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

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.