Is organic better?

Is organic food safer? Healthier? Tastier? This post is a collation of my notes made whilst researching the organic podcast. Its lengthy but very insightful and references are pr0vided for further reading. Enjoy!

What is organic?

History 

The term organic first appeared in 1940 in a response to what was dubbed as ‘chemical farming’.

It was coined by the fourth Lord Northbourne (considered the father of organics). He arrived at the idea by believing that as humans we can’t see ourselves as separate from nature, hence we cant control it with chemicals.

He believed that food becoming so cheap only focused on financial costs but didn’t consider the biological cost. Its more than look, quantity and price, he believed:

“Food of better quality is food which has vitality, individuality, freshness; food which is grown right, not only food that looks right; food which is effective as a vehicle of life and is not either mere stimulant or mere filling”

What it involves:

There are two types of organics. One that someone like myself can grow at home (Spray free or uncertified) or one that is organically certified by a governmental authority. But in general:

Organic farming in general features practices that strive to cycle resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Organizations regulating organic products may restrict the use of certain pesticides and fertilizers in farming. In general, organic foods are also usually not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents or synthetic food additives’.

For the vast majority of history, agriculture has inherently been ‘Organic’ it is only in the 20th century that we begun to introduce products which were artificially raised.

To the maximum extent feasible, organic farming systems rely on crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, legumes, green manures, off-farm organic wastes, and aspects of biological pest control to maintain soil productivity, supply plant nutrients, and control insects, weeds and other pests.

Are organic foods safer to eat?

Pesticides

In general the evidence surrounding this is extremely lacking and we cannot say definitely that organic foods are healthier for us. Additional research is needed.

But it is widely believed that pesticides aren’t used on certified organic foods. This is not the case and in fact pesticides which are natural and approved are allowed to be used.

When synthetic pesticides were studied it was found that at least half of them were carcinogenic. A study of natural pesticides found that surprisingly at least half of them were carcinogenic as well. (Berkley) So although natural pesticides are used they are in fact natural toxins and can be harmful to humans.

Yes organic foods do contain less chemical residues, but the significance of this difference is negligible. In general quantities on conventionally grown food are well below accepted values.

So we know three things about pesticides.

  • One is that at acute levels they are toxic and cause health issues
  • Sometime food products can be contaminated with acute levels of pesticides,
  • Most, if not all, commercially grown produce contain some amount of pesticide residue.

What we don’t know is, can chronic exposure to these trace amount of pesticides result in demonstrable toxicity?

Some studies do say though that prolonged exposure to these trace amounts over many years could increase cancer risk. And although studies show that organic produce can have trace amounts of pesticides from contamination etc, conventionally grown always has more pesticide residue. We just don’t know if this is bad for us yet. In fact it is almost impossible to do a study on this as people eat a variety of produce.

But two studies done on children and adults found that on an organic diet there urine contained less organophosphorus pesticides, as much as 90% less. But studies showing weather or not this means having these pesticides in our bodies is bad or not hasn’t been done yet. So at the moment the best bet is to take a precautionary approach.

While health risks associated with dietary agricultural chemicals are still uncertain and subject to debate, risk is relative, and lower exposure undoubtedly translates into decreased risk.

For the time being, however, consuming a diet comprising of mainly (> 75%) organic fruits and vegetables may be able to reduce dietary exposure to organophosphorus pesticides compared with a “conventional” diet.

Natural toxins in organic food

However some studies show that because organic produce has to defend itself from insects, pests, fungi and birds etc, it naturally produces toxins to keep them away. As opposed to conventionally grown where the farmer does the pest management. Conventionally grown then has more energy to put into growth and nutrient density.

As early as the 16th century though, we have understood that at the right levels certain toxins are beneficial as the react with your body. An example is any drug, which all exist at a suitable levels of toxicity to be beneficial.

Further research shows though that these plants also produce antioxidants (polyphenols) in response to pests. They have been shown to neutralize these toxins when they enter the body. And here is the juicy part, studies show that compared to conventionally grown produce, organic has significantly higher Polyphenols, up to 10-30% more! In general organic food is found to have more phytonutrients.

The dirty dozen! Check out this helpful list which shows which of the conventional foods are best to eat conventionally or organically in terms of pesticide residue

Are organic foods more tastier and nutritious?

In general there has been no significant difference found in vitamins and minerals when comparing organic to conventional.

As stated earlier though organic has been found to have higher polyphenols (Antioxidants) (18-69%) more. A meta analysis showed that eating organic foods can lead to an increase of 20-40 % more antioxidants, but we aren’t 100% certain that antioxidants are beneficial to humans.

Some organics fruits i.e. strawberries have been found to attack cancer cells in lab tests, better than conventional. But these aren’t human tests so we can’t take too much from them.

So organics may be better but they are more expensive so you can probably buy the same amount of conventional to get the some result.

Protein: Been found to have less protein but this could in fact be a good thing as protein levels are too high

Nitrates: Can increase risk of stomach cancer and Organic foods are found to have less

Cadmium: Heavy metal, 48% lower in organic but the effects of it aren’t well known.

Do organic foods taste better?

In my opinion yes. Not in all cases but most fruits and vegetables are smaller therefore they are packed with more nutrients and taste.

Also it may be because organic food contains more antioxidants they taste better. This is because A’s can add to flavour by affecting, taste, aroma and mouth feel.

Some studies have shown (and from my experience) that fruits are like berries are sweeter; vegetables hold richer healthier looking colours.

Just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s healthy?

This needs to be touched on, basically just because it is organic doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Many processed and packaged foods are now claiming they are organic, so they can ride the organic wave. But these cookies, chips, microwave meals are still just as unhealthy as their conventional counterparts. Also it is important to understand that there a varying levels or organic. Something is only organic if it says 100% organic.

Lets be realistic

Remember though if you only have the choice of conventional, then go with it. The benefits of conventional food far outweigh the risks. And also if you have a choice between a organically grown onion from the other side of the world and a locally grown onion, chose the local one.

The environment!

Is it better for the environment?

In many countries agriculture is the largest form of land use so it really matters how we decide to use this land. Because organic farming relies on the land to grow food farmers need to restore the ecological balance because ecosystem functions are there main input, like using insects to eat pests, crop rotations, natural soils.

Having a functional ecosystem is economically beneficial i.e. more productive ecosystem = more crops = more money.

Soil

Obviously soil is a chief resources and farmers can’t use synthetic fertilizers and nutrients to maintain soil fertility.

Instead they have to use natural fertilizers, compost and plant residues. Studies have shown that organic farming is better for maintaining a natural soil with healthy carbon content, which is important for plant growth, in fact organic soil has been found to have 100% more microbial activity and more species biodiversity. This means soil is truly living; recycling nutrients so soil structure is improved.

Soil erosion

We see all over the world, especially in places like Africa where conventional agriculture leads to massive soil erosion because they rely on the use of synthetic fertilizers, which inevitably strips the soil of nutrients and life until it is unusable.

Organic on the other hand was found to have 16cm more top soil than conventional due to the organic mass that is added to the soil to keep it fertile. Other things like mulching, cover cropping and less tillage helped reduce soil erosion too.

Water

A major impact of conventional cropping is the run-off of the synthetic fertilizers and pesticide used into, ground and surface water. Because they are such unnatural systems, fertilizers are applied in excessive amounts. This combined with high rates of tillage, low protective soil cover and narrow crop rotations, means it is very easy for these chemicals and fertilisers to run-off and find there way into water ways.

Organic farming uses less nitrogen fertilisers so is forced to rely on smart cropping i.e. the use of legumes. Because of this organic farming has 50% less nitrate leaching.

The issue with run-off is that pesticides contaminate water sources and fertilisers provide excessive nutrients to waterways causing eutrophication, creating dead zones.

Energy Use

Growing food whether it be organic or conventional requires energy. It is used directly as fuel and oil and indirectly from the production of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.

Studies show that organic farming uses 30-40% of the energy used on conventional farms, and are up to 80% more efficient. This is down to the fact that they need to apply less synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, which are a high cost to make.

Mono-cropping and GMO 

Conventional farming relies on mono-cropping and more recently GMO. Mono-cropping is so far from a natural ecosystem that it completely destroys the biodiversity in and around a farm.

And with the introduction of GMO’s, deter pests and resist diseases we are finding that a combination of these things is leading to a reduction in plant and animal diversity as well as a loss of amazing varieties of crops, which means populations are relying on only a fraction of what they used to and they are way more susceptible to disease.

On the other hand organic farming relies on a healthy ecosystem. This can only exist where variety and variability exist. Using different types of weeds, crops and flowers to keep pests at bay, biodiversity is able to flourish. Studies show that on organic farms, the number of wild insects, animals, plants, flowers and organisms are way higher and in fact flourishing.

Climate change

It doesn’t stop there! Because organic systems are so much more in tune with nature, they have reduced C02 emissions, therefore release less green house gases.

Per hectare organic farming has 48-66% lower CO2 emissions than conventional. This is because they use less fertilisers which require a lot of energy to make and transport .

Organic farms also act as carbon sinks because of the cycling of nutrients and deeper soils.

The more efficient soils and systems also make sure that less N20 is lost the environment.

Why is organic more expensive?

So the main reason why organic food is more expensive than conventional is basically because it isn’t an as developed market as conventional is. But there are a multitude of understandable reasons.

  • There is more demand than supply for the foods
  • Production costs of organic food is higher due to the greater need of labour inputs e.g. crop rotations, nutrient recycling, hand weeding
  • Because there are so many small scale farmers contributing, scales of economy cant be achieved
  • The cost to enhance and protect the environment is included
  • Fair and sufficient income in employees
  • If you’re in America organic farmers don’t receive any subsidies
  • They take longer to grow and there is less yield

What’s cool is the more of us who buy it the cheaper it will become as technological and marketing developments will be able to be made. So if you want to see more organics and it to be cheaper then buy it!

It’s more than nutrition content, pesticide residue and the environment

We talk about all of these things and they are important and should be considered when buying your food. But they all take a very reductionist approach to food. When we look at it holistically we see that organic exists because a sum of all these parts and then some more. Maybe organic might not be more nutritious or maybe pesticides don’t matter. But a true organic farmer will tell you it’s about more than that. It’s about a connection to the land, to the soil, to the ecosystem in which we live. By consuming food, which is grown inline with nature, in season and local we are consuming the life of which we are. Farmers put their love and compassion into the food they grow and combined with a healthy ecosystem, we find these healthy vibrations and energies entering our body. Just like Northbourne said:

“Food of better quality is food which has vitality, individuality, freshness; food which is grown right, not only food that looks right; food which is effective as a vehicle of life and is not either mere stimulant or mere filling”

So what does this all mean? What can you take from this? You can understand the fact that like many systems our agricultural system has become about profit. Profit gained by producing food which grows quickly, looks good and is cheap. Our health, the environment and the interconnectedness of everything aren’t taken into account. For them it is about making money. And that is where it is clear that organic is better. It’s a return back to our origin, back to where we come from and back to what supports us. Which is the land, which is Mother Nature, which is us. It recognises that we are part of the system from which we survive so in order for us to be healthy, it has to be healthy. So support organic when you can, go to farmers markets, grow your own vegetables and get outside and see where your food comes from, because it is understanding our connection with nature that is important. In understanding this you will understand why organic food is important.

 

References:

https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~lhom/organictext.html (Pesticides)

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10408690490911846?scroll=top&needAccess=true (Health)

http://orgprints.org/10138/1/10138.pdf (health)

https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/33F09637EAE6C4ED119E0C4BFFE2D5B1/S0007114514001366a.pdf/div-class-title-higher-antioxidant-and-lower-cadmium-concentrations-and-lower-incidence-of-pesticide-residues-in-organically-grown-crops-a-systematic-literature-review-and-meta-analyses-div.pdf (Health Cadmium, pesticide residues and antioxidants)

https://books.google.co.nz/books?id=ZeGpgERESvkC&pg=PA34&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false (Environmental Impacts)

Liked it? Take a second to support Plantpower on Patreon!