Food Prices Going Up and The Organic Food Story

I was all set to suggest this morning that you look for a short, fascinating interview with Alice Waters that appeared a couple of days back in the NY Times. Fascinating because she barely touched on food, and instead described the richness of her intellectual interests.  Preaching to the choir.

But instead I came across two stories in today’s NY Times that have broader meaning.

The front page of the Business section carries a piece on crops in India: Due to a 12% decrease in monsoon rains this year, there is not enough water to sustain the anticipated yield.  The result?  Farmers go broke and sell the farms to pay back the banks that loaned them the money at a monthly rate of 7%.  Farmers kill themselves in record numbers–as they did the past few years.  And while agriculture accounts for only 15% of the Indian GNP, according to the article, 50% of the work force in India is employed on farms.  Globally, the piece notes, the decrease in production “contributed to a 6% rise in global food prices from June to July.”

One thing that creates higher yield, like it or not, are pesticides.  I’m sorry, but it’s true.  The good news is: More crops.  The bad news: The crops have chemicals that may be deleterious to your health.

Which leads to another top story: A new and big research project from Stanford found by looking at 17 independent studies that food labeled as organic has no more nutrients than food that is not organic.  The BBC notes:  “Prof Alan Dangour, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said: “‘Consumers select organic foods for a variety of reasons, however this latest review identifies that at present there are no convincing differences between organic and conventional foods in nutrient content or health benefits.  Hopefully this evidence will be useful to consumers.'”

An article in The Guardian noted about the study’s finding that, “More than one-third of conventional produce had detectable pesticide residues, compared with 7% of organic produce samples. Organic pork and chicken were 33% less likely to carry bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics than conventionally produced meat.”  However, the lead researcher from Stanford, Crystal Smith-Spanglar said “it was uncommon for either organic or conventional foods to exceed the allowable limits for pesticides, so it was not clear whether a difference in residues would have an effect on health.” This observation is key: Conventional or organic, the pesticide level is basically the same–It is what is allowed by the government.

Further, what is organic?  The term is so loosely defined that one organic farm is not the same as another organic farm.  Levels of pesticide, crop rotations, harvesting methods, use of migrant labor, rates of compensation, etc?  It all varies.  Farmer’s whim, you might say.

Meanwhile, in another part of the world, the rain does not fall.




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