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Is Organic Better Than Conventional?

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Organic is a great option to have at the grocery store, but that doesn’t mean such producers should bash conventionally raised beef in their efforts to promote their niche market.

Grocery shopping is a lot different today than in our grandmothers’ time. Buying the basics like flour, sugar, milk and meat is much more complicated today. For one thing, groceries are much less of a commodity than in the olden days, and there are infinitely more choices on today's shelves. Such changes allow today's consumers to exercise their voting power with their spending dollars. Whether it’s a company, a brand, a production method, or a diet ideology, you can tell a lot about a person by looking at what is in their grocery cart.

And that brings me to organics, a niche that has shown a lot of growth in recent years, though it still represents a fraction of the commerce. While I am all for choice, one of the unfortunate results of this niche is that it's often marketed by sowing doubt in consumers’ minds about the safety, healthfulness or nutrition of conventionally produced foods and store-label products.

This is despite several studies concluding that the so-called organic edge is hype. Sure, it’s a fine choice if you think the extra expense is warranted, but consumers need to be reassured that they can trust all the foods they put into their grocery carts.

An article that appeared on Forbes.com in 2012 is now recirculating on Facebook, and I thought it was worth sharing. Henry I. Miller and Richard Cornett ask the question, “Is organic agriculture affluent narcissim?”

In essence, they pose the question, Are affluent Americans just buying organic to feed their egos?

According to the article, “As can be seen from the popularity of rip-off artists like Whole Foods markets, organic foods are popular. The U.S. market for organic produce alone was $12.4 billion last year. Some of the devotion from consumers attains almost cult-like status, which is why a recent article by Stanford University researchers that was dismissive of health or nutritional benefits of organic foods created such a furor.”

The studies cited in the article looked at pesticide residue, nutritional content and superiority of organic vs. conventional. It’s certainly worth a read.

It’s truly great that I can walk into my grocery store and choose exactly what kind of foods I want, based on desire, budget or brand loyalty; that includes organics. Even better, beef producers are able to earn premiums in such niche markets while satisfying the needs of consumers who are willing to pay top dollar to get precisely what they want.

Offering choice in the meat case is a win-win for the beef industry, but that doesn’t mean conventional beef is bad. And it should not be presented that way. What are your thoughts on this topic? Is it fair play for niche marketers to tarnish conventional product in their push to grow demand for their products? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.

 

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Discuss this Blog Entry 20

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jul 24, 2013

I think the question should be. What are you feeding your cattle? If you do not know? Why are you feeding it too them. Would you eat any animal that you raise? Or only certain ones? Why is there residue? Where did it come from? The article could have been a little more detailed. Thanks

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jul 24, 2013

???? This comment is confusing. What residue? I would eat any animal I raise, and that's what my family lives off of. We need to continue to educate consumers better

on Jul 24, 2013

People take multivitamins, omega oil supplements, etc. I highly doubt many people know what they are taking, let alone why. I would eat any animal that comes from USDA inspected facilities, or from people I know that raise livestock. I would definitely eat anything I raised as I follow (as the vast majority of producers do) the withdrawal periods on medications.

Scott Poock (not verified)
on Jul 24, 2013

Amanda,
As a board certified (ABVP) beef and dairy veterinarian, I share the frustration of farm groups pointing their fingers at their neighbors and calling them "evil." I have worked with, am willing to work with, all types of beef and dairy producers from organic to conventional to pasture-based dairy, herds with 8 cows to those with 10,000. There have been good (the vast majority and those that strive for producing a quality product and care about the animals) and bad producers in all those categories. The Ohio Dairy Producer Association has a video "Organic Milk and Regular Milk: Is There a Difference?" which has producers from both groups sending a positive message. They may have different systems on the farm but they both produce a quality product. This is the story we all need to be telling.
Thanks for your daily articles, Scott

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jul 24, 2013

Thanks you for this article! I agree that we have the power to make the choice when we shop! As a farmer, I support all kinds of agriculture and food production that is approved. I get upset when one agricultural sector puts itself up against another claiming it is better. I recently visited with an employee at Whole Foods in NY City. He told me that most of the customers he has spoken with do not know the difference between conventional and organic products, but that media and the organic industry has lead them to believe that organic is better. I believe in niche markets, but it is only fair to play fair.

@WhizardTrimmer (not verified)
on Jul 24, 2013

Thank you for your thoughtful article. Can we feed a hungry planet of 9 Billion people if we don't use the best practices, which might include some 'non-organics,' possible for high quality and low cost beef? If people want to spend their money buying organic, fine. Please don't raise the cost of protein because they want to force choices on the poor in developing countries.

on Jul 24, 2013

Amanda,
Enjoy your articles. I think you present fairly the "is organic better than conventional" arguments except for the Forbes quote about "rip off artists like Whole Foods." In fairness there are scientific studies that organic agriculture can be of great benefit to land stewardship and the reduction of chemical use. The company I work for buys certified organic, 100% grass-fed and grass-finished cattle and markets the resultant beef to consumers. Organic is a holistic system that encompasses everything from "ranch to rail" and all parts are inspected every year to make sure they comply with the federal rules. Our organic ranchers are not unlike other responsible ranchers who care for riparian areas and grazing lands. And, we pay a 25% premium above the conventional market for these organic grass-fed and finished cattle. Lastly, Amanda, one of our company’s core values is not to denigrate competition, but we vigorously tout our beef. Our family ranchers who also are shareholder-owners of our company expect nothing less. Thanks, Mack H. Graves.

AgLander (not verified)
on Jul 24, 2013

The problem lies in the fact that in the hope of increasing market share, the niche organic segment has allowed itself to be high jacked and its "face" and message is now represented by a shrill, angry and highly organized urban based group of food anarchists; a group which knows nothing about modern, science based ag production, yet hurl unsubstantiated alarmists charges at it nonetheless as they project an elitist, "do it my way" attitude toward anyone who disagrees with their desire to return farming practices to the days of "Little House On The Prairie" where the men toiled in the fields using hand tools and the women worked alongside them wearing flowing dresses and bonnets.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jul 24, 2013

Saying that organic promotes better stewardship of the land is not really a true statement. In NC most of the organic farmers I know have a lot of land erosion and let weed seeds increase and spread because they have no other way to control. Most regular farmers are full notill and do a great good of controlling weeds. A lot of us use the GMO crops. I would rather eat food that has a gene changed than a plant that has chemicals used on it to control the same thing. We should not run other farmers down for doing something that has been proven to be safe and lower cost, just so we can sell some over priced food.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jul 24, 2013

Action is founded on beliefs, irrespective of how well that belief is supported by evidence, and the trust and fear associated with those beliefs.

From a Harris poll of some beliefs among the public: http://www.harrisinteractive.com/vault/Harris_Poll_2009_12_15.pdf

42% believe in ghosts;
32% believe in UFOs;
26% believe in astrology;
23% believe in witches
20% believe in reincarnation – that they were once another person.

A segment of consumers trust "organic" and "natural" more than "conventional" and "factory."

See "Protecting our Freedom to Operate: Earning and maintaining public trust and our social license"
http://www.cals.arizona.edu/ans/swnmc/Proceedings/2009/03Arnot_09.pdf

by Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, http://www.foodintegrity.org/

Michael Connor (not verified)
on Jul 24, 2013

There is nothing positive about the overuse of antibiotics; so yes there is a BIG difference. Other issues, perhaps, but the constant dumping of antibiotics alone is enough to shun conventional livestock production. I have produced conventionally during the 70s on with my dad on his farm and I have produced Organically since 1999 on my own farm.

Imogene Hemeyer, DVM (not verified)
on Jul 25, 2013

I'm sorry you feel conventionally raised livestock are all treated with antibiotics. As a veterinarian and beef producer I know the importance of animals kept healthy without the use of antibiotics. Implementing herd health programs to prevent disease rather than treating disease is by far the best economical decision producers can make. Yes, occasionally an antibiotic must be used when an animal gets sick, just as humans occasionally need to take an antibiotic for certain illnesses. However, I know that antibiotics are expensive for both humans and animals and I am not about to use more than is absolutely needed. It isn't an economically sound decision.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jul 24, 2013

It doesn't seem fair that you are comparing organic produce to organic beef. Beef cattle have a much different nutrient source than, say, a pepper plant because of their place in the food chain. It saddens me that, as a beef producer and advocate of beef production, you would ever choose sides and try to persuade others to do the same rather than promote the whole industry.

RMachen (not verified)
on Jul 24, 2013

"People wrap themselves in their beliefs, sometimes so tightly that not even the truth can set them free."

"Starting down the road where belief in magic replaces science and evidence will eventually lead you to a place you do not want to be."

both quotes from Michael Specter, The Danger of Science Denial (as heard on TED.com)

"If customers want brown eggs, sell them brown eggs, but please do not sell them anti-white eggs."
John Maday

on Jul 24, 2013

Not one single person inside or outside the industry has ever been able to define "Factory farm". It's a derogatory term used to incite consumers in to making decisions with emotions rather than their brain.

Aaron Ballou (not verified)
on Jul 24, 2013

As a beef producer I sell calves to the "commodity" market and have developed a grass fed all natural market. The premiums for the grass fed is great, but it is limited. We as producers get what's going on, but the general public doesn't have a clue. We need to try and educate them....but that's another story. Capitalize on these markets.

rex (not verified)
on Jul 25, 2013

Matt and Anne Burkholder manage to do both organic and nonorganic farming. Read her feedyardfoodie blog. I suspect Matt manages to use alfalfa as the three year no chemical phase to raise a year or two of organic alfalfa followed by a year of organic corn, then back to weed control and conservation tillage rowcrops, then wheat and back to alfalfa.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jul 25, 2013

We sell some grass fed and finished custom beef. Our customers are loyal. We tell them up front that it is a different product than conventional beef and to choose the product with the taste and texture that they prefer as there is really little difference nutritionally ( despite some hype). It is not hard to find a good steak at the store. Our ground beef clearly outshines mass produce ground beef and we are happy to offer local folks that opportunity. This market helps our mid sized operation to succeed.

Brad (not verified)
on Jul 25, 2013

Whose Science do you Trust?

Scientists discover what's killing the bees and it's worse than you thought

Todd Woody
Quartz
Wed, 24 Jul 2013 16:29 CDTPrint
Bees
© AP Photo/Ben Margot
Outlawing a type of insecticides is not a panacea.
As we've written before, the mysterious mass die-off of honey bees that pollinate $30 billion worth of crops in the US has so decimated America's apis mellifera population that one bad winter could leave fields fallow. Now, a new study has pinpointed some of the probable causes of bee deaths and the rather scary results show that averting beemageddon will be much more difficult than previously thought.

Scientists had struggled to find the trigger for so-called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) that has wiped out an estimated 10 million beehives, worth $2 billion, over the past six years. Suspects have included pesticides, disease-bearing parasites and poor nutrition.

But in a first-of-its-kind study published today in the journal PLOS ONE, scientists at the University of Maryland and the US Department of Agriculture have indentified a witch's brew of pesticides and fungicides contaminating pollen that bees collect to feed their hives. The findings break new ground on why large numbers of bees are dying though they do not identify the specific cause of CCD, where an entire beehive dies at once.

When researchers collected pollen from hives on the east coast pollinating cranberry, watermelon and other crops and fed it to healthy bees, those bees showed a significant decline in their ability to resist infection by a parasite called Nosema ceranae. The parasite has been implicated in Colony Collapse Disorder though scientists took pains to point out that their findings do not directly link the pesticides to CCD. The pollen was contaminated on average with nine different pesticides and fungicides though scientists discovered 21 agricultural chemicals in one sample. Scientists identified eight ag chemicals associated with increased risk of infection by the parasite.

Most disturbing, bees that ate pollen contaminated with fungicides were three times as likely to be infected by the parasite. Widely used, fungicides had been thought to be harmless for bees as they're designed to kill fungus, not insects, on crops like apples.

"There's growing evidence that fungicides may be affecting the bees on their own and I think what it highlights is a need to reassess how we label these agricultural chemicals," Dennis vanEngelsdorp, the study's lead author, told Quartz.

Labels on pesticides warn farmers not to spray when pollinating bees are in the vicinity but such precautions have not applied to fungicides.

Bee populations are so low in the US that it now takes 60% of the country's surviving colonies just to pollinate one California crop, almonds. And that's not just a west coast problem - California supplies 80% of the world's almonds, a market worth $4 billion.

In recent years, a class of chemicals called neonicotinoids has been linked to bee deaths and in April regulators banned the use of the pesticide for two years in Europe where bee populations have also plummeted. But vanEngelsdorp, an assistant research scientist at the University of Maryland, says the new study shows that the interaction of multiple pesticides is affecting bee health.

"The pesticide issue in itself is much more complex than we have led to be believe," he says. "It's a lot more complicated than just one product, which means of course the solution does not lie in just banning one class of product."

The study found another complication in efforts to save the bees: US honey bees, which are descendants of European bees, do not bring home pollen from native North American crops but collect bee chow from nearby weeds and wildflowers. That pollen, however, was also contaminated with pesticides even though those plants were not the target of spraying.

"It's not clear whether the pesticides are drifting over to those plants but we need take a new look at agricultural spraying practices," says vanEngelsdorp.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Aug 14, 2013

Brad- You chose to pick on pesticides as the problem yet your mouth is full of food because of them. You also fail to understand CCD is occuring in various areas around the world where the varroa mite and widespread agricultural pesticide spraying arent common. Now how exactly do you explain that? If the simple interaction of pesticides with bees caused CCD the the big healthy hive next to my fields would have died out 30 years ago...

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A fifth-generation rancher from Mitchell, SD, Amanda grew up on a purebred Limousin cattle operation in which she and husband Tyler are active. She graduated with a degree in agriculture journalism...

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