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Boulder's Organic Industry Counters Stanford Study

A recent Stanford University study questions whether organic fruits and vegetables are more nutritious than conventional produce.

KUNC’s Erin O’Toole spoke with Boulder County Business Report publisher Chris Wood about reaction to the study in the Boulder Valley’s robust organic industry.

O’Toole: Chris, this Stanford study questions some long-standing beliefs promoted by the organic sector. The results provoked a pretty strong reaction when they were reported. What’s been the reaction from supporters of the Boulder Valley’s natural-foods and organic industry?

Chris Wood: I’d say they’re reacting with a mixture of disbelief, questioning and shrugs, Erin. On the one hand, they don’t believe the findings that organics are no more nutritional than conventional produce. They cite a 2011 study done in the United Kingdom that found that organic apples, strawberries, grapes, tomatoes, milk, carrots and grains have 10 percent to 30 percent more nutrients.

They also feel that the premise of the study is wrong and that there are far more advantages to organic produce than just the nutritional value.

O’Toole: So what advantages do they cite besides nutrition? I would think that nutrition would be one of their main selling points.

Wood: They do believe that organics are more nutritious, and that is a major selling point. But one other point that organic boosters make is that the study did not take into account the social benefits of organic food and farming. They argue that conventional agriculture has environmental costs because of pesticides and herbicides in the water, air and rain. And the Stanford study did find that organics have less residue from pesticides and herbicides.

O’Toole: Chris, we know of a lot of natural and organic companies in the Boulder Valley. Celestial Seasonings, Aurora Organic Dairy and White Wave come quickly to mind. How big an industry is this in the Boulder Valley - and nationally?

Wood: It’s big and getting bigger, Erin. Boulder is one of the centers for the natural and organic sector nationwide, with several hundred companies generating an estimated statewide economic impact of $2.5 billion annually. That’s according to a study for a local industry membership group, Naturally Boulder, conducted by the Business Research Division of the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business.

Nationwide, sale of organic fruit and vegetables reached $12.4 billion in 2011, or 12 percent of all fruit and vegetable sales. That’s up from $10.6 billion in 2010. All told, with other types of organics included, the industry amounted to $28.6 billion in sales in 2010.

O’Toole: That’s a lot of produce! Do supporters of the organic industry believe that this study will cause any long-standing damage?

Wood: They really don’t, Erin. You mentioned Aurora Organic Dairy. That is, of course, a Boulder-based company with major dairy operations near Platteville in Weld County. A spokeswoman there told us that educated consumers choose organics in part because they want to avoid chemicals and known carcinogens. So this study likely will change nothing. That’s the shrugging off that I mentioned earlier.

On the other hand, questions about organics will persist. Aurora Organic Dairy this week agreed to pay $7.5 million in a class-action lawsuit over how the company produces organic milk. The company admitted no wrong-doing, and its milk was certified as organic, but said its payment of the settlement was a financial decision.

I should also point out that the Organic Center, a trade group founded in Boulder to promote the science of organics, recently merged with the Organic Trade Association and moved to Washington, D.C. That’s in part to get closer to lawmakers, regulators and other policymakers.

As the host of KUNC’s new program and podcast In the NoCo, I work closely with our producers and reporters to bring context and diverse perspectives to the important issues of the day. Northern Colorado is such a diverse and growing region, brimming with history, culture, music, education, civic engagement, and amazing outdoor recreation. I love finding the stories and voices that reflect what makes NoCo such an extraordinary place to live.
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