Food & Nutrition: Should You Go Organic?

Published on: April 15, 2019

What are the pros and cons of organic food? How is organic food different from organic agriculture? Our contributor Karin provides the answers to these and more.

By Karin Biran

People who buy organic foods are usually those who make healthier food choices and their lifestyles tend to be more in line with recommendations for a healthy living. But whether consumption of organic food has an additional positive influence on health is still under scientific debate.

There is widespread belief that organic food is safer, more nutritious, and better tasting than conventional food. It’s not only for these reasons though that people prefer organic foods; here are the main reasons why consumers buy organic products:

1- The effects of conventional farming practices on the environment

2- Human health

3- Animal welfare

4- The beliefs about the products’ health-giving properties and nutritional value.

These views are promoted by the organic food industry and have fueled increased demand for organic food despite higher prices and difficulty in confirming these claimed stats scientifically. In this article, I will share the existing knowledge about organic foods in comparison to conventional agriculture foods.

What does organic really mean?

According to the USDA, organic food is produced using sustainable agricultural production practices. This means the application of chemicals—such as most conventional pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, growth hormones, and regulators—or genetic modification are not permitted.

What’s organic agriculture?

According to the USDA, organic agriculture aims to preserve natural resources, supports animal health and welfare, and avoids most synthetic materials. The USDA regulates the organic industry with strict standards. The soil where crops are grown must be inspected and shown to be free of most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and the crops cannot have been genetically modified.

How did it all begin? Organic agriculture through history.

For the vast majority of its history, agriculture can be described as having been organic; only during the 20th century was a large supply of new products, generally deemed not organic, introduced into food production.

The organic farming movement arose in the 1940s in response to the industrialization of agriculture. In that era, organic gardening reached a modest level of popularity in the US, but it was only in the 1970s that a national marketplace for organic foods developed.

The popularity of organic foods

Early consumers interested in organic food would look for food that was non-chemically treated, was not grown using unapproved pesticides, and fresh or minimally processed. They mostly had to buy directly from growers. Personal definitions of what constituted ‘organic’ were developed through firsthand experience: by talking to farmers and seeing farm conditions and farming activities. Small farms grew vegetables using organic farming practices, with or without certification. Small specialty-health-food stores and co-operatives were instrumental in bringing organic food to a wider audience.

As demand for organic foods continued to increase, high-volume sales through mass outlets such as supermarkets rapidly replaced the direct farmer connection and made it more accessible for a larger audience.

How did popularity affect organic food products?

The small farms could barely provide for the demand for organic produce and that affected the quality of their products, because in order to grow a large amount of vegetables and fruits to reach the demand, the farmers had to use more natural, and at times synthetic, pesticides to prevent the crops from ruining. The excessive use of pesticides made it obvious that organic food, just like conventional farming foods, should be regulated and tested for pesticide residue (the amount of pesticides that remain in or on food).

Is organic farming free of dangers?

The vast proportion of chemicals that humans are exposed to occur naturally. Nevertheless, the public tends to view chemicals as only being synthetic and to think of synthetic chemicals as toxic despite the fact that every natural chemical might also be toxic at some dose.

It is not necessarily safer to eat organic food since not all countries test organic products (compared to the conventional products that regularly undergo tests to make sure and prove the pesticide residue stays below the allowed rate) and some of the organic products may have an over-the-limit pesticide residue, which might be unhealthy.

It’s not all health-related: Food security

Words uttered in 1971 by then US Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz: “Before we go back to organic agriculture in this country, somebody must decide which 50 million Americans we are going to let starve or go hungry”. The skeptics considered organic agriculture to be ideologically driven and infected. They argued that organic agriculture relies on more land to produce the same amount of food as conventional agriculture and that adopting organic agriculture on too large a scale could potentially threaten the world’s forests, wetlands, and grasslands. They also asserted that organic agriculture has too many shortcomings and poor solutions to agricultural problems and believe that this farming system will become less relevant in the future.

Are conventional agriculture products bad for us?

In conventional agriculture, the risk lies in the concentration of remaining active ingredients from pesticides in the agricultural produce, many of which might be toxic. In order to eliminate that toxicity, synthetic pesticides have been developed that disintegrate from their toxicity no later than five days after the spraying, so that the agricultural produce will be harvested safely and there will be no danger to consumers. Although some residue may remain at the time of harvest, it tends to decline as the pesticide breaks down over time. In addition, as the commodities are washed and processed prior to sale, the residues often diminish further.

Is it safe to eat vegetables grown by conventional agriculture?

It is important to know that no pesticide that is used in the conventional agriculture can be used on a food crop without having to undergo many different tests to assure its safety and to determine whether that pesticide can be used without posing a risk to human health. Each country has its own environmental protection agency that must approve the use of the pesticide. The American Cancer Society has stated that no evidence exists that the small amount of pesticide residue found on conventional foods will increase the risk of cancer, although it recommends thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables.

What does the research say?

The scientific consensus is that “while consumers may choose to buy organic fruit, vegetables, and meat because they believe them to be more nutritious than other food, the balance of current scientific evidence does not support this view.” In addition, “studies that suggest that organic foods may be healthier than conventional foods face significant methodological challenges, such as the correlation between organic food consumption and factors known to promote a healthy lifestyle”. When the American Academy of Pediatrics reviewed the literature on organic foods, they found that “current evidence does not support any meaningful nutritional benefits or deficits from eating organic compared with conventionally grown foods, and there are no well-powered human studies that directly demonstrate health benefits or disease protection as a result of consuming an organic diet.”

In addition, the American Cancer Society stated that there is no research to show that organic food reduces cancer risk compared to foods grown with conventional farming methods.

If you decide to buy organic foods

Make sure it has the label of the organization authorized to supervise and approve the pesticide residue in the products.

In any case, no matter what kind of vegetables or fruit you buy, make sure you wash them well.

References

  1. Allen G, & Albala K. The Business of Food: Encyclopedia of the Food and Drink Industries. 2007.
  2. Reganold JP, Wachter JM. Organic agriculture in the twenty-first century. Nature Plants. 2016.
  3. Iavicolia I, et al. Nanotechnology in agriculture: Opportunities, toxicological implications, and occupational risks. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 15 August 2017.
  4. Watzl ME, Wittig F, Heuer T, Hoffmann I. Customers Purchasing Organic Food – Do They Live Healthier? Results of the German National Nutrition Survey II. Eu J Nutri Food Safety. 2015.
  5. Should you go organic?”. Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School. 5 July 2017.
  6. Spangler CS, et al. Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives? Ann Intern Med. 2012.
  7. Wikipedia: Organic Food.
  8. Ueasangkomsatea P, Santiteerakulb S. A study of consumers’ attitudes and intention to buy organic foods for sustainability. Procedia Environmental Sciences. 2016.

Photos by Freddie Marriage and Harshal S Hirve on Unsplash.

About the Author

Karin Biran is a nutritionist R.D, B.Sc, M.AN. who works with patients in all age ranges suffering from eating disorders, body images issues, health related problems and weight loss. Karin specializes in eating behavioral therapy for the whole family.


The views expressed in the articles in this magazine are not necessarily those of BAMBI committee members and we assume no responsibility for them or their effects.

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