11/07/2012 04:29 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2013

Organic Food: Can You Trust the Buzz?

Written by A. Ashkuff

Over the past year, I've poured lots of effort into a dual social experiment and business venture -- the "KrishnaPonics" urban garden. In search of customers, I've conducted research among local grocery stores, which in turn introduced me to the organic foods industry. I've learned plenty from the experience, especially about word-of-mouth advertising.

After all, organics fans usually have lots of great stuff to say about their food! However, the government doesn't regulate word-of-mouth advertising, so can shoppers really trust the buzz? Let's explore three (confusing) examples of the buzz about organic foods:

First, organics fans sometimes contrast "pollution-spewing industrial farms" against "ecofriendly organic farms." Objectively, however, neither farm is very ecofriendly.

After all, even if organics do pollute less than industry, that doesn't exactly mean they're ecofriendly. Farming generally hurts ecosystems in lots of ways. For example, compared to industrial farms using hydroponics, organic farms waste enormous amounts of fresh water, which strains environment's rivers and aquifers. Also, organic and industrial farms alike require lots of acreage, which means ruining preexisting environments. Lastly, farming tends to reduce biodiversity and force species invasion; a case point, potatoes are South American and have no ecological business in Ireland! Perhaps when fans call organics ecofriendly, they mean something like "friendly by comparison?"

Second, organics fans say organic foods are "healthier," although they're no more nutritious than conventional foods.

When mainstream shoppers hear the word "healthier," they might assume anything from "fewer carbs" to "more nutritious." By fans' own admission, however, organic food is neither. Instead, they call organics healthier because they haven't been sprayed with certain pesticides, nor are they Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs.) Sounds reasonable to me! Yet, it also demonstrates how the same word can mean different things to different communities --- and different shoppers.

Lastly, some organics fans prefer organics because they don't use "chemicals," although scientifically speaking, everything's made of chemicals.

For example, water itself is a chemical, with the IUPAC ID "oxidane." Both industrial and organic soils brim with chemicals like nitrogen (popular in explosives) and phosphorous (popular in incendiary weapons.) Nonetheless, chemicals like oxidane, nitrogen, and phosphorous are all natural parts of healthy plant growth! Indeed, there's no getting away from chemicals. My research suggests that when organics fans say "chemicals," they mean something more specific, like "pesticides" or "synthetic hormones."

Ashkuff is a university-educated and professionally-practicing anthropologist living in Florida. He has worked extensively with UF's Institute of Black Culture, and its Institute of Hispanic and Latino Cultures. Ashkuff also dabbles with the anthropology of violence.