Organic Food: Fact or Fiction?

Organic food is fast becoming an integral part of every grocery store, but is it worth it?  Ten years ago, “Certified Organic” didn’t exist.  Since then, organic foods and beverages have made $26.7 billion in the US alone.  Worldwide, sales have reached approximately $52 billion, despite the higher purchase cost.

Organic foods include vegetables, fruits, eggs, milk, and meat produced without synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.  It refers to the way the products are grown and processed.  Certification lets consumers know that, during every step, the product is protected and maintained according to government-regulated standards and regulations.  Canada’s organic standards are amongst the most recognized in the world.   Canada places strict limits on the use of toxic and persistent pesticides, drugs, antibiotics, or synthetic hormones.  Organic standards also prohibit the use of artificial food colors, flavors, sweeteners, and preservatives.  They also prohibit the use of genetic engineering.

The Benefits of Organic

Image: Mircea Ploscar

This all sounds great, right?  Advocates for organic production boast the benefits of organic farming.  According to the European Conference for Organic Food and Farming, organic farming is not just about food. 

First, organic farming is decreases economic costs to society.  According to the estimations presented during their summit, over 183 million Canadian dollars (125 million Euro) are spent each year in Germany against the measurable effects of pesticides on health, water quality, residuals in food, and loss of species.  In the United Kingdom, the costs equal almost 279 million dollars (190 million Euro). According to the Science Council of Canada (1986), the estimation of soil degradation alone costs over $2 billion per year.  An additional argument often used to support organic is that organic farming requires a higher labor input and will thus help with unemployment which again benefits society. 

These advocates further state that organic farming has positive environmental effects on the ecosystem, soil, climate, and air.    Organic farmers rotate their crops where traditional farming methods produce single-species crops.  Rotating crops helps balance the soil’s nutrients and helps discourage pests.  Overall, this is much better for the environment.  According to research, the environmental effects of organic farming compared to conventional methods are less detrimental on a per hectare basis.

Food quality is the most important benefit, according to organic supporters.  As consumers think more and more about what they consume, the demand for organic has increased as the perception is that organic equals quality.

According to the Mayo Clinic, there is a growing body of evidence showing some potential health benefits of organic foods (when compared to conventionally grown foods).  Studies have shown that organic foods have a lower risk of contamination with pesticides and nitrates, in addition to small to moderate increases in some nutrients.   

Is Organic Food Fictional?

The myth about pesticides is the first puncture into the organic bubble. The Soil Association, an accredited organic body in the United Kingdom, asked consumers why they purchase organic – 95% of them said the main reason was to avoid pesticides. The irony is, many countries approve and use chemicals in the growing and processing of organic crops. In the United States, there are currently over 20 chemicals used, including copper and sulfur. Many of these chemicals used are at a much higher rate than their synthetic counterparts.

Also assumed for years is that pesticides that occur naturally in certain plants are better for us and the environment. As research continues into their toxicity, results have found that many have potentially serious health risks. In Canada, scientists studied “reduced-risk” organic pesticides against synthetic to control the soybean aphid. They found that not only were the synthetic pesticides more effective, but less ecologically damaging, with the organic pesticides causing mortality in non-targeted species like the aphid’s predators.

Another myth is that organic foods are healthier to eat. Health Canada has clearly stated that there is no evidence to prove that eating food grown organically is any safer than food that is not. Additionally, scientists around the world have been comparing the two for over 50 years with minimal differences. Concerning the claim that moderate increases in some nutrients exist, scientists in the UK found that conventional crops had higher nitrogen levels and organic had higher phosphorus and acidity – none of these play a role in nutritional quality. Livestock, on the other hand, had higher levels of overall fats, particularly trans fats. A professor of food toxicology at Rutgers, Joseph D. Rosen, was quoted “Any consumers who buy organic foods because they believe that it contains more healthful nutrients than conventional food, are wasting their money.”

Advocates also claim that organic food is better for the environment. However, this is not true. Organic farming cannot rival the production output of conventional farming in the same amount of space. Already, we have cleared more than 35% of the Earth’s ice-free land for agriculture. Ecologically, this is devastating. Organic farmers use fewer or no synthetic pesticides. The pesticides they use, however, still have chemicals damaging to the ecology. They refuse to use any genetically modified organism yet have been applying Bt toxin (Bacillus thuringiensis – a small insecticidal protein from soil bacteria used on GMO products) on crops for decades.  

As far as decreasing costs to society, there is insufficient data to prove the benefits of organic farming versus conventional methods. A report from the American Journal of Alternative Agriculture on the economic implications of organic farming assumes that soil structure, infiltration rates, and erosion rates were the same for organic and conventional agriculture and that any differences had no economic consequences. Organic farming could reduce the cost of government programs but raise pricing because of reduced supplies. A study at the Iowa State University found that converting to organic methods nationwide would decrease production, increase commodity prices, decrease net export potential, and increase the land used for agriculture. Organic farmers in low-income countries are usually dependant on export markets and, since organic farming is highly dependant on labor, will be less profitable. Finally, organic farms are highly dependant on nutrients like animal manure from conventional farms. It is unlikely that we would have enough organic fertilizers to keep up with the demand to feed everyone worldwide.  

Fact or Fiction?

Image: Nicole Kohler

Whether or not you choose to buy organic is entirely up to you.  There are two opposing beliefs regarding organic foods, so there is no clear fact or fiction answer. What I took away from this is that until studies can conclude without a doubt that the difference between the two translates to better overall health benefits, a better ecological footprint, and an improved societal impact, there is no need to purchase only organic.

Now, if you are an “organic is a fact” individual, start with purchasing produce.  Every year, the USDA presents findings of the produce that is most likely to contain pesticide residues.  This year’s list:  apples, celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, nectarines, peaches, potatoes, snap peas, spinach, strawberries, and sweet bell peppers.  Whatever you choose to purchase, happy cooking!

3 thoughts on “Organic Food: Fact or Fiction?

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