There are many reasons why you may choose to buy organic food. Maybe you believe it is healthier, more environmentally friendly. I often think organics simply taste better, although blind tests prove
this is not actually true. I’ve been reading and learning more about the organic industry lately, and most of this new-to-me information is disappointing. It would be fantastic if buying organic lead to pesticide-free, more nutrient-dense food that had less of an environmental impact on the environment and could still feed the world. However I’m not so sure that is the case.
Are Organics Pesticide-Free?
I have always promoted organics for pregnant women and small children, to decrease pesticide exposure. I was surprised to learn that organic production is NOT pesticide-free. The pesticides used just must be naturally derived rather than synthetically produced. (Here’s a list of allowed natural pesticides in organic food production in the US.) Natural does not equal safe, in fact some natural pesticides are more harmful to health than synthetic pesticides. For example a natural pesticide called Rotenone is linked to Parkinson’s.
Not all pesticides either synthetic or natural are harmful. Everything whether natural or synthetic is made of “chemicals.” In fact, pesticides have become much safer and most (but not all) are non-toxic. F
or more information, read plant pathologist Steve Savage’s Applied Mythology blog on how pesticides have changed here. But one concern with organic-approved pesticide use is there has been a lack of testing done to prove their safety.
So organics may contain pesticides. But is the level lower than conventionally grown food? Some small studies do show lower pesticide residues in urine of children consuming organic diets, such as this one. So overall, it is likely that organic foods have a lower total pesticide load. Even though some pesticides may be harmless, I still feel more comfortable to avoid them myself (as a pregnant woman) but don’t exclusively buy organic produce. It’s beneficial to increase fruit and veggie intake, organic or not. And organic may not be as “clean” as you had thought.
Is Organic Farming Environmentally Friendly?
Diet for a Hot Planet by Anna Lappe is an interesting read and discusses the environmental impact of our food systems. Anna travels the world talking to famers and food industry groups, leading her to “10 Points to Take a Bite out of Climate Change,” such as choose real food. I agree with this, as unprocessed food whether organic or not, will require less processing energy and packaging.
Anna Lappe also encourages everyone to go organic, because: “ If we converted just 10,000 medium-sized farms to organic, we could win an emissions reduction similar to taking one million cars off the road.” However, most scientists would disagree with Anna’s argument that everyone should eat organic to benefit the environment. Organic produces substantially less food per acre than conventional farming (40-80% depending on the crop). So converting 10,000 farms to organic would require those farms to be much larger. We need solutions that feed MORE (not less) people and destroy less land space.
As discussed above, organic food production allows use of natural pesticides. These may require more frequent application than synthetic pesticides and do more environmental damage. A University of Guelph study tested pesticides and compared their environmental impact and effectiveness in killing soybean aphids: four conventional pesticides and two organic pesticides (a mineral-oil based pesticide that smothers aphids and a fungus that kills insects). Compared to the synthetic pesticides, the organic pesticides were less effective, as they also killed ladybugs and flower bugs. These insects are needed to control aphid population and growth. For another example, this interesting blog from scientist Steve Savage that shares some reasons why organic may not be better for the environment, including the use of copper sulfate as a fungicide. Copper sulfate is harmful to aquatic life, and there are safer synthetic options that can’t be used in organic farming.
There are some environmental benefits of organic farming, such as soil health. Other potential benefits like reduced erosion, biodiversity and animal welfare depend on the farm. I found it fascinating to read Michael Pollan’s accounts of how different farms operate in the “Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Some organic farms are: “organic by the letter, not organic in spirit… if most organic consumers went to those places, they would feel they were getting ripped off.” Organic farms (he discusses an organic dairy farm) can be difficult to distinguish between non-organic farms in how animals are treated and products shipped over long distances and distributed in the same fashion as non-organic food.
Are Organic Farms Better for Animal Welfare?
Organic food production does not allowed to use antibiotics. I agree that routine antibiotic use in animal feed to prevent illness may cause larger problems (like antibiotic resistance). But not being able to treat a sick animal with antibiotics is a bit cruel. Humans over-use antibiotics, but sometimes we do need them to get over an illness and so do animals.
Also, the way an animal is treated really depends on the farm. Whether designated organic or not, space to roam (in grass, not knee-deep in poop) would produce a happier healthier animal. Some organic farms are large-scale and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference (expect for the organic animal feed).
It’s also not well known that growth hormones are illegal for use in pork, dairy and chicken production in Canada. So the chickens with breasts so large they can’t even walk from Food Inc. are not an issue here. In beef production is legal to use growth hormones in calves, but the extra hormones are apparently gone by the time the cow enters the food supply. Buying organic or knowing your farmer (many are not certified organic but still don’t use growth hormones) will get around this.
Is Organic Food Healthier?
Studies and meta-analysis of these studies have failed to find evidence of much nutritional difference between organic and conventional food. One large review fond no difference in over 15 nutrients (including vitamin C , beta carotene and calcium). Grass-fed meat and dairy (not necessarily organic) has slightly higher levels of Conjugated Linoleic Acid a natural trans fat, which may be linked to health benefits. It may also have higher omega-3 fat, although meat and dairy are not a high source of omega 3 regardless.
Organic produce may have slightly increased amount of free-radical fighting phytochemicals. They produce these naturally to fight of pests. As for vitamin levels in fruit and veggies, this depends more on how fresh the produce is and where it was grown. Buy local food (or frozen when not available) for the highest amount of vitamins that deteriorate with time (like vitamin C).
As for organic processed food being healthier just because it’s organic – this is simply not true. You may feel better about buying organic cookies, but the sugar is still sugar and white flour still refined flour.
The title of “organic” may offer some benefits such as slightly increased amounts of phytochemicals and omega 3 fats (whether in amounts great enough to benefit, has not been proven yet), possibly reduced amounts of pesticides (although not necessarily pesticide-free), and healthier soil. Unfortunately the title of ‘organic’ doesn’t automatically cause these to be true, and may also exist in non-organic certified farms. The best thing you can do to find out is to go to the farmers market, and talk to the farmer. Ask them about whatever issues concern you, whether it’s pesticide use, environmental management or animal welfare. Email or call the farms if you can’t talk to them directly and most will be happy to tell you how their farm works. Then you can eat real, nutritious food that you feel good about, whether it is certified organic or not.