Saturday, 8 September 2012

A Pinch of Salt and Food for Thought

Earlier this week Stanford University announced that organic food may be no healthier than non-organic food. So what does that mean for your sustainable event catering plan? Have the benefits of sourcing organic food been debunked? Were we all wasting our time and money?

CSA Bounty! Photo by yksin
First let's be clear what the study found from Stanford itself:
(Researchers) did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives, though consumption of organic foods can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure.
Stanford's release clarifies the scope of the study, which included 237 papers. These papers only involved studies of less than two years in length. Researchers also acknowledge many limitations of the review, affirming much variation among farming practises that make it hard to determine what factors predict nutritional quality and risks in food.

So what does this mean for you, and your requests for organic food at your event?


Well, it means if you were doing it because you thought organic food provided more vitamins and minerals to your attendees, making them healthier than non-organic options, you may want to re-evaluate that idea in light of this evidence.

It also means you might want to carefully scrutinise the claims of caterers and suppliers selling organic food at a higher price solely on the basis it makes you and your event attendees healthier.

And it still means you'll likely want to keep asking for organic for other important reasons, not the least of which is reducing the presence of chemicals in the environment. For a good, technical and scientific perspective on the Stanford study please read Charles Benbrook's response on the Washington State University Blog, which includes more on the benefits of organic and a critique of the study. For a shorter, consumer-oriented counter perspective check out Jason Mark's commentary on the Earth Island Journal, which raises the argument many purchase organic not for their own health, but the health of others.

And while the Stanford study may make you sceptical of spending a bit more on organic as a premium brand on your next trip to Whole Foods or Walmart, remember that organic food does not have to be more expensive where you can plan for it. Consider my community-supported agriculture (CSA) box: $20 a week for a summer of lovely organic veggies. By planning ahead and buying in early with my fellow consumers I  get great organic produce for less than conventional grocery store veggies. Imagine what we could do if event planners banded together earlier across our events with an organic CSA-mentality? Or the difference caterers could make if they got ahold of the idea first?

And in those situations where it is more expensive, let's not forget that certified organic growers use different materials, apply different processes and meet standards that are not the same as conventional growers who may externalise the environmental and social costs of operations. I wonder if we were to tally up the true cost of non-organic options how expensive it may actually be, and how cheap organic may look in comparison?

A pinch of salt, and food for thought.

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