Organic agriculture is a growing niche market that has farmers and consumers racing to defend their points of view. The agriculture industry continues its struggle to feed a hungry world with limited resources and almost unlimited human wants and needs.
From 2013 to 2014, organic sales increased by 11 percent. According to Ingolf Gruen, professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Missouri, there are two main reasons why consumers are demanding organic food on the menu and in their grocery carts.
One is the assumption that organic food has a greater nutritional value or tastes better than industrial grown food. Gruen said this is an incorrect assumption for consumers to make. Two experiments, one in 2008 and one in 2011, were conducted to evaluate the change in nutritional value between organically grown and conventionally grown grapefruits. In both cases, certain vitamins increased and others decreased. Each grapefruit was evaluated for vitamin C, limonoid, and carotenoid levels. All of these are beneficial nutrients found in citrus fruits.
The organically grown grapefruits showed consistent signs of higher vitamin C levels. However, in the 2011 experiment, conventionally grown grapefruits were higher in beta carotene and lycopene, which are both antioxidants. Both experiments showed the conventionally grown grapefruits overall higher in carotenoid levels.
There are some experiments that do show apples to be scientifically tastier when grown organically. However, this is not the case in most foods according to Gruen.
“A consumer can choose to believe that all organic foods taste better but there is no scientific proof to show that this is true,” Gruen said. “It is most likely just the placebo effect.”
The owners of Clover’s Natural Market, Patty Clover and Scott Nirmaier, hold a different opinion on this subject. Nirmaier points to the issue of “poison rice vs. the non-poison rice” as an example. It is true that rice is well known as “one of nature’s great scavengers of metallic compounds,” according to a New York Times article published in April of 2014. However, this has nothing to do with whether the rice is organic. Instead, it has to do with how the plant pulls minerals from the soil.
In Nirmaier’s opinion, organic food is both higher in nutrition, tastier and safer.
“What would you rather have? A juicy apple or a crappy red delicious?”
He also argues that conventional agriculture strips the soil of all nutrients.
“I think they should do the research and do a hell of a lot of testing before they ever release it on the market to eat,” Nirmaier said. “It’s for stupid reasons. Like, oh you want this tomato to last longer on the shelf so you’re going to stick a pig gene in there.”
The second reason Gruen says consumers are interested in organic food production is nostalgia. Because we are increasingly separated from agriculture, Gruen explains that many consumers find it easier to connect to practices used in organic agriculture.
“They feel like they have lost touch with where their food is coming from,” Gruen said. “So the reaction to this realization is, ‘I have no clue where my chicken nuggets are coming from but I understand organic food comes from a chicken running around in the backyard’.”
Gruen said this is what drives consumers to demand organic food. Although Gruen and Nirmaier have different views on the nutritional value and taste of organic food, they do agree that organic farming has positive and negative aspects.
Both individuals agreed that organic farming may be better for the environment. Organic regulations put in place by the USDA limit the use of certain pesticides. Eating organic food produced locally means less transportation is needed, which results in a smaller carbon footprint. However, this applies only to locally produced foods, not large-scale organic producers.
On the negative side, both individuals agree that organic agriculture, as it is today, most likely could never feed the world. Clover uses the small producers that she buys from as an example saying that although she does support them, there is no way they could produce enough food for all of Boone County.
“We buy from small growers around here,” Clover said. “Could they produce enough to supply all of Boone County? No … But I do think organic is too big to ignore.”
Organic food generally also comes with a higher price tag. Nirmaier and Clover acknowledge the fact that the food in their store is usually more expensive than the food in the grocery aisle at Wal-Mart. However, Clover is a strong believer that people who want to shop “clean” can find a way to do so. Food stamps can be used to buy organic food and people can grow their own organic gardens. Whatever your budget, Clover said it is possible to eat organic.
New Mexico State University economics professor, Lowell Catlett, said that although organic food is increasingly important to consumers, the demand for meat is also on the rise. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the world’s meat production has nearly quadrupled in the past 50 years, rising from 78 million tons per year in 1963 to 308 million tons per year today. These numbers are predicted to continue to rise.
A better quality of living worldwide is causing the increased demand for meat. People are making more money than ever, and they want to eat better and add more protein to their diets.
“If you want to double the amount of available meat in the world, it’s not going to be through pastoral agriculture,” Catlett said. “It’s going to be through intensive animal agriculture.”
However, where there is intensive animal agriculture, there is also a struggle between providing for the increased demand for meat and making sure farming practices are safe for the environment.
“In agriculture we’re giving people more calories than any time in history, and now is the best time ever to be in agriculture because you’ve got the most differentiated segment in the marketplace ever,” Catlett said.
There is demand both for farmers to produce tons of meat and produce to satisfy the world’s needs and also for farmers to meet the needs of the niche market of organic agriculture, Catlett said. There has to be a balance.
Catlett encourages all farmers to, “Feed em, feed em better, Feed em well!” He stresses that in the words of Abraham Maslow, “what is a luxury to one generation becomes a necessity to the next.”