Naturally you want to eat food. It is a necessity and a commodity so imperative that your survival depends on it. Without food the human race would cease to exist. We have created an industry around the creation of dishes, foods, and experiences related to food. After all, we have come a long way from the foods our neanderthal ancestors ate. We have so many options now a days it almost seems impossible for there to be places around the world where hunger still exists. However, most people in the US today don’t know where their food comes from. This can be a problem because foods may or may not be grown or made well, or with natural ingredients that could possibly lead to health issues. But this paper will take it one step further and talk about organics, and the sociology around them, are they really worth it? This paper will take a comparative look at the benefits and disadvantages of organic foods and how it all deals with sociology specifically in the US.
So what is the true definition of an organic food? According to the USDA, the United States Department of Agriculture, “USDA certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives,” (Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means., 2012).This goes to show that since the dawn of the industrial revolution when more and more cities were being built which meant more families were growing, food as a commodity became even more crucial to not only one’s diet but also the economy. Food has always been an important commodity around the world since the time people discovered flavor, and the need to eat to survive. But specifically in the US around the time of the settlement in the new world, and the boom of the industrial revolution, people have needed more amounts of food.
This means that there needed to be more farms, with more livestock and more crops to keep up with the growing numbers of populations. As time went on and cities were being developed and populated, grocery stores were put in place to meet the need for food in growing populations. At some point it became so mainstream to just buy food that was available at a grocery store. Options weren’t questioned because there was a lack of communication and knowledge through platforms such as social media and the internet, because those platforms weren’t yet created, and news traveled much slower. Also, seeing as there was a rise in the demand for foods, but lack of knowledge and questioning of ingredients, big named stores started to wipe out smaller run markets or family run businesses. In order to keep up with the demand of how much food was being consumed, companies started to make those compromises in the ingredients list. Chemicals would be added for preservation and shelf life, colors and dyes would be added to be more appealing, and unnecessary amounts of sugar would be added to trick the brain into wanting more. Now much of this has to do with marketing and neurobiology in that companies have found ways to manipulate products to make consumer’s brains need more sugar or crave certain things, but this paper is more about how the people were influenced in that they were being led to just have certain options when it came to the grocery store, and the societal acceptances and norms of buying certain foods. But overtime, research has been done to show the effects of certain pesticides used on foods, artificial colors and dyes, and additives on the human body. This garnered in the age of the organics.
With more and more people being aware of the possible health issues due to the current foods on the market, the demand for more quality natural foods ushered in the time for farmers to have agricultural standards that would certify their foods as organic. This meant more and more foods would go under inspection and be put through tests to see the quality of the ingredients. Still much of this information is withheld from the consumer. Overtime with such a high demand for organic foods, stores like Whole Foods, Trader Joes, and Fresh Market would pop up in plazas not too far from a Walmart, or Publix. People were given more options, they had the say in which stores to buy eggs from, or to get, or not to get diary free milk. The choice was made up by the consumer, not by the supplier which would mean limited options on shelves. With that being said, customers started to buy products that had fewer additives, dyes or chemicals added to increase shelf life. Health and the idea of living past one’s 50s became a novel idea that all wanted to achieve. This had a lot to do with food which converted a lot of people to eating organic foods.
With this huge uproar in organic goods, farmers and stores had to become more and more picky as to what went into and still goes into the foods being made. But how many people really buy organic foods and how many actually know the benefits. Or is the organic food fad just that, a fad? Let’s take a look at two differing arguments, the first is that organic foods are beneficial for health and have become widely accepted in the cultural and societal aspect of food norms. The second is that food considered “organic” is just a label used by marketing companies to make more money on practices that farmers should already have in place, along with the disadvantages and little societal normality they hold. This is somewhat of a controversial topic because so many regulations and government policies are in place that it makes it hard to know where the boundary of the government and where the boundary of the consumer is.
Let’s take a look at the first argument, being that organic foods are good to buy, with health benefits and societal acceptance. Now to break down the sub portions of this point. Organic foods as mentioned before started to pop up in super markets because consumers were becoming more and more aware of the quality of the foods they were eating and the possible health benefits. Based on a Time magazine article on the benefits of organic foods, according to a study done by British Journal of Nutrition in 2016, “When it comes to meat and milk, organic products can have about 50% more omega-3 fatty acids, a type of unsaturated healthy fat, than conventionally produced products,” (MacMillan, A., & Naftulin, J., 2017). There are benefits of the use of organic products seeing as there are fewer traces of pesticides and chemicals found in the actual food. Organic food also doesn’t have as much toxic carcinogenic chemicals in the soil due to run off or other mixing of pesticides with acid rain or other combinations of chemicals. This goes to show that the more organic foods consumed the fewer amounts of chemicals will be found in one’s body. That could go to decrease the amount of risk of certain diseases like cancer.
Let’s take a look at what organic food means from different sociological perspectives. From the structural-functionalism theory, being a look into the macro side of sociology and how things work based on large institutions, the idea of using organics works very well within that of a grocery store. The grocery store serves as an institution that plays a role in the society of the area, specifically in the US. Even more so in Florida the grocery stores that are around certain communities play a huge role in the types of foods available to consumers. Within the realm of organics, with this theory it goes to show that from a macro standpoint, having another healthier option of food, organics, gives consumers the ability to create a societal acceptance of eating better foods stemming from that of the institution being the grocery store. From the perspective of the conflict theory that deals with a macro standpoint, and the competition for resources specifically between the poor and the rich, organic foods allows there to be more amounts of food to go around. The demand levels for the foods would balance out based on what the rich and poor can afford.
Finally from the symbolic interactionist perspective, that takes a look through the micro lens, using organics would be looked at through face to face interactions. What this means is that the interaction between consumers about organic foods would be what is observed. If a woman in a grocery store looks at an organic apple and a man talks to her about the benefits and she then decides to buy the apple, this would be a symbolic interaction dealing with organic foods. The more and more positive symbolic interactions had between people or consumers about organic foods, would increase the amount of organic foods sold therefore indicate that people are willing to put forth the money for organics if they believe there are enough benefits and it is societally or culturally accepted in their region.
Certified organic foods go through specific evaluations before a farm can be considered planting and producing certified organic foods, or before a factory that makes foods from those ingredients is using foods certified as organic. With that being said, although the tests and evaluations look to make sure that farmers aren’t using chemicals or pesticides, that doesn’t mean what it sounds like. According to an article by livestrong.com, “Even the United States Department of Agriculture makes no claims that organic farming methods produce safer foods with higher nutritional value compared with conventionally produced foods.” Farmers and food producing companies are also not allowed to use pesticides unless the are considered “naturally-derived pesticides,” (Organic Foods: What You Need to Know. (n.d.). This means that while you think you may be eating a fruit that was grown without any pesticides and picked off the tree and taken from farm to table, you may be wrong. Another thing to take into consideration is the actual amount of nutrients in said organic foods, “For example, a study from the University of Texas reported sharply reduced levels of six nutrients in vegetables grown in 1999 compared to the levels reported in the same foods back in 1950,” according to an article by Runningcompetitor.com (Do The Benefits Of Organic Foods Outweigh The Cost?, 2013). This means that whether something was organic or not, there were still fewer nutrients in the products than there were in products on farms in the 1950s. This may be attributed to the many pollutants that have been introduced into soils, air and rain. This also goes to show that no matter what product whether it is certified organic, or of conventional farming, there will be much fewer nutrients in it (Henry, A., 2012). Certified organic also means that it was put through a set of evaluations by the USDA, it doesn’t necessarily mean there will be actual health benefits, just fewer traces of chemicals or carcinogens; there may even been some genetically modified organisms used in the foods, which isn’t supposed to be practice within that of organic foods.
One must note that in the US, a major part and even more controversial topic within the realm of food, is that USDA certified organic foods must not be genetically modified or enhanced (Organic Foods: What You Need to Know., n.d.). This goes to show that on an ingredients list if a bag of chips is labeled certified organic, the potatoes grown to make the chips must also not be genetically modified. However, on the flip side of the bag where the nutritional label sits, if one sees at the bottom right or left a certified organic label, along with a label saying GMOs were used, then the product does not truly fit under the label of certified organic, and is therefore being sold for more money in hopes that people will choose that product because of the fewer heath issues the food could cause.
Society is being led to believe that people are eating so healthily because of certified organic foods, but that doesn’t mean that all the ingredients in the food are organic or non-GMO. Genetically modified foods, may or may not have health benefits or issues. They have not been studied enough yet to know the long term effect of their use, yet they are used in making foods and are out on the market for consumers to have; many times unknown to a consumer seeing as many companies don’t have to include whether GMO-ed ingredients were used in a product or are the product, such as GMO-ed strawberries. Farmers or those at the factory making the labels and putting them on the packaging don’t have to include that as vital information for customers to know. This goes to show that at the end of the day even if something is labeled certified organic, that may not be what the customer is really paying for. He or she may just be paying for a label that seems to be true, but actually is far from it (Organic Foods: What You Need to Know. (n.d.).
Not only do people not know if they are paying for genetically modified foods when they buy organic, there are also other factors that go into the cons of organics. Some of the big cons when it comes to producing organic foods is the amount of water, land, and natural fertilizers needed. According to an article by Time magazine on sustainable foods, a study in 2012 found that, organic agriculture also unfortunately “yields 25% fewer crops on average than conventional agriculture.” (Walsh, B., 2012). This means that it requires more materials to make organic foods yet also yields less of them at a time. This makes sense agriculturally compared to other mass agriculture companies, because if organic foods don’t have as many un-natural pesticides on them, insects and viruses have an easier time wiping out a plot of land. If a plot of land is hit by a virus, large swarm of pests, or natural disaster it will be that much harder for the crop bounce back and yield more of itself in a timely manner. This also costs famers more overall, and in turn increases the price of the organic food found in a grocery store.
Now that the cons of producing organic foods is explained, let’s take a look at the sociological perspectives on the cons of organic foods. First, from the structural functionalism theory, the institution of the factories and companies that make foods using “organic” material may not be completely revealing the truth in that they may be using genetically modified foods which are not certified organic. Another institution doing something similar would be the members of the USDA possibly getting paid large sums by farmers or companies to keep quiet about the amounts of toxins in the soil, water or fertilizers. The next sociological perspective to look through is that of the conflict theory, which goes to show that if organic food is becoming more and more popular there will be more competition among the rich and poor. This will eventually create a demand so high that only the rich can afford to purchase organic foods. And finally the third sociological perspective as mentioned with the pros, is the symbolic interaction theory, which takes into account face to face interactions between people like customers. If more information about organic foods goes to show that it is just about marketing and doesn’t exactly help the overall public, people will start to converse about it and in their next grocery store visit most likely decide against the organic foods.
From my perspective, there needs to be more awareness and knowledge about what really goes into the process of considering a food and labeling it “certified organic.” Consumers need to know that organic foods aren’t much better for them than they think. Based on the information presented, there are more cons than pros when it comes to producing, buying, and eating organic foods. While organic foods can be healthy, the cons outweigh the pros and therefore go to show that they are not as worth it as they are marketed to be. Yes overtime some people may see some benefits but it won’t always help or be immediate. Organic in my book, is just a marketing tool used by companies to make more money off of foods that may go through a few more natural processes but aren’t all that great. There is also the need for more money to produce organic foods, more water, land and animals, all of which don’t necessarily create more jobs for people or yield any more crops than another farm or agricultural business.
Farmers should have more integrity than to be using pesticides with known carcinogens or disease causing chemicals on foods. People should be more aware to question where their food comes from. Cultures within the US should question the sustainability of the foods they eat not only from a sociological standpoint but also for economics, and environment. Companies need to be more transparent when it comes to the ingredients being used and the actual use or lack of genetically modified foods. Health benefits may be an appealing reason to accept organics as a great addition to counteract the current foods on the market, but if all farmers, and companies worked to make their food a little bit better without the use of chemicals and toxins, such regulations wouldn’t be needed to put in place to the point of needing a separate label as that of “certified organic.” Society needs to be more aware of local farmers and what really goes into the process of growing food, seeing first hand how to yield a crop, and how it gets from farm or factory to table. Overall organics aren’t worth it.
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