On whether the “organic vs. conventional” comparison is meaningful

December 11, 2013
By Chad Kruger

My colleague Chuck Benbrook posted a fascinating article this week summarizing his recent paper that evaluates how organic milk impacts human nutrition. If you haven’t read it, you should. In the comments of Chuck’s post, another colleague Andy McGuire inquires and Chuck confirms, the likely reason organic milk is nutritionally superior to conventional milk is the composition of the feed ration (i.e., more grass).

This is not the first time that Andy has suggested we should focus on the farming practice that results in a more sustainable outcome, rather than simply attributing it to a label such as organic. And I agree with Andy that in many cases it can be misleading to focus on an arbitrary comparison of “organic vs. conventional” when our concern should be about understanding and managing for sustainability (and in this case, nutrition). If the entire dairy industry were to implement Chuck’s findings and increase the composition of forages in feed rations, we would expect to see improved omega-6 to omega-3 ratios in all milk and dairy products – even if none of this milk was produced organically. And, from the perspective of improving human nutrition that would be a good thing.

What is often not fully appreciated is that certified organic is a tightly defined set of regulations dictating allowable materials and practices (and consequently prohibited materials and practices), but there is a substantial amount of variability within organic farms. There is a similar amount of variability within conventional farms – and there are many examples of conventional farms that are more sustainable than their organic counterparts. While many organic farmers are committed to sustainability and manage with that goal in mind, organic is not necessarily equivalent with sustainable. Which is how we arrive at Andy’s concern:  The focus should be on the practice that makes one approach more sustainable than another.

What is at issue here is that both science and sustainability are usually complex and nuanced; what another colleague David Granatstein calls Shades of Gray. As David eloquently explains, it’s very rare that we find “black and white” absolutes in the natural world – and to the extent that sustainability involves mimicry of the natural world, then it also will likely require understanding and managing complexity and nuance. And this indicates that arbitrary comparisons, such as organic vs. conventional, may not always be meaningful.

However, in our fast-paced society, it’s difficult for the media and consumers to fully investigate, communicate about, or act on complexity or nuance – and that creates a demand for simplified scientific comparisons that are easily interpreted and used. Thus, even though it can make a scientist nervous, we’re always going to see comparisons like organic vs. conventional. The key is ensuring that the comparison that is presented is a meaningful comparison.

Case in point: Chuck’s comparison of the omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio between organic and conventional milk. While we attribute the scientific reason to feed ration (which can be manipulated by any dairy farmer), a mainstream consumer cannot readily purchase milk on the basis of a known feed ration (it’s not printed on the label). However, the organic standard requires that certified organic dairies provide access to pasture and forages, and therefore a consumer can know that if they purchase organic milk, than on average they will be purchasing milk with a superior omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio.

Where does this leave us?  I think there can be meaningful comparisons between organic and conventional. However, the onus is on the scientific community to communicate why and how that comparison is meaningful, and on consumers to appreciate that there is complexity and nuance to consider and to look for the reason for the result.

3 comments on “On whether the “organic vs. conventional” comparison is meaningful”

  1. Ann said on December 11, 2013:

    Perhaps you folks can answer a question for me: where do those cheap organic products come from (e.g. New Directions in my Red Apple store, Simple Truth at Kroger stores)? Often they are MUCH cheaper than Organic Valley. Do they come from large, industrial scale farms where a door is left open so that cows can see some daylight and, theoretically, could go outside, but they never do because there is feed in the trough all day every day? One article said that Organic Valley products were used in the study; would the same results come from “generic” organics?

    Can I assume the same beneficial Omega 6/3 ratios for cheap organics? FWIW, I don’t. I’m suspicious and cynical, and I don’t trust industrial organics. Now, since the craziness of the anti-GMO forces during the lead up to the vote on I-522, I don’t trust my friendly, local, organic farmers either.

    Fortunately, I’m old enough that I don’t expect to die from the food I eat. Other forces are taking over;-)

  2. Chad Kruger said on December 11, 2013:

    Ann,

    I don’t have sufficient understanding of the inner-workings of the organic marketplace, so anything I would say would be purely speculative (and I don’t want to do that). There are a number of studies (usually by Rural Sociologists) that have been conducted assessing the evolving structure of the organic industry – so I would refer you to those. For example: http://www.ijsaf.org/archive/16/1/howard.pdf

    Chuck may have additional insight to share.

    What I can say is that in the context of experimental research design in any comparison like these, decisions about what is compared (including sourcing of product for testing) is a critical decision-factor — and at the very least the methods need to accurately and completely describe the those decisions. For the more aggregate analysis studies (reviews of published literature, analysis of publicly available data-sets) the scientist needs to articulate what assumptions they’ve made about the source data.

    Regarding the omega-6 to omega-3 comparison, I think Chuck would indicate that he would expect a fair amount of variability in both organic and conventional supplies of milk. For a highly discerning consumer [like you] that kind of heterogeneity is something that you will seek to understand in your choices. For the mainstream consumer, it’s much more challenging — and knowing [and acting on] the averages is at least better than not.

    Thanks,
    Chad

  3. Ann said on December 11, 2013:

    Thanks so much for the link. I knew a little bit of the story, but not all that was covered in the article. I do think that there is a need for information other than the “organic” label. Not sure what all that would be, but you folks are thinking for me on that. Thanks for that.

    A while back, I learned from a local farmer that the Darigold milk at my store travels many fewer miles from farm to table than the Organic Valley milk. Thought that was interesting, along with the fact that there might not be much difference in the size of the organic vs conventional dairy farms in our area, and that most of the cows are outdoors whenever feasible.

    So much to learn, so little time.

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