What's So Great About Organic Food?
The biggest reason not to ignore the food purists is that in a lot of ways they're right. Our diet is indeed killing us, and it's killing the planet too. Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta released a study revealing that nearly 27% of Americans are now considered obese (that is, more than 20% above their ideal weight), and in nine states, the obesity rate tops 30%. We eat way too much meat — up to 220 lb. per year for every man, woman and child in the U.S. — and only 14% of us consume our recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Our processed food is dense with salt and swimming in high-fructose corn syrup, two flavors we can't resist. Currently, enough food is manufactured in the U.S. for every American to consume 3,800 calories per day — we need only 2,350 in a healthy diet — and while some of that gets thrown away, most is gobbled up long before it can go stale on the shelves.
When animal protein, whether organic or not, becomes a supporting player in the diet, then fruits, veggies and grains take the lead. That's generally a good thing, but here too there are complications. The back-to-the-land ideal of farming without the use of synthetic pesticides and other chemicals can take you only so far in a country with 309 million mouths to feed (not to mention a world with 6.8 billion). Say what you will about the environmental depredations of agribusiness, industrial farms coax up to twice as much food out of every acre of land as organic farms do. And even that full-tilt output may not be enough to keep up with a global population that's galloping ahead to a projected 9 billion by 2050.
But for most consumers — even those who think of themselves as environmentally conscious — the critical considerations in deciding to go organic involve the far more personal matters of price, flavor and nutrition. Last year's nutrient study had a lot of organic partisans wincing — and a lot of commercial growers feeling smug — but one paper is hardly the whole story. The real difference between organic and nonorganic produce is in the relative presence of micronutrients such as copper, iron and manganese, as well as folic acid, none of which were included in the study. With these, the results are mixed. (See whether you should buy organic or conventional food.)