By: Freya Preimsberger
Healthy eating blogs have heralded organic food as being better for your health and for the environment, and it has become an increasingly popular choice for consumers. By 2010, just eight years after USDA began to regulate the organic food industry, it was worth an estimated $29 billion and its growth has surpassed that of total food sales in the US. Consumers are willing to pay more for the perceived benefits of organic food, with it costing 47 percent more, according to Consumer Reports. However, some studies have suggested that there is little evidence of it being healthier or better for the environment.
“Organic” refers to food made without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, irradiation to kill pests, genetic engineering or antibiotics and growth hormones in livestock. These practices are meant to improve the quality of surrounding soil and water, reduce pollution and provide safer environments for animals on farms. Part of organic food’s appeal can be attributed to it being considered a more environmentally responsible and sustainable way of growing food. In a 2017 study published in Science Advances, researchers at the University of British Columbia found that growing organic food is less productive compared to conventional farming. Diminished productivity requires that more land be converted for farm use, which leads to climate change as well as habitat loss. Organic agriculture does have some benefits, such as profitability for farmers, better surrounding soil and water quality and biodiversity. A 2016 study published in Nature Plants found that organic agriculture has higher yields during times of drought, because organic soil can better contain water, and is more energy-efficient. The lead author of the University of British Columbia study said that the pros and cons of organic and conventional farming must be considered in different contexts, but organic agriculture is not necessarily kinder to the environment.
Another commonly held misconception is that organic food is grown without the use of any type of pesticide. Organic and conventional farmers both use pesticides, and often use the same ones – according to a 2013 survey taken by California farmers, over half of all pesticides used are utilized by both types of farmers. The pesticides used by organic farmers, such as copper salts and sulfur, tend to require more applications to be effective and can unintentionally harm insects. For instance, organic farmers use copper sulfate as a natural alternative, but it is toxic and can accumulate in the environment. Plant pathologist Steve Savage wrote that the natural pesticides employed by organic farmers are not always environmentally safe and that the issues they bring may be avoided by using more effective pesticides that are benign and synthetic. Many of the rules that farmers must follow for certification as organic prevent them from using modern farming practices that are more beneficial for the environment. Additionally, the processing of manures for use as fertilizer emits greenhouse gases. Savage notes that the most environmentally conscious way of growing food is to use the best agricultural methods available, whether they are organic or conventional.
Consumers also consider organic food to be more nutritious. According to the Mayo Clinic, some studies have shown that organically grown fruits and vegetables have small to moderate increases of certain nutrients. Two such studies published in 2016 claim that organic milk and meat contain more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. In response, some scientists pointed out that these minor increases may not actually be helpful. A 2014 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition claimed that organic produce contains more antioxidants and lower levels of cadmium, a toxic metal. Independent scientists criticized the study for its design and analysis, claiming that data was cherry-picked, according to the Genetic Literacy Project. Many of the study’s authors were found to be connected to the organic industry, and the paper itself was funded largely by it. Independent studies, not conducted or financed by those in the organic industry, fail to continually support the notion that organic food is more nutritious.
In 2012, researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine conducted a meta-analysis on 237 studies on organic food’s nutrient content, contaminant levels and its effects on humans. The study, which was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, did not find substantial evidence for the claim that organic food is safer or more nutritious. Researchers did not find persistent differences in nutrition content between organic and conventional food, except that organic food contains much higher levels of phosphorus. However, the study’s authors also called attention to the fact that phosphorus deficiency is uncommon, meaning that elevated levels of the mineral are generally not significant for health. For organic and conventional milk, no difference was found in fat or protein content. None of the 237 studies looked at differences in long-term health outcomes.
The researchers did find that organic food is 30 percent less likely to be contaminated with pesticides, although it is not entirely free of contaminants. Children on organic diets were found to have less pesticide residues in their urine. It’s important to note that pesticide levels of conventional food are well within the established safety limits, and that the impact of low levels of pesticide on human health is not known. Moreover, tests for pesticide residue on produce only assess levels of common synthetic, or conventional, pesticides. The organic pesticide copper sulfate does not degrade in the environment and tests will not detect the compound despite its toxicity. Organic produce also contains higher amounts of the bacteria that cause food poisoning, such as E. coli, likely due to the use of manure as fertilizer. One study found detectable levels of E. coli in up to 10 percent of organic foods.
In summary, although some farming practices impact the safety and nutritional quality of food, organic food has not been found to be significantly more nutritious or better for the environment. People may still wish to purchase organic food for ethical reasons surrounding animal welfare or taste preferences. The Stanford study urges people to eat more fruits and vegetables as part of a healthy diet, regardless of whether they are produced with organic or conventional methods. Consumers should weigh what’s important to them, such as environmental effects, cost or exposure to pesticides, and make decisions that suit their needs.