Fresh & Local
Does Organic Food Make People Judgmental?
Column #36, Published May 25th, 2012

There is currently a food revolution going on. Locally grown food is making permanent inroads into the food we eat, and the way we think about food.

A professor at Loyola University in New Orleans conducted a study that found that exposure to organic food makes people more judgmental. A Seattle freelance writer named Diane Mapes wrote a piece about the study for Ms. Mapes added some amusing antidotal stories and titled her piece, “Does organic food turn people into jerks?”

Few people would ever have seen the study or the web piece about it, except that Rush Limbaugh opened his radio show on Monday with a discussion of both. Since this is now a national story, feel compelled to add some balance to this discussion.

Before getting into the details of this, I want to draw attention to something that Rush said during his discussion: “I don't tell you 90% of the food news that I read, but there's a revolution taking place out there. Farmers are trying to sell directly to customers. This whole organic food, I know what it is, it's in reaction to processed food . . .” In case there is anyone who still doubts me, the opening sentences of this column each week are not hyperbole.

Now, back to the story. The current issue of the journal “Social Psychological and Personality Science” contains a study by Loyola professor Kendall Eskine titled “Wholesome Foods and Wholesome Morals? Organic Foods Reduce Prosocial Behavior and Harshen Moral Judgments.”

“There's a line of research showing that when people can pat themselves on the back for their moral behavior, they can become self-righteous,” says professor Eskine. “I've noticed a lot of organic foods are marketed with moral terminology, like Honest Tea, and wondered if you exposed people to organic food, if it would make them pat themselves on the back for their moral and environmental choices.” The study concluded that, “exposure to organic foods may lead people to affirm their moral identities, which attenuates their desire to be altruistic.”

Ms. Mapes wrote a summary of professor Eskine’s study and included some examples of people at an organic market in Seattle being snotty. You can Google the words “mapes organic jerks” to find and read the entire piece.

Before I add my take to all of this, I need to point out that our farm in not strictly organic. We have adopted many organic practices. I am a big fan of much of what Eliot Coleman has written, and I mentioned John Jeavons in last week’s column. But we do not use animal manure, so we top-dress our winter greens with granular fertilizer. We also use Sevin on the cloud of grasshoppers that descend on our greens in the fall.

Even though we are not strictly organic, I feel compelled to remind everyone of the big, positive impacts that the organic movement has made on agriculture. First, the organic movement has attracted large numbers of new farmers. The number of farmers in the U.S. has declined every year for over 100 years, and this year’s agricultural census may show the first net increase since the Civil War era.

Second, the organic movement has largely single-handedly rewritten the rulebook on farm size and economic viability. I wrote about that in last week’s column.

Self-righteous people are everywhere, but they are not representative of the people I know in the organic movement.

Bryant Osborn and his wife Terry own Corvallis Farms in Culpeper County. His column on fresh and locally grown food runs every Friday. He can be reached at