Much of this has been debated before, here and elsewhere. There are a very large number of factors that have to be taken into account, not all of which are measurable in a strict sense. A few points worth considering, some of which have already been noted in this discussion, listed here in no particular order:
- Is it appropriate simply to divide foods into "organic" and "conventional"? Does this not presume that the various means of classifying "organic," which vary widely across the US depending on lots of factors, are themselves highly reliable? But this has been questioned many times. Think of it this way: if WalMart (for example) decides that there may be a high profit margin in the label "organic," they will agitate to be able to use it, and will want to be able to use it with the minimal cost to themselves. That's business. But this puts considerable pressure on the USDA and others to develop a standard for the label "organic" that is minimally intrusive or constricting for big retailers -- and thus for large-scale agricultural producers. If the USDA and other federal and state regulatory agencies end up principally responsible to the producers and retailers, because consumers have no effective means to lobby and no lever with which to shift policy or decisions, what makes it likely that the distinction "organic" vs. "conventional" is not principally a matter of advertising?
- Does this mean that there can be no such distinction that serves consumer needs?
- Does the fact that some large businesses profit heavily by advertising their products as more organic or green than others mean that the consumers are simply fools or that they believe in a genuine distinction, whether that distinction actually applies or otherwise? Or could it mean that they believe in a distinction that isn't even theoretically real, and are then convinced to buy products by those who cynically manipulate this false distinction to get more money? Are there other alternatives?
- Is "organic" even theoretically a reasonable distinction to apply across all foods? That is, does it make sense that a potato and a highly-processed cheese are similar to such a degree that both can equally be labeled "organic" and have this mean something significant? What, precisely, could that distinction be, and is that the one which consumers who gravitate to the label are looking for?
- What is it one hopes to achieve by purchasing "organic"? Is it nutrition, as this study investigates, or other factors? Is it possible to weigh the various factors against one another to many people's satisfaction? For example: (1) nutrition, (2) ethical treatment of animals, (3) environmental stewardship, (4) flavor.... How shall these be measured? Has anyone seriously tried to do so?
- If regulatory agencies necessarily serve big business, and medical studies are often underwritten by such companies as Monsanto which demonstrably put heavy pressure on scientists to produce desirable results, and activists on all sides feel free to cite more or less any source that fits their agenda, what sort of information should we trust? Every time we eat, we make guesses about this, including when we choose to eat "conventional": in doing so we say that we trust some of these groups and not others. Is there anything here to go on that is remotely reliable?
Let's take an example of several of these points, just for discussion's sake. The USDA has indicated that eggs and chicken meat are both more or less endemically infected with salmonella, at least to a sufficient degree that it is appropriate to treat them with extreme caution -- high cooked temperatures, lots of care to avoid cross-contamination, etc. This is a concern especially with small children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. There is not the slightest indication that "organic" chickens or eggs are significantly less likely to be infected with salmonella. There is extremely weak anecdotal evidence to suggest that "organic" chickens and eggs grown on very small local farms might be less likely to be infected, but there are also strong arguments to suggest that this is wishful thinking. So it would appear that, in this instance, "organic" makes no difference as far as this very clearly measurable factor. Right?
... Except that, in point of fact, chicken and eggs in general are not endemically infected. Certain breeds are particularly susceptible, because of bad breeding, and these are among the dominant breeds in US poultry farms. A range of common practices that the USDA permits, for both organic and conventional poultry farming, encourage the development and spread of salmonella. Financial pressures on that industry cause them to push back very hard against measures that would change these practices, most especially anything that would cause their chickens to take on weight a little more slowly, as they did until the 1970s. Political pressures on the USDA, from the industry and elsewhere, cause them not to want to make a big stand about this, especially since the end-result of strong measures would (at least in the short run) be a sharp rise in cost to the consumer.
What does this mean? It means that in Japan, to take an example of a place where extremely strong regulations control "organic" and indeed agriculture in general, eggs are usually sold unrefrigerated, raw eggs are commonly eaten especially by children and the elderly, and raw chicken sashimi is a safe dish (if not to everyone's taste).
So... does this mean that "organic" and such are BS? Or does it mean that the term itself is now a commercial and political brand name that doesn't always mean what we might hope?