“Organic:” Not Synonymous With “Ethical”

The market for organic foods (etc.) continues to fascinate me. For some people, “organic food” basically means “ethical food,” or at least symbolizes the idea that the way food is produced — in particular, whether chemical herbicides and pesticides are used in its production — matters. To other people, organic food is a joke: there’s no evidence that it’s safer, but plenty of evidence that it helps certain yuppies distinguish themselves from the masses.

My main concern is that people know what the “organic” label (or the “GM free” label or the “Fair Trade” label or the “Free Range” label) does and doesn’t mean. So I was interested to see this article, from the NYT: It’s Organic, but Does That Mean It’s Safer?

MOST of the chicken, fruit and vegetables in Ellen Devlin-Sample’s kitchen are organic. She thinks those foods taste better than their conventional counterparts. And she hopes they are healthier for her children.

Lately, though, she is not so sure.

The national outbreak of salmonella in products with peanuts has been particularly unsettling for shoppers like her who think organic food is safer.

Mostly the article is about contamination, and the fact that organic foods, just like “normal” foods, can be subject to contamination by bacteria, rat feces, etc. Maybe that’s not surprising, unless you happen to assume that “organic” really means “grown by hand and lovingly packaged by a sweet old couple who consider themselves stewards of the Earth.” Which, um, it doesn’t. But still, a reminder that crummy business practices abound, even among the organic crowd, is a useful thing.

Another interesting facet of the NYT story is its mention of the fact that there are lots of kinds of food ethics, lots of different things people different people care about with regard to their food:

Some shoppers want food that was grown locally, harvested from animals that were treated humanely or produced by workers who were paid a fair wage. The organic label doesn’t mean any of that.

“They’re questioning the social values around organics,” Ms. Demeritt said.

Local, humane, fair-trade, organic…and safe, too, right?

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p.s., I’ve blogged about organic foods and such a few times previously. See also:

8 comments so far

  1. Martin Leblanc, Ph. D. on

    “there’s no evidence that it’s safer, but plenty of evidence that it helps certain yuppies distinguish themselves from the masses.” So true!

    • vicki on

      there is evidence that it is safer…people are just lazy and are used to the fast food industry that they don’t even care what they eat…when they hear of people that want to take care of “Gods Temple”, which is our bodies, they have an attitude that these people are trying to be better than them…which is so untrue…there are people, like me that do believe in organic farming and have witnessed that it is pure organic…it is not right to label people because of how they want to take care of their own bodies…i think that if people don’t believe in organic food that they are guilty of not wanting to change their own diets to live a better, healthier lifestyle. Especially the people who are so negative about foods being organic…they go as far as doubting the product and questioning is it really organic??? Although some may mot be organic and remain an all natural product, it is better than consuming the millions of preservatives and carcinogens that are in all foods that are non organic…there is an epidemic of people that are terminally ill because of all the foods they think are healthy…in todays society, people want a quick fix to their problems which is unrealistic…if you really care about your body and want to live a healthy lifestyle without people trying to judge you, then continue to eat organic and healthy…people are so brainwashed and against eating pure because they love their “fast food” or microwave food and are so gullable to the advertisements that they think its an easier way of living…well when your body starts breaking down on you and your wondering why, you can thank the negative attitude you once had in deciding what is right for your body…there is evidence all over the world that eating organic is safer.

  2. Anonymous on

    “I don’t want that! Organic food is for white people who hate themselves” – character in recent movie. Or is it “hurriedly packaged by jaded ex-hippies-turneed agribusinesspeople who have the same debts and deadlines as the non-organic farmer across the street? Unless we certify what “organic” means and the pitfalls that can still befall any food product, “organic” has as much meaning as “health” above a “health food store”. Plus: pesticide residue goes better with a dry white Reisling.– Kevin the unimpressed McDonald, Halifax, N.S.

  3. Chris MacDonald on

    Kevin:Just to be clear: “organic” is a regulated term, in Canada and the U.S.So it does have a relatively well-defined meaning…it just doesn’t mean everything that people think it means!Chris.

  4. Doug Cornelius on

    “Local, humane, fair-trade, organic…and safe”Sure, but that means growing it in your backyard. I see this symbolic are the supply-chain issues that most companies have. You need to better define what these terms mean to you, convey what you really want to the supplier and do your diligence to make sure you are getting what you bargained for.Too many people use the labels to distinguish themselves from the masses. (I am throwing myself under the bus here. I am a Whole Foods shopper.) You need to figure why you are making a choice and that you are getting what you expect.

  5. Jason on

    “no evidence that it’s safer?” Perhaps, but there is a ridiculous amount of evidence that pesticides taint the water supply (i.e you end up drinking them), leach soil (i.e. requires more use of petroleum based fertilizers), and have a direct harm. Further, most of the studies of the “effects” of one food or another are seriously flawed, on both sides of the debate. We’re talking about effects that accumulate over decades, not 1 or 2 years. In general, I’d agree that what people think organic means is a lot of the time different from what it is. But I would say a bigger problem lies in undefined labels like “natural”, which is about as empty as it comes. More importantly, there needs to be better transparency and education into our food supply and the relationships between Agribusiness and the FDA and USDA.

  6. Bill Piwonka on

    If you haven’t read Michael Pollin’s In Defense of Food or Omnivore’s Dilemna and are interested in this topic, I strongly recommend you do so.

  7. […] (See also this Business Ethics Blog entry, “Organic:” Not Synonymous With “Ethical”.) […]


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