Photo: Flickr / malias
It’s been a rough month for organic foods. Last week, British economist Roger Cohen wrote a scathing NY Times op-ed dismissing organic food as a fable and an “effective form of premium branding.” Then a four-year Stanford University study found organic products “have no significant advantage over conventional foods, even though consumers pay more for them” (via USA Today).
Economist Tyler Cowen, author of the book, “An Economist Gets Lunch,” agrees with both: “Organic food as a label means a lot of things to a lot of people,” he tells Business Insider, but “eating them won’t make you healthier.” If anything, “it’s a lot of hype” and “people don’t look at the science closely.”
Yet 53% of consumers are willing to buy organic foods if that means avoiding toxins and pesticides, according to a 2010 Nielsen study. In testing levels of pesticides found in organic fruit and vegetables, the FDA found they have significantly less than conventionally grown foods. However, as one blogger recently argued, these pesticide levels are pretty low already.
Further bolstering Cowen’s argument, USA Today wrote that Stanford’s study found “no significant differences in the vitamin content of organic and conventional fruits and vegetables” when looking at vitamins A, C and E. Even worse, both types of foods were “at similar risk for bacterial contamination” despite costing more to grow. In Cowen’s mind, consumers should look at the facts and skip these grocery items altogether.
He’s reluctant to say the organic label’s “a hoax,” but says that it’s used more for marketing at a higher price point. He makes a strong case: USA Today says organic food “generally cost at least 25 per cent more in Boston and San Francisco,” though costs tend to vary from city to city.
Of course, consumers aren’t the only ones paying big money for organic foods. The other reason Cowen avoids them is their impact on agriculture.
“[Organic farms] are growing less food and often at a higher price,” he says. “Who is that good for? Basically no one. If you move to organic farming, yields go down, which matters all the more for poorer countries.”
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.