Organic Food ๐Ÿ“ A Scientific Debate

Organic foods are becoming increasingly popular in the United States, with many believing that organic foods are healthier and safer than traditional offerings. However, current research shows this may not be the case. This post delves into the details to see the pros and cons of organic agriculture.

Anyone who’s visited the grocery store lately has seen the great divide: traditional versus organic fruits, vegetables, and protein. Restaurants boast their locally-sourced organic ingredients, and higher prices to boot, and labels everywhere are rushing to claim the latest consumer trend. But like many consumer trends, are the proposed benefits backed by science or just another effort to win over consumers?

First, we note the organic standards for produce, animal, and processed foods:

  1. Per the USDA, organic produce may be labeled as organic if the food was grown and processed without the use of synthetic pesticides or additives in the soil for three years prior to harvest, and follows the USDA standards for organic labeling. 
  2. Organic meat products must come from animals that were raised in accommodating living conditions, were fed 100% organic food, and were not raised with or administered antibiotics or hormones.
  3. Processed foods may not contain artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives.

LABELING RULES

Organic infographic

Next, let’s take a critical look at the differences between conventional and organic farming. Below is an example of the price difference between conventional and organic produce.

Price of traditionally farmed bananas ($0.55/lb)
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Price of organically farmed bananas ($0.70/lb)

What you see here is a 27% price per pound increase between traditionally farmed and organically farmed bananas. This may or may not sound like a lot to you but for a family strictly managing the grocery budget, every cent counts. Everyone wants to provide the best, wholesome food for their family and may be concerned if they can’t afford organic options. But should they?

When a consumer sees organic, many immediately think healthy, safe, and wholesome. But do organic bananas offer more nutritional benefits than traditional? Do organic farms use safer or “better” farming methods? Let’s take a look.

FOOD SAFETY 

It’s important to understand that while organic agriculture standards cover many aspects of the production of food, food safety is not a component that is specifically addressed. This means no rules are in place above and beyond those of conventional agriculture that would make the organic food safer.

Some experts point out that the use of manure in organic farming could increase the risk of contamination by pathogenic bacteria because chemical treatment to prevent these pathogens is not allowed. On the other hand, aging or composting the manure are ways to manage this risk.

Currently, science is inconclusive on any safety benefits for organics. While some studies did find an increased contamination risk among organic produce, particularly lettuce, others did not find any increased pathogen levels. Other studies suggest organic and conventional foods are equal in terms of safety. It is hard to study outbreaks related to organic foods because production methods are not captured in the data.

Also, remember that smaller farms are not subject to the same regulations as established food organizations. Make sure you trust your supplier and do your research before buying.

PESTICIDES 

A common belief regarding organic farming is that pesticides are not used. The reality is that crops require protection from pests and disease no matter the type of farming method. Organic farming, however, may only use some approved synthetic pesticides and must rely primarily on natural sources of pesticides to manage pests. Yes, pesticides are still used.

Many consumers consider “natural” to be better but this is not necessarily the case. Remember that many natural substances in nature are deadly toxins. Many natural pesticides degrade quickly. This means that farmers often must use more of the pesticide as compared to traditional farming methods to make up for this degradation. Of course, traditional farmers also may need to adjust their pesticides and their choice of pesticide used, as well. Natural or synthetic, however, your body can’t tell the difference.

Studies on pesticide residues found in organic versus conventional produce are somewhat inconclusive, but overall do show that levels trend lower in organic produce. If this is an important factor to you, then organic may be worth the premium price. But keep in mind the amounts used in farming are highly regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and must meet federal standards to ensure safety. Pesticides are present in parts per billion (ppb) levels and do not present a concern for human health. Studies have consistently shown the amount of pesticides a person is exposed to in a lifetime are not enough to cause any issues. And remember, natural does not always mean better.

Carl Winters quote

GENETIC ENGINEERING 

No, organic foods may not contain ingredients produced using genetic modification. Side note: irradiation may not be used as a processing method either. Keep in mind, however, that genetic engineering is a tool that can be used to improve farming methods to feed a growing world. The population is increasing rapidly and we must be able to keep up.

Check back later for more information on these hot topics!

ANTIBIOTICS

Organic farming prohibits the use of antibiotics in livestock. This can help contribute to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance across the globe. This is a true crisis today and requires many changes (even outside of agriculture) to reverse this concern. Consuming more plant-based food sources is one way you can help. Perhaps you could try eating one less meat-centered meal per week to start (Meatless Monday’s anyone?).

However, it’s important to remember that animals are a complete protein source and important for many nutrients in our diet. And remember that animals get sick too and need the same treatments as humans to get better. Ethically, farm veterinarians are required to treat a sick animal. The animal would then not be eligible to be labeled as organic or “raised without antibiotics” or “no antibiotics ever.” After animals are treated, they must meet standards to determine the antibiotic is not in their system before being sold as a conventional product. There are strict regulations in place that govern this to keep you and your family safe. Remember that without antibiotics sick animals would be at increased risk of death and would decrease the availability of our food supply.

NUTRITION

One of the most common misconceptions about organically produced food is that it is more nutritious than traditional. However, most scientific studies do not back up this hypothesis. Studies do not consistently show higher levels of nutrients in organic produce. Evidence seems to show that conventional and organic produce are equal. However, it is important to note that some studies do show higher levels of antioxidants. Again, these results are inconclusive between studies. There is also evidence of lower nitrate levels in organic produce. The study of nutrition is always evolving so keep an eye on upcoming studies and remember to use reputable sources.

On the flip side, there is some evidence that due to the stresses of pests, organic produce may be more likely to develop natural toxins to fend off these invaders. It is unclear the impact this would have on human health. More research is needed to determine the impact of this phenomenon.

farm-produce-field-food-89267

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

Like the study of nutrition, scientists are just recently beginning to fully understand the total environmental impact caused by human activities such as farming. Both of these disciplines can be hard to quantify results because there are so many variables involved.

Organic farmers work hard to replenish and maintain soil fertility, use less energy, and reduce their environmental imprint. Crop rotation and natural fertilizers help to improve the soil. These are some of the pros of organic agriculture. On the other hand, it has been shown that conventional agriculture is better at preventing soil erosion, another important consequence of farming.

The reality is that while organic farming may not use most synthetic pesticides, natural chemicals are still used. These natural chemicals are not inherently better for the environment and may have detrimental effects of their own.

Maintaining the fertility of the soil is critical in any farming production, and is a key component of organic farmers. Crop diversity in the agricultural landscape is believed to improve soil fertility. Some studies suggest an increase in organism biodiversity in organic farming. However, results were varied, and the benefits are likely restricted to highly managed farming operations.

Now for the big one. Sustainability. Studies show that organic farming produces about 80% of the yield of conventional agriculture, and may even be as low as 50% for some crops. Of the earth’s available land, 35% is already dedicated to agriculture. As the population grows, we do not have the land availability to dedicate to organic farming. This is a huge opportunity for the organic industry. As technology and knowledge grow, perhaps this shortcoming can be eliminated.

THE FUTURE 

While organic farming may prove more beneficial to the environment and increase biodiversity, the sad truth is that it is not sustainable for our future and an anticipated population of 9 billion people by 2050. Because of the amount of land required for organic farming and the lower yields produced, it is unlikely to be sustainable enough to support all food production in the future. It is anticipated that in just 32 years, we will need to double the amount of food we are producing. This is a huge feat if you really think about it, and I believe we should be using all of our tools, organic or conventional, to improve our food production methods to ensure all people have access.

Price is another factor to consider for the future. We all know America and much of the developed world is dealing with an obesity crisis and that eating more fruits and vegetables can help reduce rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. But many citizens are not able to purchase these expensive organic foods. As it stands today, organic agriculture is likely to become more expensive over time, creating even more of a disadvantage for many. The most important thing here is for consumers to purchase more fruits and vegetables, no matter the farming method.

On the flip side, many in less affluent countries do not have access to enough food to support their families. They need to rely upon consistent and sustainable farming methods that produce affordable products. Childhood malnutrition is a serious problem in many countries.

Consider this: we should provide more resources towards solving current agricultural problems and solving world hunger in a an economically feasible and sustainable way for future generations.

SO…SHOULD I BUY ORGANIC?

The answer is: it’s up to you! Remember that while organic farming may not be the final answer to the problems of our food supply, conventional farming could borrow some of these methods to continue progressing forward in the future. Each system has its own benefits.

As with any matter, you must weigh the pros and cons to determine which aspects are most important to you. Do your research and remember to consider how tough issues like agriculture have a broad reach.

As agriculture grows to meet the needs of the growing world, I believe we must use science to progress forward. By learning from the successes of organic farming, we may innovate a path that benefits both humans and the earth.

Let me know what you think!


REFERENCES

European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). 2018. Monitoring data on pesticide residues in food: results on organic versus conventionally produced food. EFSA supporting publication 2018 [accessed 2018 Jul 7]; EN-1397, 30 pp. doi:10.2903/sp.efsa.2018.EN-1397

Harvey R, Zakhour C, Gould L. 2016. Foodborne disease outbreaks associated with organic foods in the United States. Journal of Food Protection. [accessed 2018 Jul 7]; 79:11, 1953-1958. doi:10.4315/0362-028X.JFP-16-204

Haspel, T. 2016. Is organic agriculture really better for the environment? The Washington Post. [accessed 2018 Jul 7]. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/is-organic-agriculture-really-better-for-the-environment/2016/05/14/e9996dce-17be-11e6-924d-838753295f9a_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.aa3dce2d838f

Maffei D, Batalha E, Landgraf M, Schaffner D, Franco B. 2016. Microbiology of organic and conventionally grown fresh produce. Brazilian Journal of Microbiology. [accessed 2018 Jul 7]; 47, 99-105. doi  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bjm.2016.10.00

Organic Trade Association. OTA FAQ on food safety. [accessed 2018 Jul 23]; https://www.ota.com/advocacy/food-safety

Spangler-Smith C, Brandeau M, Hunter G, Bavinger C, Pearson M, Eschback P, Sundaram V, Liu H, Schirmer P, Stave C, Olkin I, Bravata D. 2012. Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives? A systematic review. Annals of Internal Medicine. 157:5, 348-366. [accessed 2018 Jul 23]; doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-157-5-201209040-00007

United States Department of Agriculture National Organic Program. Updated 2016. Organic production and handling standards. [accessed 2018 30 Jun]. https://www.ams.usda.gov/publications/content/organic-production-handling-standards

United States Department of Agriculture National Organic Program. 2018. What’s behind the organic seal? Organic labels explained. [accessed 2018 30 Jun]. https://www.ams.usda.gov/publications/content/whats-behind-organic-seal-organic-labels-explained

Wlicox, C. 2011. Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture. Scientific American. [accessed 2018 30 Jun]. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/science-sushi/httpblogsscientificamericancomscience-sushi20110718mythbusting-101-organic-farming-conventional-agriculture/

Winter C, Davis S. 2006. Organic foods. Journal of Food Science. [accessed 2018 July 7]; 71: R117-R124. doi:10.1111/j.1750-3841.2006.00196.x

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