The truth about organic food

Organic food has become increasingly popular over the last few decades. Consumers are concerned about the health risks and environmental impacts associated with conventionally grown foods, and have turned to organic food instead. However, are we really aware of what it means to be organic? I will analyse organic food and agriculture (based mainly on the US) to try to get to the bottom of what it all really means.

According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic crops are produced without "using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage-sludge based fertilizers", and also must not use genetic engineering or ionizing radiation. Animals raised organically "must be fed organic feed and given access to the outdoors" and are not given antibiotics or growth hormones. However, it's not enough simply for crops and livestock to simply be raised to these standards, they also have to undergo a certification process in order to be labelled as organic.

(photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net)
(photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net)

Organic certification and labelling standards

If a producer or processing operation wants to go organic, they must be accredited by a USDA-accredited certifying agent (unless they sell less than $5000 a year, in which case they are exempt, but can't use the USDA organic seal). Before a farm can even be accredited, its farmland must have been free from synthetic chemicals for a minimum of 3 years. There are many certifying agents in the US which verify a producer's organic system plan and perform site inspections in order to certify them as organic. They examine all parts of the process, from how the produce is grown and harvested, to its processing, packaging and shipping methods, making sure that it hasn't been contaminated by non-organic produce at any stage. It's a long and expensive process, so smaller organic producers, such as those at your local farmer's market, may not undergo the certification process despite operating to organic standards. Foreign producers may also be certified as USDA organic if a certifying agent accredits them or if the USDA accepts the certifying agents in that country.

Labelling standards (in the US):

  • "100% organic" = contains only organic ingredients
  • "Organic" = contains at least 95% organic ingredients
  • "USDA Organic" = contains 95% or more organic ingredients
  • "Made with organic ingredients" = at least 70% organic ingredients
  • Processed foods containing less than 70% organic ingredients may not be labelled as organic

Health benefits

The health benefits of eating organic food is an area of controversy. The USDA “makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food". A report by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA), published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in September 2009, concluded that organic food has no health benefits when compared with food produced through conventional methods. However, this study addressed only the "nutrients and other nutritionally relevant substances" found in the food and not the presence of contaminants, like herbicide, pesticide, and fungicide residues. Other studies have shown that organic food does lead to increased levels of antioxidants and some nutrients, but there isn't yet consensus on this within the scientific community.

Many proponents of conventional agriculture argue that by the time the food reaches your plate, most chemical residues are long gone, and that any remaining residues are not a threat to human health. However, chemical residues in the diet have been shown to cause all kinds of health problems, such as allergies, asthma and some cancers. Organic food has been shown to contain fewer residues than conventionally grown food. Proponents of organic argue that an organic diet reduces the risk of ingesting toxic chemicals; totally avoids genetically modified organisms and dramatically reduces the amount of food additives and colourings.

Finally, we must also consider the health impacts of organic farming on the farmers themselves and those who live in the vicinity. Many studies have shown that exposure to pesticides, even when used correctly, can cause serious health problems. While organic agriculture can still use certain non-organic chemicals in its production, the elimination of most chemicals leads to fewer risks to farm workers and neighbouring residents.

Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

The Dirty Dozen: 12 foods to buy organic

The below foods are the biggest offenders when it comes to residues of pesticides, fertilizers and fungicides, so if you want to go partly organic, it's recommended that you start with these:

  1. Celery
  2. Peaches
  3. Strawberries
  4. Apples
  5. Blueberries
  6. Nectarines
  7. Bell Peppers
  8. Spinach
  9. Kale
  10. Cherries
  11. Potatoes
  12. Grapes (Imported)

Environmental impacts

It's easy to jump to the conclusion that organic agriculture is good for the environment. However, the truth is that the environmental impacts of organic agriculture are extremely complex, which makes it difficult to conclude whether fewer impacts will result from organic in comparison to conventional methods. By making some generalizations and breaking it down to three main categories, we can analyse the pros and cons.

Water pollution:

Organic agriculture doesn't use conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or most other chemicals. This means that fewer harmful chemicals will find their way into our groundwater and surface waters. However, one of the cited weaknesses of organic production methods is its reliance on increased tillage (the turning of the soil) for weed control. One consequence of more tillage is more disturbed soil, leading to higher rates of soil erosion. Soil erosion can lead to increased rates of sediment flowing into surface waters, which is detrimental to aquatic life. However, it is important to note that there is also evidence that suggests that some organic farms perform as well or better than conventional farms with less soil disturbance.

Air pollution and climate change:

On modern farms, more tillage can also mean more consumption of diesel and its associated impacts, like contributing to climate change and decreasing local air quality. However, the absence of the application of synthetic chemicals (often through spraying) likely means that local air quality may be improved in comparison to conventional agriculture. The transportation/distribution of agricultural goods in both organic and conventional production also plays a large role in the impact of agriculture on air quality and climate change. With the increasing popularity of organic produce, it is now being shipped much further afield than in the early 1990s.

Natural resources / wildlife:

Organic agriculture depletes less of our fossil fuel reserves, because even if it uses more diesel fuel for increased tillage, it uses no petroleum-based fertilizers or other petroleum derivatives. However, it's important to point out that many organic crops use more land because they often have lower yields than their conventional equivalent. Impacts on wildlife and ecosystems are difficult to gauge - while they would not be impacted by chemicals, the impact of other biological controls, such as insect predators, used in organic farming are varied. In general, it's thought that organic farming is beneficial for biodiversity compared to conventional farming.

Environmental impacts
ORGANIC
CONVENTIONAL
Water pollution
Sediment from soil erosion into surface waters
Chemicals (pesticides, fertilizers) may seep into ground and surface waters
Air pollution and climate change
Emissions from transport of goods and from (possible) increased tillage
Emissions from operating equipment (application of chemicals), airborne chemicals from spraying, emissions from transport of goods
Natural resources and wildlife
Less use of fossil fuels, promotes biodiversity, more use of land
More use of fossil fuel, negative impact of pesticides/herbicides on local food webs, unknown impact from GMOs
This is a very simplified analysis of the differences between organic and convential agriculture, to help illustrate some of the issues that could be considered.

There is no clear-cut answer about whether organic agriculture has less of an environmental impact than conventional agriculture because of all the variables involved. Only by looking at each individual product's life cycle can you get an accurate picture of which is the more environmentally sound choice. I believe that consumers should simply try to get as much information about their food as possible and make the judgement that is right for them. For me, that means trying to buy local food as much as possible, buying organic foods from the above "Dirty Dozen" List, and trying to buy more ethical/humane meat products when I can.

(photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net)
(photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net)

Ethics

At least in the US, organic certification also impacts the treatment of animals. The organic standard requires that they be given organic feed, have access to outdoors and not be given any hormones or antibiotics. However, there is controversy over whether or not this means that the animals are actually treated more humanely.

The Organic Center claims that eating organic foods benefits the humane treatment of animals by:

  • Assuring animals access to the outdoors and pasture, and opportunities to carry out normal behaviors.
  • Increasing the average cage floor space for hens producing eggs from less than one 8"x11" piece of paper to almost three sheets.
  • Reducing by nearly 200,000 the number of dairy cows injected twice each month with a genetically modified hormone used to boost milk production.

However, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) claims that the organic label does not guarantee that animals were treated any better than animals raised in conventional factory farms.

The Certified Humane Raised & Handled program is the only farm animal welfare and food labeling program in the U.S. dedicated to improving the welfare of farm animals in food production and includes all stages of the animal’s life including handling and slaughter. This program is run by Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), a non-profit organization whose major principles are that animals are able to engage in natural behaviour, they have sufficient space, shelter, access to fresh water and are raised without antibiotics or hormones (www.certifiedhumane.com). Products labeled as "Certified Humane" have been raised to these standards, but are not necessarily free-range or organic.

Food for thought...

There are many issues related to organic food production and consumption, which makes it difficult for consumers to know what choices to make. I don't want to jump to any conclusions over the benefits and drawbacks of organic food, I simply want to look at the facts and then make the decisions that are right for me. I hope that this has provided you with some food for thought and that you are now a little more informed about some of the issues related to organic food.

Comments 14 comments

Minnetonka Twin profile image

Minnetonka Twin 6 years ago from Minnesota

I really appreciate this info on organic. Thx


chirls profile image

chirls 6 years ago from Indiana (for now) Author

I find there's so much info out there on organic food that it's hard to piece it all together. I'm glad you enjoyed it and thanks for reading!


joeleebassy 6 years ago

Chirls thanks for this great article.


wilderness profile image

wilderness 6 years ago from Boise, Idaho

A well written article with, for a change, some pros and cons both. It seems you have made an honest effort to present both sides of various questions and I at least appreciate the chance to make my own decision instead of having someone try to shove a one sided discussion down my throat.

I would question your statement that organic farming uses less fossil fuels, though. Increased tillage per acre coupled with increased acreage per unit of yield coupled with additional transportation could very easily cancel the "savings" in fossil fuel usage from fertilizers. In addition aren't most organic vegetables and fruits sold fresh instead of canned or processed? That would affect energy usage (although I'm not sure which way) which is mostly fossil fuel as well. I'm just not enough farmer/chemist/transporter to figure it out.

I also didn't see anything about cruelty from allowing animals to sicken and die from lack of antibiotics.


chirls profile image

chirls 6 years ago from Indiana (for now) Author

Wilderness, thanks for the constructive criticism!

I believe that, generally, conventional agriculture still uses more fossil fuels because of the fertilizers, which make up the biggest part of fossil fuel consumption. Very interesting point about the additional transportation - I hadn't thought of that. As for the animals, I believe that they do still treat organically-raised animals with antibiotics, but that means they can no longer sell them as organic afterwards.

I will look into these ideas and consider making some updates. I really appreciate your comments. :)


Sally's Trove profile image

Sally's Trove 6 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

Your Hub is good education for those who don't understand the official organic labeling process in the US. It's quite complicated, and your words show ways we can exercise our own brains to make decisions about what we eat.

The best stuff to eat is the stuff you grow yourself. That needs no label. But to get into the "organic" business is to take a swim through the murky waters of federal regulation as well as through the misunderstandings that individuals have about what "organic" means.

Your Hub here is an eye-opener for those who think an organic label means free of any kind of additive.


chirls profile image

chirls 6 years ago from Indiana (for now) Author

Thank you for your kind comments, Sally's Trove. I think it's important that people understand where their food comes from and how it's grown. I agree that growing it yourself is a great way to do that... I don't have much of a green thumb, but I'm working on it!


Galensmom profile image

Galensmom 6 years ago from Kentucky

First to answer some questions here.. first.. organic does not mean we allow our animals to "sicken and die" from the lack of antibiotic. It means that we do not slaughter or gather milk from the animal that is on antibiotics. We are permitted to use them but ONLY if necessary and not as conventional or cooperate farms do on a daily basis.

Secondly, most organic farms are striving for no till, or low till which does mean less gas used and less Co2 going into the atmosphere from deep tilling. There are also a lot of farms that have bio diesel or electric cars which they transport their crop keeping them as green as possible. In fact most organic farmers strive for this even for their tractors or other equipment some going as far as using horses to till. Horses fertilize, less compaction to the ground, and are gentler on the fields. You can usually speak to the farmer and ask about what practice they implement or what their expanding plans are.

Last but not least,, organic farms believe in allowing a crop to ripen on the plant. This ensures important amino acids are present in the food which has been lacking in it's conventional counterparts. Science has recognized the lack of amino acids as well as proteins between organic crops and traditional which is due to this practice. There are science papers that claim amino acids are not really important, but it is well known that the lack of certain amino acids exacerbate or cause conditions in children such as ADD, and ADHD. Cancer patients thrive on a good organic diet, and amino acids introduced to children with Down syndrome have great improvements above those down syndrome children who do not. Nutritionally, organic is healthier, and tastes better period.

Good article, but I hope that the science catches up with the benefits of Organic foods. Nutritional therapists already know.. thanks..

Marylynn


chirls profile image

chirls 6 years ago from Indiana (for now) Author

What a small world, galensmom, I was just reading your hubs a few hours ago! I especially liked your GMO hub, by the way.

Thank you for the information! I've tried to present a balanced view in my article, but I found it difficult to get unbiased information about some aspects of organic farming. I plan to elaborate on the environmental impacts section, which will include both sides of the argument about tillage.

Cheryl


alternate poet profile image

alternate poet 6 years ago

Really good, well balanced and informative hub - thanks.


chirls profile image

chirls 6 years ago from Indiana (for now) Author

Alternate poet - thanks for stopping by and commenting. Even when you know people are reading your hub, it's always nice to have kind comments and some good discussion!


celeBritys4africA profile image

celeBritys4africA 5 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

Great to read about organic. Is not so simple and 100% healthy after all...


chirls profile image

chirls 5 years ago from Indiana (for now) Author

I think organic is a great way to produce food, and certainly can be very healthy for both humans and their environment. For me, it's all about finding out the facts behind organic food and making the right choices for you right now. Thanks for your comments.


Aaron 4 years ago

I appreciate you trying to look at both sides, but you have this vendetta against synthetic chemicals. Lots of these "harmful synthetic chemicals" are safer for you, the ground water and the consumer than what's traditionally used in organic farming. Organic farming is generally worse for the environment than non-organic farming due to increased water consumption and toxic pesticides used (yes organic farmers use pesticides, they just have to use organic pesticides rather than synthetic pesticides, note that organic pesticides are much worse for the environment and require a much more liberal application than the fancy cutting edge synthetic pesticides used by modern farmers). Organic crops produce less nutritious foods and yield much smaller crops. Also most organic foods in the US come from China. I understand you want to save the environment, but organic foods aren't the way; we just need to reform the bad practices in standard farming, and stop the crooks that are cutting corners to make an extra buck.

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