The Truth About Organic Food

by Paul Rogers on October 13, 2008

Photo by bittenword

Photo by bittenword

I’ve been a keen gardener most of my life, following a strong family tradition. We’ve grown everything from flowers and ornamentals to fruit trees and vegetables — with varying measures of success. Organic growing in a home garden, and wherever feasible commercially, just seems like sensible environmental management to me . . . and it’s especially applicable to home gardening. I’ve also written about organic growing and been a member of a growers group for decades.

Organics may not be the only solution

Even so, I’m not an absolutist, and I am a pragmatist . . . I accept that there may be other farming and cultivation systems that could indeed be regarded as “sustainable and healthy” even though they may not pass organic certification. But that’s not my argument here. I’m going to look critically at the notion of why you should buy organic food and whether the advantages stack up — give or take a few generalisations.

Here are the usual reasons for supporting organic food production:

  • It’s healthier because few, and low-toxic pesticides are used and residues on crops are not a problem
  • It’s healthier because organic food is higher in dietary nutrients
  • It’s more sustainable because soil is managed better without chemical fertilizers
  • It’s safer and sustainable because beneficial organisms like bees and predatory organisms and wildlife are not poisoned by pesticides
  • It’s safer because humans are not poisoned by pesticides as they use them.

Pesticide residues

Even allowing for cheating, it is clear from testing that organic food has fewer residues of detectable pesticides than non-organic food. The issue is whether the presence of residues in non-organic food is a health hazard. Clearly, in some cases it is. The cases of aldicarb pesticide poisoning from melons in California is a classic case. This was only detected because of the severe symptoms. Many other cases are likely in which the victim has less acute symptoms and the cause remains unidentified. And, the effect of long-term exposure to small quantities of residues is unknown, but could be significant.

Testing for safe food. With the world food supply increasingly traded across borders, ensuring “clean” food by monitoring it for contaminants has become increasingly difficult. Recent issues in food safety in relation to food products imported from China make this all too clear.

Organic food has more nutrients

This is the one the professional agriculture, health and nutrition communities have resisted so strongly for so many years. In essence, it is a complex issue. To measure this accurately, you really need to set up controlled growing conditions for a reasonable comparison, and even though quite a few early studies showed advantages for organics in some nutrients like vitamin C, iron, omega-3s and a few other minerals, the design was often somewhat amateurish — until the European Union Newcastle University study came along. Read the results here: “Organic produce better for you”.

Variability abounds. The authors caution that variations in qualities exist across the organic and non-organic spectrum. What this might mean for you, as a purchaser, is that a badly grown organic apple could very well be inferior to a well-grown non-organic apple. One might expect that across a continuum of organic produce, the nutrient value may be higher, but don’t expect that any one purchase will give you that guarantee.

Phytonutrients finally. Over the years of this organic nutrient debate, the one thing that has mostly been absent is an evaluation of the non-vitamin and mineral nutrients. These are the antioxidants, the polyphenolics, carotenes, sulphur compounds, the omega-3s and many more that are known to be health-giving principles in foods. Finally, this also seems to have been answered. In the Newcastle University study:

They found levels of antioxidants in milk from organic cattle were between 50% and 80% higher than normal milk.

This is not surprising, overall, because Alyson Mitchell, associate professor and food chemist at the University of California, Davis, found exactly the same thing in her work analysing tomatoes. Soluble fertilisers, especially nitrogen, and strong pesticides may inhibit the plant production of phenolic compounds. See Mitchell again for a discussion.

One would have to say that early professional bias against the idea of organics having higher overall nutrient values, in a dietary sense, seems to have been ill-founded and perhaps influenced by various vested interests. However, this should not suggest that eating organic foods, even with a premium supply of antioxidants, results in superior health outcomes: that is yet to be proven.

Organic growing is more sustainable

As a general rule this is probably true, and is likely to be more so for smallholdings rather than large commercial enterprises. The definition and evaluation of “sustainability” is variable, but one issue is the recycling of inputs to the system versus importing inputs like organic fertilizers from elsewhere. Sustainability is about being able to make systems last without degrading the system.

Nevertheless, several recent studies — University of Michigan, the USDA and the FAO and others, have found that organics actually outperform conventional agriculture in measures of soil sustainability and biological sustainability — and may even approach the production efficiency of non-organic farms in some cases.

Safer for wildlife and diversity

New Scientist reports: “Organic farming boosts diversity”.

Organic farming increases biodiversity at every level of the food chain – all the way from lowly bacteria to mammals. This is the conclusion of the largest review ever done of studies from around the world comparing organic and conventional agriculture.

Enough said about that one.

Occupational health and safety

This is the sleeper issue in organic production. It receives less attention than other aspects. The human health legacy of toxic pesticides in developing nations has been monumental. And even in the developed nations, the misuse and overuse of pesticides has resulted in substantial impacts on human health. The US Agricultural Health Study has reported on some such results.

Here is what esteemed toxicologists Levine and Doull said about pesticide poisoning worldwide in 1992:

Global estimates of acute pesticide morbidity and mortality. Levine RS, Doull J. Rev Environ Contam Toxicol. 1992;129:29-50.

Mathematical models have projected increasing numbers of pesticide poisoning throughout the world, rising from 500,000 cases/yr in 1972 to 25,000,000 cases/yr in a 1990 estimate.

Summing up

Organic food is more expensive; you have to decide if it’s worth it. In addition, the science of organics is a bit fuzzy at times. Some modern pesticides actually have lower toxicity than approved organic pesticides. The more popular and affordable organic food becomes, the more we will see mainstream food manufacturers taking advantage of it. No folks, the organic pop tart is not a health food. Overall, though, organics is a neat package of environmental health and safety practice. I support it strongly.

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