It’s hard to ignore organic products these days; the average consumer has almost certainly heard or read about buying organic, organic produce and the dangers of pesticides in food.
This is because organic food and other organic products have gone mainstream. More and more consumers want to see an increase of these products in the marketplace. An Organic Trade Association survey of American families revealed that about half (51 percent) are buying more organic produce and organic products this year as compared to last year. This finding is supported by a recent Consumer Reports survey which shows that 84 percent of Americans buy organic food.
Is it really worth it to buy organic, or is this just a fad brought on by media hype? Let’s explore the pros and cons of buying organically grown produce and products.
Buying organic has many benefits. These include:
Although both organic and non-organic products comply with government-set safety thresholds on chemical residues, organic products have less residues in them than their conventional counterparts. Farmers of organic certified farms strictly follow a set of standards issued by the government—one of these is that they should never use synthetic pesticides in their produce. Any chemical residue found in organic products can be attributed to runoff from neighboring non-organic farms, and as a result, organic produce has less. This is confirmed by a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine which found organically grown fruits and vegetables had “30% lower risk of contamination with pesticide residues compared to conventional produce”.
On the same note, farmers do not use hormones, antibiotics or other drugs on organically grown animals. The ingestion of too much of these chemicals can weaken our body’s ability to fight infections and even cause cancer.
Researchers from Europe and the United States reviewed 343 studies on organic food and found that, on average, organic crops contained more antioxidants than those grown conventionally.
“This shows clearly that organically grown fruits, vegetables and grains deliver tangible nutrition and food safety benefits,” said study coauthor Charles Benbrook, a research professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. But this is assuming that people eat more fruits and vegetables; otherwise, they won’t reap the health benefits.
In another study, researches found organic milk and chicken had higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
Organic food, which has zero additives, tastes fresher compared to non-organic. And it may taste better, too. According to a consumer taste test, organically grown apples were less tart at harvest and tasted sweeter after six months of storage than conventional apples.
Then again, our preferences determine what tastes good—what tastes great to one person may not taste the same to another. Organic farming may certainly make a difference, but individuality is definitely a factor as well.
Water pollution caused by agricultural activities was discovered to be the major cause of pollution to rivers and lakes, according to the 2000 National Water Quality Inventory conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency. These activities include too much or poorly timed application of pesticides and fertilizers, overgrazing, plowing too often or at the wrong time, and poorly located or managed animal feeding operations.
With organic farming, we can protect our water sources. For one, farmers don’t use synthetic pesticides that eventually reach and contaminate bodies of water. Organic farmers also make use of buffer strips, cover crops, and other less evasive farming practices that help conserve water.
Organically raised animals are provided better treatment and living conditions than their commercial farm counterparts. Farmers make use of natural methods and generally give animals only organic food, as well as space to roam freely. In contrast, commercial farm animals are bred in tight spaces with little or no room to move. They are often given hormones to spur their growth as well as antibiotics to cure them of any diseases, which then go into the food that they produce.
According to a study, organic farming produces more biodiversity than other farming systems. Biodiversity in organic farming can be seen at all levels. Farmers use traditional and adapted seeds and breeds that are more resistant to diseases and to the natural climate. This type of farming uses under-utilized crop species in crop rotation to make the soil more fertile and less likely to erode. It also attracts more species of pollinators and pest predators that benefit the farm and local ecosystem.
Another study shows that about 10 million hectares of cropland are eroded each year. In addition, soil erosion happens 10 to 40 times faster than the rate of soil renewal, reducing the land available for food production and thus endangering future food supply.
In organic farming, farmers make use of methods that help build the soil, including crop rotations, inter-cropping, cover crops, minimum tillage, and organic fertilizers. These practices not only help control soil erosion but also make the soil more biologically diverse, more fertile and improved in its formation and structure.
Because organic farming leans towards natural and sustainable methods, it requires less non-renewable energy. Organic farming uses 23% to 56% less fossil fuel than conventional farming techniques. Not only does it help preserve non-renewable fossil fuels, it also helps reduce global warming.
Although buying organic has many benefits, it has its downsides, too.
Although it was mentioned earlier how organic food has more antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally grown food, there is data that says otherwise. This study examined scientific articles in the past 50 years and found there was no significant difference in nutrient content between organic and non-organic food. It’s not quite clear yet if organic food has any clear or significant nutrient superiority over non-organic food, because of the variability in study design and uncontrolled factors.
There’s no getting around this one—organic food costs more. This is because of a number of reasons such as high cost of labor, post-harvest handling expenses, and marketing and distribution cost.
Although organic farming standards require farmers not to use synthetic fertilizers, organic food may still contain traces of pesticides. According to the Annals of Internal Medicine study, about seven percent of organic produce in the U.S. and Europe contains detectable amounts of pesticides. This is still much lower than conventional produce, which checks in at 38 percent pesticide positive.
How does this contamination happen? Crops from organic farms sometimes receive runoff of pesticides from nearby crops of non-organic farms, or conventional produce is handled at the same warehouse as organic produce, says Sonya Lunder, senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group.
Buying organic food certainly has many benefits, but it has some major setbacks as well.
It’s your turn: Tell us your reasons for deciding to buy or ignore organic products!