On the Table

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On the Table

Welcome to On the Table, an occasional blog from GardenShare executive director, Aviva Gold.

Supporting a community-based food system seems pretty cut-and-dried. We are working toward a regionally-based food system that supports our local farmers, and our local economy. We want everyone in our communities to have access to healthy, affordable food choices. We want food- and agriculture-related businesses that create jobs in our communities. What's the big deal?

All of these ideas are controversial at some level. Even within our own organization we debate what "access" means, or what "sustainable" agriculture is. Facebook and e-newsletters encourage us to trivialize controversy or ignore it all together, and stick with the positive that we all agree on. And while there's a place for that, we do a disservice to the importance of these issues when we ignore the difficult discussions. Sometimes you have to lay it on the table.

Your comments are always appreciated via email: aviva@gardenshare.org. Also, if you'd like a notice when new posts are up, shoot us an email at info@gardenshare.org.

Organic Advantage

Organic Advantage
Kale at Kent Family Growers in Lisbon, NY.

The NY Times headline screams Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce!

Well, according to the article, the Stanford study only casts doubt on the nutritional difference between organic and conventionally produced produce and meats. They did find significant difference in the omega-3 content of organic milk. They also found significantly more pesticide residue on conventional produce than organic produce, although they point out that in general, it all falls below the legal limits.

The legal limits for acceptable amounts of pesticide residue on your food were created by industry to reflect what was possible for them to comply with, not by doctors or scientists to reflect what may be healthy or safe for human consumption. Additionally, although individual pesticides have undergone some testing for health effects, the combinations and amalgamations of various common pesticides have not been tested or measured.These disturbing facts were not accounted for in the Stanford study. For well-digested scientific information about pesticide regulation, as well as other environmental contaminants, I highly recommend Sandra Steingraber's book Living Downstream.

The Times article does point out that just because something is labelled "organic" does not mean it is nutritionally superior. As noted in the Stanford study, the nutritional value of foods is extremely variable, and is impossible to determine just by looking. Some folks say a Brix meter can give you reliable nutritional information, but I'm skeptical. Taste can be a good indicator of the nutritional value of food. If it has a complex, fresh taste, it may have a higher nutritional value than if it tastes bland. If produce tastes great, the real nutritional value of it may come from the fact that you and your family will eat more of the fresh produce, and less of the other, less nutritious, items in your diet. Taste matters.

But we also know that the quality of the soil and all of the farming practices involved contribute to the taste and nutritional value of food. Large mono-cropped organic produce has many of the same issues as large mono-cropped conventional produce. If you can, it's best to seek out smaller, local farmers, and see their farms. Diversity is the key to soil health. Freshness is the key to taste. When you can get fresh sun gold tomatoes picked at a farm a few miles from your home, why would you buy tasteless tomatoes that were picked unripe, weeks ago, at a thousand-acre factory halfway across the country or the world?

The folks I know who choose organic produce over conventional rarely cite nutritional value as the main reason for doing so. Environmental concerns about the sustainability of conventional agriculture, the health of farm workers, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, concerns about pesticide residues, great taste, greater variety, the opportunity to meet and work with local, small producers... all of these are reasons I hear.

Organic produce is clearly not a rip off, but hats off to the Stanford study and the NY Times for pointing out that we need to continue to study agricultural practices to determine our best ways forward.  

About Aviva

Aviva Gold is the executive director of GardenShare and is passionate about building a community-based food system in the North Country. She lives with her husband and daughter on the Raquette River in the village of Potsdam, NY.