the "Certified Naturally Grown" standard?

Tell students that they will be sharing their research findings with the class and to prepare a five minute presentation. Use small-group presentations as the basis for further discussion.

Research assistance by Yessenia Gutierrez.