miércoles, 9 de diciembre de 2009

Organic Food: Healthy Option or Farce?

Imaginen mi sorpresa cuando me escribió el editor de la revista Business Today, de Princeton, pidiéndome que le pusiera mi "toque especial" a un artículo sobre la comida orgánica. Recibí la comunicación en calzoncillos, sentado en mi computadora con Fela Kuti a un volúmen malicioso que tenía como propóstio dejarle saber a los vecinos que la vida es un festín musical. En cualquier caso, consulté la invitación con mi amigo Bill Minutaglio y al final acepté escribir para ellos de gratis. Aunque no puedo estar más lejos de la comemierdería de Princeton, de los sueters rositas amarrados con delicadeza a su delgado pescuezo y el silencio sepulcral que se guarda en las aulas de paredes cubiertas de hiedra, decidí colaborar con su revista. Para mi beneficio, es la revista estudiantil más grande del país, fue creada por Steve Forbes (si no saben un carajo de revistas, búsquenlo en Google) y ha tenido colaboradores tan diversos como Richard Nixon y Hugh Hefner. Aquí les dejo el artículo.

Organic Food: Healthy Option or Farce?
by Gabino Iglesias, University of Texas

Once considered a niche market that provided an alternative for consumers with special nutritional needs and the über-health-conscious and/or eco-friendly crowd, organic product commerce is now a major business in the United States. A study conducted in 2001 found that 63 percent of Americans buy organic foods and beverages regularly. Furthermore, with around 11 billion dollars in sales in 2003, which represented about 2 percent of all U.S. food sales for that year, the organic food market is still growing at an unprecedented rate, and college students play a major role in this trend.

Offering an ever-expanding assortment of foods, dietary supplements, household items and personal care products, the organic goods market is undoubtedly booming. A trip to any grocery store will attest to the fact that products ranging from tortilla chips to nail polish now predominantly display the organic stamp on their packages. Unfortunately, when other products (such as meat, poultry, eggs, milk, vitamins, pet food, hand soap, household cleaners, bed linens, etc. etc.) share the organic label, it becomes a tad harder to define what organic is, comprehend its alleged benefits and understand where it comes from.

So, if all those things are organic, we need to ask the inevitable question: what exactly is organic food?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic foods are those produced by farmers who put emphasis on the use of renewable natural resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Also =(and this is probably the most widely-known component of the definition) organic animal products (i.e. meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products) come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, the organic stamp means that no pesticides were used; the fertilizers involved in the process were made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; the plants are not the result of bioengineering and they were not subjected to ionizing radiation.

The aforementioned definition goes hand in hand with the clear-cut set of regulations the USDA has set for organic farming:

• Use of cover crops, green manures, animal manures and crop rotations to fertilize the soil, maximize biological activity and maintain long-term soil health.

• Use of biological control, crop rotations and other techniques to manage weeds, insects and diseases.

• An emphasis on biodiversity of the agricultural system and the surrounding environment.

• Using rotational grazing and mixed forage pastures for livestock operations and alternative health care for animal wellbeing.

• Reduction of external and off-farm inputs and elimination of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and other materials, such as hormones and antibiotics.

• A focus on renewable resources, soil and water conservation, and management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological balance.” (USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), 2006.)

Even if a farmer complies with all of the guidelines mentioned above, a Government-approved certifier needs to visit and inspect the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Only after receiving the approval of the USDA can a product be labeled ‘organic’… and it is with labeling that the problems begin.

For example, a product that wishes to claim it is 100 percent organic needs to prove that it contains 100 percent organically produced ingredients and then put on its label the name and address of the handler and the name of the certifying agent. To claim simply ‘organic’, 95 percent of the product needs to be entirely organic and it cannot contain sulfites. Only 70 percent of the ingredients need to be organic in order claim a product is made with organic ingredients. A product can also use the word organic in its label if it is produced with organic materials.

The complicated labeling system, far from allowing students to know exactly what they’re consuming, are often catered toward organic connoisseurs, who are interested enough to spend the time reading the whole package. And those who actually read the labels are informed only if the company was truthful in its labeling. Truthful? Yes, unscrupulous companies are putting products on the market that carry the organic label even if they’re not certified
In this rather shady and confusing market the questions then become: are students making sure that what they buy is truly organic? Are they aware of the labeling system? Why are they buying organic in the first place? What do they think are the benefits of organic food?

“I only buy organic stuff sometimes… I’m not really convinced of the whole organic thing but if the price is about the same I’ll buy organic because it’s free of pesticides”, said Cheryl Fey, a senior in Broadcast Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin (UT). She went on to comment that she was not aware of the labeling: “If it says organic I guess it’s free of pesticides, right?”

Her unawareness regarding the labeling was echoed by others. “I think a lot of the labeling can be misleading,” commented Nikki Marterre, a first year graduate student in Anthropology at UT who buys organic because she feels it is “good for my health and good for the planet.” Marterre also had an interesting theory as to why college students jump on the organic (band)wagon: “When people enter college they want to experience new things and their attitudes can change, especially because they start imitating their friends.”
Whether it happens because students replicate the behavior and consumption practices of their friends or because they seek new experiences, the fact is that several stores in the UT area were full of students buying organic products. “I buy organic because I want to take care of myself and age gracefully,” explained Salwa Martinez, a recent graduate in Nutrition who is now back at UT for her first semester in Nursing. Martinez had her own reasons for criticizing the labeling system: “I don’t pay attention to the labels and… I also think they’re not making it very easy for organic farmers.”

Marsha Riti, who works as a cashier at an organic foods store in Austin, said that many students enter college and become confused. They mix together environmentalism, a healthy lifestyle and diet, eco-friendliness and support for local farmers in such a way that they think they can achieve all of it simply by eating organic. Riti also believes the labeling system doesn’t work: “A lot of people are becoming more interested in learning about the food they eat but I don’t think enough people are doing it. I think the labels can be confusing and nobody explains to us how it works. Even I’m not familiar with it.”

Regardless of the popularity of organic foods, some students remain skeptical about it. “I don’t buy organic because I think it’s overpriced and I really don’t think the extra cost is going to meet the benefit,” said Michael Groth, a second year graduate student in Kinesiology at UT. Surprisingly, his indifferent answer struck very close to the main problem of organic food: proof of its superiority.

Despite the never-ending claims stating that organic food is better for us, so far only one scientific study has been produced that supports a portion of those assertions. The study, conducted in the UK and spanning over a period of four years, claimed to have found that organic fruits and vegetables contained as much as 40 percent more antioxidants, which scientists believe can help lessen the risk of cancer and heart disease. The article was published by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) and clearly negated a previous study also published by them that stated that there was absolutely no difference in health benefits between organic and non-organic products.

So who should we believe? The question is not easily answered. We could argue that organic is nothing more than a buzzword, a brilliant marketing strategy or the trendy thing to do, but that would send consumers into a frenzy: What do you mean I’m paying three times as much and only getting a few more antioxidants for my money? On the other hand, many people would smartly say that the organic business is much more than just the food: a lot of farmers put food on the table growing organic products and it’s also a healthy way to protect our battered planet.

What would happen if in the organic market is nothing more than a big farce? Well… it wouldn’t be the first time America has had to shake its head at senseless consuming, would it?

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