What it means to go ‘Organic’

Is organic food a cash-grabbing, environment-damaging scam, or the holy grail of health?

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Lucy Robb

What is organic food? In the selfie obsessed, social media- dependent, health-crazed society that us millennials and generation Zers have grown up in, there has been a drive for ethically sourced, GMO-free, ‘healthy’ foods. Organic food in the 21st century is a microcosm for the wider social movement towards sustainable and wellness based lifestyles.

But what makes food organic? There is a myriad of myths and misinformation put forth about what makes something organic, and why going organic is inherently better for us.

Web pop-ups advertise everything from shinier hair to longer life longevity to smoother skin as a result of eating organically sourced fruits, vegetables, and meats. At the most basic level, organic produce is grown with limited amounts of chemicals, is free of genetically modified organisms (GMO), and is heavily regulated by the Food and Drug Agency (FDA) or The Medicines and Health Care Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

Organic meat, fish, eggs, and milk are sold as being more nutritious and having less harmful pathogens and contaminants.

Milk is a prime example of this marketing phenomenon. While there is a kernel of truth in the claim, organic milk and conventionally harvested milk actually measure up equally in just about every “health” category. Organic milk is slightly more nutritious, containing higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids; however, this difference is so minimal as to be irrelevant. The one defining factor between organic and conventional milk is that organic cows are not injected with growth hormones.

The bovine growth hormone, or BGH, has become a buzzword of sorts among the health conscious community. However, in reality, this hormone cannot survive pasteurization or human digestion. While it can result in an insulin-like growth factor (IGF-I), organically raised cows also produce milk with this compound.

The chemistry major, science-minded, and organic-obsessed among us might find the scientific nuances of what exactly defines an organic product fascinating. However, for many humanity majors and junk food devotees like me, all of this scientific jargon only results in more confusion. Is eating organic better for me? Should organic food be more expensive? Is it better for the environment? Is that green smoothie really worth a quarter of my weekly budget?

This textbook answer does not really explain what organic food is, why there is an organic food craze, and why young people especially, like St Andrews students, are susceptible to organic marketing ploys.

In recent years there has been a boom in organic based blogs. Celebrities have cashed in on the movement and created cult followings around their lifestyle brands. From Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop to Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company, popular culture is pushing the message that organic is better.

Jessica Alba sells organic baby formula starting at £25 pounds for 21 ounces, while Gwyneth Paltrow advertises a peach and kefir smoothie bowl that calls for a mix of many expensive, high end food products as ingredients. Her website even provides a hyperlink to Lifeway Organic Whole Milk, which she touts as the “best” organic milk.

Gisele Bündchen even has her own organic skincare line, Seeja. She claims that her Victoria Secret worthy good looks are in a large part, due to the organic lifestyle she maintains.

Even celebrities without their own lifestyle brands still manage to push organic based products that young university aged students, like us at St Andrews, are often the target demographic of. From Snapchat to Instagram, celebrities are posting with makeup to mangoes – but all organic.

Living amongst an array of social media technologies, these ads create major hype around products. How many times have you been influenced to buy something because you saw a celebrity using it? Wouldn’t seeing someone famous using organic products make you more likely to take part?

In many ways the organic craze is only part of the larger healthy living lifestyle, with an air of exclusivity and branded as the new “cool” trend. Consequently, young people are quick to spend their money on it. With the advantage of being both good for you and the “in” thing, it is an easy sell.

St Andrews students (and their international counterparts) are making up an increasingly large share of the organic consumer demographic. From 2016 to 2017, organic food sales in the UK experienced a seven to eight per cent growth. While this number would be staggering on its own, it is especially notable given that in 2008, the organic industry suffered a 12.5 per cent decrease in sales.

Organic farmers and superstore giants alike point to a growing consciousness among young consumers as a driving force behind this increase.

Waitrose, for example, which dominates a quarter of the organic industry in Britain, underwent five per cent sales increase just last year.

Even St Andrews own Heart Space Whole Foods notes how important university students are to their sale margins. Located on South Street, the store is an organic eater’s dream come true. Jodie Lagazon, who works at the store, shares how she sees St Andrews students contribute to the organic industry based on her experience.

Ms Lagazon noticed a distinct difference in foot traffic to the store over spring break, saying that  “it was especially quiet over the two weeks.” However, business began to pick up once school was back in session and students were back in town.

Ms Lagazon also noted that the store is “quite popular with students” as they are Heart Space Whole Foods’ “main shoppers.” There is no one product that outpaces all others, instead Ms Lagazon commented that a “mix of products are popular,” with “some students buying mostly veg and others buying snacks.”

One of the fastest selling snack products however, are the crisps. “They are really quite popular with students, particularly and probably because they come in flavours such as quinoa, sweet potato, and carrot,” she says. Ms Lagazon noted that students appreciate the vegan options in store.

The store receives its new stock on Thursdays and Fridays, allowing it to be at full capacity for the weekend when there is a rush of students intending to do their weekly shopping. For those who are already Heart Space Whole Food groupees, or soon to be loyal customers, a 10 per cent student discount is available, just make sure to bring your matriculation card!

Something else worth noting is the 15 per cent increase in organic sales recorded by St Andrews students’ beloved Tesco. How many of us have darted into Tesco, determined to pick up just one thing, and ending up with an armful of everything but that particular item? During the recent ‘beast from the east’ snow storm that effectively shut down the town, I made a firsthand comparison of Tesco’s organic versus conventionally harvested bananas.

Coming from the northeast corner of the US, I was shocked to see St Andrews come to a halt over a few inches of snow. When I finally ventured out to Tesco, I was to find empty shelves and hardly any fresh vegetables and fruit; it looked like a post-apocalyptic movie set! It was under these circumstances that I picked up a bundle of Tesco’s organic bananas for the first time.

In the past I had been skeptical, they come pre wrapped in a bag of plastic (bad for the environment) and you cannot choose how many you want, they also never looked any fresher than the standard bananas sitting right next to them.

From a taste perspective, I could not notice a distinguishable difference, nor according to science and my interpretations was I reaping a huge health benefit. Surprisingly enough, neither did I pay significantly more for the organic version. A bundle of six organic bananas cost me 99p, while a bundle of the regular old bunch in the following week’s shop rang in at £0.78. Despite the lack of taste difference, the slightly higher cost, and the questionable benefits to my health, I have found myself adding the organic version to my basket sporadically ever since. Is this the result of clever organic messaging targeted at university students?

While organic products are arguably not conclusively better for us than the traditional, they certainly cannot harm us. At the very least, even the minor increases in omega-3 levels and lack of BGH in milk has to be good in some way. But what about the organic industries’ impact o on the environment?

Surprisingly, it is not a positive one, despite being touted as a holy grail solution to food scarcity and environmental sustainability. In fact, organic farming could have serious long term detrimental effects on the environment.

Organic farms produce up to 40 per cent less of an annual crop yield than their conventional counterparts. This is because they are not allowed to use pesticides or chemical weed killers that can protect crops. When less product is produced in a given area of land, farmers expand their land and plant more crops. While this may sound innocuous enough, the number one contributing factor to climate change and habitat loss is land conversion for agriculture.  

So, should you buy organic? The answer is it is hard to tell, and in the end, comes down to personal choice. Minor health benefits are balanced with a higher cost, and greater land diversification is countered by environmental detriments. So whether you are a Goop obsessed vegan or a Thai food takeout regular, it all just might balance out in the end. But, it could be very helpful for you to do your own research, find your own sources, and most importantly come to your own conclusions.

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