By Kelli Ainsworth
For Reporting Texas
AUSTIN — At the farmer’s market on a recent Wednesday at the Triangle, an upscale, mixed-use development in Central Austin, droves of customers clutching reusable bags browsed stands selling organic eggs, potatoes and even sake. A mile down the road, local organic grocer Wheatsville Food Co-op celebrated Organic Month, its aisles adorned with signs touting the benefits of organic products.
The signs didn’t report the results of a recent high-profile Stanford study that downplayed the nutritional benefits of organic food. Those findings haven’t dampened enthusiasm for organic food among eco-conscious Austin’s marketers and consumers.
“A calorie is a calorie. A vitamin is a vitamin,” said Raquel Dadomo, brand manager for Wheatsville. “I don’t think that anybody would say that one apple has more nutrition or less nutrition than an apple grown a different way. I think we all agree on that.” Cameron Molberg, treasurer of the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and general manager of Coyote Creek Organic Feed Mill in Elgin, said Stanford’s study is “partially misguided” because “the focus of organics is a more holistic outlook on not just the nutrient density of food, but also the environmental impact.”
Stanford, examining 40 years of research on organic produce and meat, also found that conventional produce contains more than five times the amount of pesticides as organic produce, but that both types are equally nutritious.
Organic food and beverages have made an inroad in food retailing, especially in Austin, the home of Whole Foods and Central Market. The Organic Trade Association reports that in 2011, organics surpassed $31.5 billion in national sales, a 9 percent increase over 2010. That figure represents just 4.2 percent of total food sales. Texas, which has 342 organic farms, ranks fifth nationally in organic sales, according to Marco Palma, a professor and agricultural economist with Texas A&M University. Organic product sales in Texas total more than $149 million annually, about 4 percent of nationwide sales, according to AgriLife News, published by Texas A&M.
Texas growers say organic food tastes better and fresher. “You can actually taste the difference of the food that is brought from the fields,” said Govinda Hough, whose family owns Winfield Farms in Red Rock. “A lot of us just picked it right this morning, so you are getting the freshness.”
Katherine Patton, an Austin resident who has been buying organic for more than 15 years, said that although organic products may not be more nutritious, she buys organic “out of concern for toxins in our bodies and in the environment, as well.”
Patton’s preteen daughter, India, echoes her mother: “Seriously, fewer pesticides is not healthier?”
Organic food costs more than conventional produce; for instance, organic Fuji apples cost $2.48 a pound. Conventionally grown Fujis cost $1.69 a pound. “We think about it when we come into the store, but a lot of the things we buy aren’t organic,” said UT student Anna Price, who was shopping at an HEB supermarket in Central Austin. “I buy organic spinach, but that’s about it because price is a big factor.”
According to The Organic Trade Association, for food to be labeled organic, it must be grown without antibiotics, synthetic hormones, genetic engineering, pesticides or synthetic fertilizer. It must also be minimally processed and free of artificial ingredients. Pesticides can seep into soil and groundwater, so they can show up in crops that aren’t treated with chemicals. Dadomo points out the impact of chemicals on crop-pickers’ long-term health is uncertain, and studies analyzed by Stanford showed that pesticide residue was found in the urine of children who ate conventional produce rather than organic.
That’s why the biggest benefit to organic food might be the peace of mind it offers consumers, said Al Wagner, a Texas A&M horticulture professor and fruit and vegetable researcher. Wagner said pesticide levels in conventionally grown produce are regulated to ensure that they are below harmful levels. “The advantage of organics, if there is one, is for people who are concerned about pesticides and things like that,” he said.
While the Stanford study has generated debate on food production, Wheatsville’s Dadomo said she is grateful that people are discussing and researching organics. “I think that since this story came out, there’s been just as much, if not more, press regarding how good organic is, and a lot of people have come out to tell the story of organic. So in a way, I think it’s spurred a lot of conversation,” she said.
Austin’s commitment to organics is rooted in its local culture, and Patton said the city supports all local products, from produce to furniture. Dadomo said the organic food movement mirrors Austin’s dedication to taking care of the community and one another.
“When you care about a single carrot being grown well and done with pride, that sort of thing translates out into the community a hundred times. It ripples out,” she said.