Home > rant, statistics > Buying organic doesn’t make you better than me

Buying organic doesn’t make you better than me

May 21, 2012

There was a recent study published here which described how people who viewed organic foods with annoyingly self-righteous names actually behave more selfishly than people who viewed “comfort food” or other, bland categories of food. The abstract:

Recent research has revealed that specific tastes can influence moral processing, with sweet tastes inducing prosocial behavior and disgusting tastes harshening moral judgments. Do similar effects apply to different food types (comfort foods, organic foods, etc.)? Although organic foods are often marketed with moral terms (e.g., Honest Tea, Purity Life, and Smart Balance), no research to date has investigated the extent to which exposure to organic foods influences moral judgments or behavior. After viewing a few organic foods, comfort foods, or control foods, participants who were exposed to organic foods volunteered significantly less time to help a needy stranger, and they judged moral transgressions significantly harsher than those who viewed nonorganic foods. These results suggest that exposure to organic foods may lead people to affirm their moral identities, which attenuates their desire to be altruistic.

I read the original study (and also a hilarious post riffing on it from jezebel.com), and found it interesting that the experimenters at least claimed to be unsure of the outcome of the study in advance (although they did cite another study in which people were more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing “green” products).

Specifically, they thought one of two things could happen: that the sense of elevation cause by staring at the organic labels could make them feel like part of a larger community and therefore more willing to volunteer, or else the “moral piggybacking” on a perceived good deed (i.e. organic food is good for the environment) would make them feel like they’d already done enough, and be less likely to be nice. It turns out the latter.

[As an aside, another study cited was one in which people assumed there were fewer calories in chocolate which was described as “fair trade”, which explains something to me about why those kinds of labels are so popular and also so ripe for fraud.]

The results of this study resonates with me: ever since Whole Foods opened I’ve had the impression that the people shopping there thought they’d done enough for the world simply by paying too much for produce and not being able to buy Cheerios (a pet peeve of mine). Haven’t you noticed how rude Whole Foods shoppers are? I’d rather be in a Stop and Shop check-out line any day.

In other words, I’m going through a major case of confirmation bias here. I’ve been a huge skeptic about the organic food movement since it began when I was in college at Berkeley. I’ve challenged a whole bunch of my friends on this (yes I’m an asshole) and I’ve noticed there are essentially two camps. One camp defends organic as good for the environment, the other camp defends organic as more nutritious.

For the environmentalists, my argument is that local produce is better than California organic produce, given that it’s been shipped across the country. It seems silly to me to be able to purchase organic blueberries imported from somewhere instead of locally grown blueberries. In fact I’m not sure where there’s good evidence that organic, locally grown produce is better for the environment than just locally grown produce.

The other camp defends organic as more nutritious, but that really drives me completely nuts, because if you flip that around the message is that we can let the poor people eat the toxic vegetables while we rich people eat the healthy stuff. It’s crazy! If there really is toxicity in our standard produce, then this is a huge problem for the country and we need to address it directly, rather than making a certain class of very expensive food.

Categories: rant, statistics
  1. May 21, 2012 at 7:05 am

    What about locally grown organic produce? What about given the choice between non-organically grown blueberries from Chili and organically grown blueberries from Chili? If your argument is environmental, and mine always has been primarily an environmental one, you are always just trying to make the better (not BEST, not perfect, not ideal) choice given the available (given your location, given your income, given your needs) choices. I remember having this discussion with you back twenty years ago! I thought I had won it then you asshole! 🙂 Why the hell not is still my basic answer. If you CAN buy organic why not do that one little thing to support the environment? When we had this argument twenty years ago I recall that part of my argument back then (you felt the extra expense made me some kind of elitist for being able to afford it – rich old twenty three year old me working as a Human Services temp on 7K a year) was that I needed to help create a market for organic produce so the practice would expand and prices could come down and so that more farming could be done organically and the stuff could go more mainstream and not remain this niche product consumed in big cities with specialized grocery stores. I have to say it warms the cuckolds of my heart to see organic milk at Costco and to go to IOWA and find organic foods. Now excuse me while I go rob a bank and shove an old lady.


    • May 21, 2012 at 8:56 am

      naah you didn’t win it. Because the jury’s out- organic farming takes more space, so it may be better for the land it’s on but it takes up more land. For example. I need to see why, *overall*, it’s better for the environment.


      • May 22, 2012 at 7:13 am

        actually it doesn’t take up more space, especially when you consider what conventional/industrialized farming grows: corn, something that takes up a lot of space. Furthermore, these farming methods degrade the quality of the soil, requiring more fertilizer, more chemicals and then more land to be used.

        In addition, numerous studies have shown that organic farming actually leads to an increase in yield, plus the sustainability it gives to soil, this would logically mean less land needing to be used.


  2. Spicyrunner
    May 21, 2012 at 8:14 am

    I laughed until I cried reading this post. Amen Kathy. Granola bar self righteous types set my teeth on edge


  3. Someone
    May 21, 2012 at 8:43 am

    Well, if one is really serious here, you have to consider a lot of factors. Perhaps you need so much pesticides, which also require some oil input to produce and transport, and other stuff that it really may be more efficient to ship those blueberries across the country. This actually sounds like an interesting job for someone who works with lots of data. 😛


    • May 21, 2012 at 8:52 am

      Actually that’s being done by various startups right now, but probably not in a way that is sufficiently rigorous. I’d love to see a serious study on this data!


    • Dan L
      May 21, 2012 at 10:22 am

      I thought that the biggest energy input into conventional farming is in the production and transport of synthetic fertilizer. (But I’d like to be corrected if I’m wrong.)


      • May 22, 2012 at 7:14 am

        Pesticides, fertilizers, transportation, all of these are fossil fuel based.


  4. Heather
    May 21, 2012 at 8:56 am

    Curious to get your thoughts on
    1) People’s Grocery
    2) Occupy the Farm

    My experience with both is that they seem better on the surface.


    • May 21, 2012 at 9:03 am

      I don’t know about them.

      I just wanna say, though, that I love food and I love delicious food, and I love the idea of people coming together to cook and to eat and to take food seriously.

      And I can see arguments against huge farms on the basis of the ridiculous farm subsidies we see our government handing out to already rich farmers, for example, or because these huge farms make the food industry more and more impersonal and automatic, and we end up not knowing where our food comes. I think that contributes to an overall culture of not appreciating food. But I don’t think organic food helps, it just creates a weird sense of elitism. My two cents.


  5. JSE
    May 21, 2012 at 9:05 am

    Yeah, Cathy, I think this is confirmation bias on your part. I go to a bunch of different grocery stores, and I don’t think Whole Foods shoppers are ruder than any others. And people at the farmer’s market are downright friendly and that’s as local/organic/morally upright as it gets.


    • May 21, 2012 at 9:07 am

      I agree, farmers market people are hardcore nice.

      But it still doesn’t make you better than me.


      • Dan L
        May 21, 2012 at 10:34 am

        Definitely confirmation bias. I don’t believe for a second that Whole Foods shoppers are noticeably ruder.


  6. May 21, 2012 at 9:42 am
  7. May 21, 2012 at 9:49 am

    Basically the key word is not organic per se but sustainable. If you are getting a lower yield but you are able to grow crops without running the top soil into the ground (har-har!), without polluting your water, without decreasing bio-diveristy to the same extent and while having a smaller carbon footprint that’s all good. The thing about intensive farming is that the food prices are artificially low. They do not reflect the costs to the environment. We pay more for the intensive farming than we do for the sustainably grown food, we pay it in the form of polluted water, lost topsoil, diminished health, taxes, wars for oil, and in huge farm subsidies which serve to impoverish farmers in the developing world. We just don’t see it in the sticker price for the lettuce so we think it is cheaper. So yeah, I am better than you because when I pay double for my organic milk I am actually PAYING for the milk instead of cheaping out on regular milk and passing the costs on to future generations. Oh I am so good I think I’ll go kick another old lady!


    • May 21, 2012 at 9:58 am

      Ha ha ha! I buy organic milk!!

      I actually think the produce discussion is completely separate from the animal products discussion, since I have sympathy for animals but not plants. And even if I didn’t have sympathy for animals, organic milk just plain tastes better.

      But yes, go kick your old ladies by all means.


      • JSE
        May 21, 2012 at 10:23 am

        I buy organic milk, too, but I have never heard anybody claim it’s tastier before!


        • Dan L
          May 21, 2012 at 10:50 am

          @JSE, I think it might be confirmation bias at work again. Usually (but not always) organic milk has less taste because it has been ultra-pasteurized to improve shelf-life. I guess that someone who prefers their milk to taste less like milk might like the taste of organic. (Personally, I can’t tell the difference.)

          Btw, I want to clarify that the “organic” label has nothing to with humane treatment of animals. For example, you can have cage free eggs that are not organic, and organic eggs that not cage free. Organic milk is really common, but it’s rare to see milk that is supposedly humane to dairy cows.


        • May 21, 2012 at 11:00 am

          No I definitely can taste the difference. I’ve done blind taste tests and everything, and every time I drink non-organic milk it tastes bad to me. Maybe just my personal taste buds but I can tell.


        • JSE
          May 21, 2012 at 12:15 pm

          The fact that you blind taste-test your milk definitely doesn’t make you better than me!


      • May 22, 2012 at 7:19 am

        Actually they aren’t separate, a large percentage of agricultural output goes into feed for animals. Sustainable farms have been taking a different approach, using animals to add to the fertilization, weed control and more for farms by letting them graze.

        As it is, animals raised in capco (the large industrialized animal farms) produce a ton of waste that pollutes water ways, and consume this large amount of feed, grown specifically for them. Its not particularly healthy, and a lot of the anti biotics you hear about being given to them are because of diseases that stem from close confinement with other animals.


  8. May 21, 2012 at 10:56 am

    I’m not sure if the produce is toxic but it’s clear that the health of poorer young people is much worse that it was 20 years ago. Health disparities between rich and poor have grown and the life expectancy of the US population has started to decline. Type II diabetes in youth is skyrocketing, especially among the poor.

    Maybe it’s not the food but that’s where I’d start looking for causes. It’s likely that rich people are eating much more healthy foods than poor people are and that those food choices have health consequences. I’d agree that we should address this issue directly but that means taking on or co-opting a huge industry in deep denial. Have you ever noticed how much effort goes into marketing the foods with the worst nutrient profiles to poor people?

    Given the declining heath in the U.S., the burden of proof that food produced using modern intensive practices is as healthy as the old organic foods should be borne by the peddlers of the newfangled stuff. Maybe you’re right about organic produce but I’m not sure I’ll bet my family’s health on industry and government claims of safety when the macro evidence of declining health points in the other direction.


  9. May 21, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    Speaking of moral judgments on behaviour, behaviourist James Montier of GMO LLC has a recent white paper I found revelatory and reinforcing of what I’ve felt since LTCM in 1998: #Bad_Math is a major cause of derivative catastrophes and now the Global Financial Crisis:

    Meanwhile, the #FB $FB #Bankster_Bubble has created 850 new Bankster millionaires for the 1% in the world’s biggest #PumpNdump scheme.


  10. suevanhattum
    May 21, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    Aww Kathy, you just fell off your pedestal. ;^)

    I began buying more organic around when I became a mom. I’m not better than anyone else; I’m lucky to have enough money to buy good food for my son. Turns out he doesn’t eat much of the healthy stuff, and I do. But for the 6 years that he was drinking lots of milk, he was getting great nutrition. Raw milk has to come from well-treated cows, since it’s not pasteurized. (I bought 8 quarts a week, at $32. That’s crazy expensive compared to conventional, but a small investment for his long-term health.)

    Have you read Omnivore’s DIlemma, by Michael Pollan? I think it gives some indication of the costs involved in big ag. I agree with your friend Catalina. If we do have a bit of discretionary funds, it seems like spending them to help develop a healthy market is useful.

    The only time in my life I’ve ever invested is the $5K I loaned to Three Stone Hearth to open their ‘community supported kitchen’. It came out of my home equity line of credit, and they paid me more interest than I was paying, so I made out ok. They make fabulous food, so I can eat healthy without cooking much. Their food is expensive, so their solution isn’t going to work yet for everyone, but I think that social justice is a concern for them, and I hope they’re thinking about how to make good food economically feasible again.

    Personally, I hate Whole Foods. They’ve purposely gone into towns with a food coop, and competed with the coop. I don’t think they have any interest in really doing good.


    • May 21, 2012 at 5:51 pm

      But Sue, I’m trying to challenge you to explain to me why you think it’s better food. I claim it’s a very successful marketing campaign and nothing else. Convince me I’m wrong, I want to be convinced!


  11. karen
    May 21, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    I don’t understand your argument against the ‘Organic is more nutritious’ camp. Are you saying that just because poor people can’t afford healthy food, that those of us who can afford it shouldn’t buy it?
    The way to change the food market is always through the pocketbook. As Catalina said, people who buy organic (and locally-grown) food are supporting those farmers that raise the food, expanding their market share, and thereby helping to bring down prices so that more people can afford it. In the twenty years since we’ve been in college, organic food’s market share has expanded TREMENDOUSLY, and the price has come down. You can buy organic milk at Safeway, for crying out loud.
    That being said, I am suspicious of those mass-market organic brands that Safeway and Whole Foods carry. I think it’s entirely possible that the pollution created in transporting and distributing the food entirely cancels out any environmental benefits. Somebody mentioned Omnivore’s Dilemma, which is a great book and talks a lot about this argument.
    As far as directly addressing the issue of poor people eating toxic food, lots of people are doing this! There is a lot of talk out here about food deserts in low-income neighborhoods, where the only food available within walking distance is fast food and convenience store packaged food. The movement is pushing for grocery stores to open in these neighborhoods, as well as farmer’s markets. There are also urban farmers here who grow food and sell it right to people in their neighborhoods, and who are helping teach people to grow vegetables in their own backyards or in the abandoned lot on the corner.
    All this is to say that there are plenty of people who are trying to directly address the problem of toxic food. The movement will not be helped by these people forgoing expensive organic food. You usually present great arguments, Cathy, but this one sucks…

    Also, as far as the environmental aspects of non-organic: there is the issue of pesticides, of course, but there is also the problem of creating a class of super-pests who have become resistant to all pesticides known to man. It is similar to the problem we are facing with antibiotics and the rise of resistant diseases. New antibiotics and pesticides are not being invented quickly enough to keep pace with the resistant pests, and we are in danger of losing the battle. If we rely on monocrops of food grown with pesticides, we are in much greater danger of facing a food collapse like the Irish potato famine. Again, it’s all in the Omnivore’s Dilemma!


    • May 21, 2012 at 4:15 pm

      The work being done in the inner cities with respect to “food deserts” is a very far cry from organic versus non-organic produce debate. In fact I’d go so far as to say that the organic debate is, for most people in the inner city without access to any good produce at all, a rich person’s problem. That has certainly been my experience working at Fair Foods and City Harvest.

      And no, I’m not saying rich people shouldn’t buy good food. I’m saying that if we are indeed producing toxic food, it should be considered everyone’s problem and we should all address it as a community, rather than just finding a solution that only we rich people can afford.


      • karen
        May 21, 2012 at 11:26 pm

        In your argument you are implying that the opposite of organic food is toxic food, but there are degrees of toxicity. Certainly non-organic broccoli is better for you than fast food, and maybe not as good for you as organic broccoli. When the grocery stores and farmer’s markets enter low-income areas, they bring both organic and non-organic food. The drive is toward increased nutrition, and there are plenty of people addressing this issue, and plenty of them have organic food as their ultimate goal.

        I still don’t like your argument because it is so full of shoulds. Yeah, there’s a lot of things that people “should” do. But just because someone decides they want to eat organic because they think it’s more nutritious, does not allow you to conclude that they think it’s okay for others to eat the crappy food, or that they are obligated to campaign for the elimination of crappy food. Plenty of people think fast food is terrible for you, and choose not to eat it. Does that make them morally obligated to try to shut down fast food restaurants?

        In addition, you are ignoring the argument that buying organic helps expand its market share and helps bring down the price. In the last 20 years, organic food has become far easier to find, and yes, cheaper. This is directly related to people being activists with their wallets.


  12. May 21, 2012 at 10:08 pm

    Oh Cathy, sometimes you do such a poor job of hiding and

    defending your biases. This post further confirms something

    I noticed about you a long time ago: your inability to

    admit your flaws. Instead, you try to turn them into

    virtues. Not eating organic is not a virtue. Being

    overweight is not a virtue. Oh, and just because you didn’t

    do well in math competitions doesn’t mean “math

    competitions suck”.


    • May 22, 2012 at 5:36 am

      I find it interesting how sacrosanct the “organic food is better” concept is. I’m trying to get people to explain something here. But if you’d like to call it my bias, go ahead. I’m sure I am biased for that matter, but that’s one reason I talk about these things, to question my biases.


  13. Mike
    May 22, 2012 at 2:10 am

    I agree with karen on all points. Also, it’s not fair to lump all “organic” foods together. Organic grains provide little, if any health benefits over traditional grains, unlike organic chicken and beef.


    • May 22, 2012 at 5:43 am

      Mike, thanks for explaining that. Where did you get that information? And how does one know which organic produce is actually more nutritious?


      • May 22, 2012 at 11:08 pm

        Taste is the best way I know to choose. Sometimes it fools you though – remember New Coke? Non-organic celery tastes like pesticide to me – so I buy organic celery. It also makes me wonder about other produce but we don’t buy exclusively organic, not even close.

        When it comes to nutrition, limiting sugars, trans fats and oxidized fats is almost certainly more important to health than organic vs. non-organic. So, maybe you’re right. In the big picture, when it comes to nutrition and avoiding the really bad health outcomes, organic produce would be far down the list of recommendations for dietary improvements.

        I’m not sure enough of my thoughts on nutrition to try to impose them on others. Twenty years ago, I thought margarine was more healthy than butter and that saturated fats were bad – and purchased foods accordingly. Turned out that I was wrong. When it comes to healthy food choices, sticking with the types of diets and foods that have proven successful over centuries seems to be prudent. That points me in the direction of organic, even though we backslide a lot.


  14. May 22, 2012 at 7:42 am

    There certainly is a class of people who like to do good without putting any actual effort in. I’ve always had issues with whole foods, especially since they squeezed out Wild Oats. They’re overpriced and too full of the “don’t you feel great to be buying organic?!”

    But it still has the level of disconnect with the actual farmers. Take a look at the produce labels there, how much of their food is local?

    Its a place that appeals to limousine liberals. People who don’t feel at all ironic about driving an SUV to get a bag of organic apples from Chile.

    Agriculture is in many ways one of the biggest contributors to global warming, especially when you consider all the inputs that go into your food. Fertilizers based on fossil fuels, pesticides, tractors, transposition, so on and so on.

    Saying that organic is more nutritious is over simplifying the problem.

    What is the crop we grow most?


    Where does it go?

    A lot of it goes to animal feed, but most of the corn we consume is processed into corn syrup.

    Corn isn’t a particularly nutritious plant. Its not a vegetable, its a grain, and even as a grain its not very efficient. And the practices used to farm and harvest the corn is degradable to the soil. We’re losing top soil 17 times faster than we can replace it, because these large farms do not practice sustainable methods.

    And the farmers get screwed too. They don’t see the subsidies, they are pinched in every possible way by the large food corps that process and package the corn.

    So the main nutritional argument is that organic produce is healthier than the processed food that most agriculture is geared for. (Arguably a processed food made from organic ingredients would be healthier than one made from corn syrup. corn syrup is nasty stuff y’all)

    Now, is an organic head of lettuce healthier than a conventional head of lettuce. Not necessarily, especially if you’re only looking at nutritional value for the consumer.

    But what about other factors? Is it healthier for the land? Generally less, organic farming methods encourage more agroeco farming practices which helps sustain the viability of the soil.

    Is it healthier for the planet? With less pesticides and chemical fertilizers, yes.

    Is it better for the farmer? Look at what you’re buying, but generally yes. His costs are less and there are many farmer coops for organic farmers.

    But also, buying more produce as opposed to processed food is better all around, even if you’re buying conventional produce.


  15. FogOfWar
    May 26, 2012 at 4:45 pm

    Can we run a localized statistical analysis by checking how many std. dev’s out the number of reply comments is to this post compared to others. To be provocative: what does it say about the mathbabe.org audience that 35 people feel the need to comment on organic foods and none on the NYPD stop-and-frisk policy? We need a little more Glen Greenwald in the house…

    For the record I’m in the “better for the earth” camp of organics and there was recently (sorry, don’t have link) a really big on-the-ground study done that showed that yield over a 10-year period was actually higher on organic farms per-acre, so that’s good support above and beyond the no-need-for-resource-intensive-pesticides argument.

    Also, the criticism about wealthy people eating organics while poor people don’t have access is, I think, off base. If wealthy people eat organics at a price premium, it will allow organic farming to grow to a point at which is enjoys the same economies of scale as conventional farming, which can radically reduce the per-unit cost, benefiting both upmarket and downmarket consumes (assuming you buy the thesis to begin with). And, as others have pointed out, organic and local are not only not mutually exclusive, it’s WF that’s been a big proponent of pushing local products by labeling them as such and giving them prominent shelf space.



  16. MIchael Boudreau
    May 31, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Interesting post and comments Cathy. I’m late to this one so I hope this gets seen.

    First, let me agree with you that what is available for the non rich to eat is a major issue, but I think it goes way beyond the organic label. My family is fortunate that we have the means to spend more on food (15~20% of net) so we make the what we feel are the healthiest choices we can. I’ve seen data (sorry no link) that shows more nutrition in some organic foods, but it about more than that. Near the potato farms of Prince Edward Island, there are regular episodes of mass dead fish in the water – that worries me.

    I recently watched an interesting PBS video dealing with our food supplies:
    My takeaways: * The bees used to pollinate almonds in California, need a detox spray and a week of clean flowers in Georgia after their work is complete * We take a cow from 600 to 1200lb in 6 months using special feed * We’re taping the aquifer to grow corn where we couldn’t before (the aquifer couldn’t be that important after all.

    Like you, I also worry about where my food comes from and try to stay local whenever possible, but I like to pay attention to the local growing practices. On my last visit to the UK, food had a label listing the ‘food miles’, I’m not sure if they still do that.

    In India’s Punjab, they turned to chemical farming in the 70’s and there was a boom in production. In the beginning, you could have a well 10ft deep. Last article I read, they were near 300ft to hit water. That can’t be good going forward.

    IMO, the corn subsidies policy has lead to cheap calorie dense food and society is paying the price. I recall a figure something like 18% income on food 8% on medical some 30-40 years ago. Now it is reversed and the total is higher. Cows were never meant to eat corn.

    Sorry this is such a long winded response. I think our food supply and how we use it is a core issue. We have a lot of those these days it seems. I appreciate you keeping this one on the radar.


  17. suevanhattum
    September 12, 2012 at 9:32 am
  1. August 19, 2012 at 10:42 am
Comments are closed.
%d bloggers like this: