Is Organic Food Stuffed Full Of Marketing Hype?

Charles Benbrook, Urvashi Rangan and Jeffrey Steingarten

From left, Charles Benbrook, Urvashi Rangan and Jeffrey Steingarten participate in an Intelligence Squared U.S. debate on April 13 at New York University's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. Chris Vultaggio hide caption

itoggle caption Chris Vultaggio

Coming Up

On May 11, a panel of experts will debate the motion "Obama's Foreign Policy Spells America's Decline."

Is paying extra money for organic food really worth it?

Some argue that the label "organic" confers real value — marking healthier food produced without the use of synthetic pesticides and antibiotics. But others claim it's just marketing hype — that organic food hasn't been proven healthier and that it comes with its own environmental trade-offs, like requiring more land.

A group of experts recently went head-to-head on the topic in an Oxford-style debate, the latest in the Intelligence Squared U.S. series. Three argued in favor of the motion "Organic Food Is Marketing Hype" and three argued against.

Before the debate, the audience at New York University's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts voted 21 percent in favor of the motion and 45 percent against, with 34 percent undecided. After the debate, the percentage who agreed "Organic Food Is Marketing Hype" remained the same, while 69 percent of the audience opposed it. Ten percent remained undecided.

The April 13 debate was moderated by John Donvan, correspondent for ABC News' Nightline. Those debating were:

FOR THE MOTION

Dennis Avery is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues. From 1980-88, he served as an agricultural analyst for the State Department, where he was responsible for assessing the foreign policy implications of food and farming developments worldwide. At Hudson, Avery continues to monitor developments in world food production, farm product demand, the safety and security of food supplies, and the sustainability of world agriculture.

Dennis Avery, Blake Hurst and John Krebs. i i

Blake Hurst (center) argues for the motion "Organic Food Is Marketing Hype," along with Dennis Avery (left) and John Krebs. Chris Vultaggio hide caption

itoggle caption Chris Vultaggio
Dennis Avery, Blake Hurst and John Krebs.

Blake Hurst (center) argues for the motion "Organic Food Is Marketing Hype," along with Dennis Avery (left) and John Krebs.

Chris Vultaggio

Blake Hurst raises corn and soybeans with his wife, Julie, and other family members on a farm in northwest Missouri. The Hursts have farmed for over 30 years and also own and operate a greenhouse business with their daughter and son-in-law. Hurst, a freelance writer, has had articles published in The Wall Street Journal, The Wilson Quarterly, The American and other periodicals.

John Krebs is the principal of Jesus College, Oxford, and is the former chairman of the Food Standards Agency in the United Kingdom. He was appointed to the House of Lords as an independent crossbencher in 2007. Krebs is a trustee of the Nuffield Foundation; chairman of the U.K. Science and Technology Honours Committee; and chairman of the Royal Society's Science Policy Advisory Group. He sits on the U.K. Climate Change Committee and chairs its Adaptation Sub-Committee.

AGAINST THE MOTION

Charles Benbrook serves as the chief scientist of The Organic Center. He worked in Washington, D.C., on agricultural policy, science and regulatory issues from 1979 through 1997. Benbrook has served as agricultural staff expert on the Council for Environmental Quality; executive director of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Department Operations, Research and Foreign Agriculture; executive director of the Board on Agriculture of the National Academy of Sciences; and he ran Benbrook Consulting Services.

Urvashi Rangan is the director of technical policy for Consumers Union, which she joined in 1999. She developed its ratings system, database and website for evaluating environmental labels. She serves as a spokesperson for Consumer Reports in the areas of sustainable production and consumption practices, organic food standards, food safety issues, pollution and environmental health concerns.

Jeffrey Steingarten is the food critic for Vogue magazine. He is also the author of It Must've Been Something I Ate and The Man Who Ate Everything, named food book of the year by the British Guild of Food Writers and awarded the 1998 Julia Child Book Award for literary food writing.


The Intelligence Squared U.S. series is produced in New York City by The Rosenkranz Foundation.

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