Foodies all over cyberspace are typing, tweeting, and blogging their fingers off about the results of the “Stanford Organic Study” released earlier this month. Two weeks since New York Times and Fox News broke the story, my facebook feed is still inundated with comments and concerns about what the researchers at Stanford left out and how it will affect the business of organic. While the study claims organic to be no more nutritious that conventional foods, multiple left-minded people, academics and activists alike, from Rodale to Huffington, are questioning the results. Across the Atlantic in the UK, Food Consumer published a story just yesterday breaking down the study, and the researchers, bit by bit (and bite by bite). The consensus of the three biggest mistakes in the Stanford claim seems to be:
- Other studies have found organic to indeed be more nutritious;
- While this particular meta-study did not receive any outside funding, that does not mean there is no conflict of interest for Stanford or the researchers;
- Nutrition is only a small part of the organic story.
I want to focus on the last point, as it aligns with my own interests, personal and professional, in the role food plays in people’s lives. While it is important to closely analyze the motivations and reputations of the researchers at hand, the very premise from which they are working is at fault here. Even if they executed this research perfectly and without bias, the questions they are asking are assuming, limiting, and miss the point.
At a very basic level, food is sustenance. The old adage, “you are what you eat,” is cliché for a reason. In order to have a long and healthy life, one must eat well, consuming a variety of highly nutritious food items. I am not claiming nutrition doesn’t matter, but rather it is not all that matters. Food is also a primary way through which individuals and communities interact with each other and their environment, near and far. Food must not only be healthy for an individual body, but also healthy for the physical and social landscape. Only by meeting all of these conditions can food sourcing be sustainable for an individual’s health and well-being, a community’s economic and social vitality, and an environment’s longevity.
Organic is not the only answer, but it is an important step in reaching the ideal of a completely sustainable food system. Other answers are to decrease the use of genetically modified foods, secure and support local food systems, enforce fair trade and fair working conditions, and encourage growing your own. I have discussed this multi-faceted approach in the past, but it cannot be overstated: food is multi-faceted, and the solutions must be, as well.
When the organic movement began in the 1970s, it also incorporated many of the values of other movements, including local, fair trade, and animal welfare, among others. In order to become certifiable by the US government, it was boiled down to regulate fertilizers and pesticides, but the original conception encapsulated the entire food chain, from farm to plate. It was developed to make you feel good about what you eat and how your actions affect all living things.
This parsing down of organic values has allowed the movement to gain momentum and increased its accessibility to consumers at Wal-mart, which is the largest supplier of groceries in this country. However, this over-simplifying of a social and environmental issue has allowed it to be susceptible to attack. When you only have one leg to stand on, you’re easy to take down.
It is important to understand that food cannot and will not ever be just about one variable, one value, or one volition. Food is nutrition, but it is also nurturing; food is eating, but it is also growing. To isolate only how food is digested in our body ignores how it feeds our souls, how it interacts with our environments.
Food can divide us, but it can also connect us if you allow it to react its full potential.
Eat well to be well,