There are a lot of arguments for eating organically. Some of them are connected to environmental and sustainability issues. Others are based on the absence of a negative: pesticides. But much of the momentum for the explosive growth in organic foods has been philosophical; it’s a kind of spiritual and mystical belief system.
That’s why I was so fascinated by a story on NPR yesterday, which reported on a study that found organically-grown tomatoes to be actually healthier than those weaned on synthetics.
The farming experiment, conducted by the University of California at Davis, found increased flavonoid levels in the tomatoes grown with manure and composted crops. And we’re not talking about marginal differences, we’re talking:
“…double the concentration of two types of flavonoids — quercetin and kaempferol — which are considered to be healthful plant compounds with potent antioxidant activity. The 10-year mean levels of quercetin were 79 percent higher than those in conventional tomatoes, and levels of kaempferol were 97 percent higher.”
The hypothesis for this unexpected finding is that the less immediately-available nitrogen in an organic environment causes the tomato to grow slower, thus allowing it to allocate its resources to the production of these flavonoids.
I don’t know if this is the first time anyone has proved that an organically-grown item is actually denser and richer in nutrient than those conventionally spawned. But it’s out there in the media ether now in a big way; a giant and ringing confirmation that the Whole Foods Way of life is better for you than the Safeway lifestyle.
I predict this is going to have some huge marketing implications. We’ve already seen the power of the first organic wave – it’s become so mass that Wal-mart is now the largest buyer of organic produce in the country.
But, as I pointed out, this powerful consumer trend has had a lot of emotional and values-driven energy behind it – but not much science. Organic produce feels like it should be better for you, and millions want to believe it, but until now, there hasn’t been any evidence that a plant recognized synthesized nitrogen any differently than the naturally-derived stuff.
With this study – which will be the first of many such investigations, of course – there is now a harvest of scientific rigor that supports the pretty emotional hypothesis.
This will trigger the second wave of organic growth, and with it will come even more profound changes in the supply chain than we’ve seen, as Big Ag will need to turn over more and more of its vast acreage to organically-grown fruits and vegetables.
And soon, the goal of weaning ourselves off our dependence on synthetic nitrogen will be as much of a cultural and political meme as breaking our addiction to foreign oil.