By now, most people are familiar with the term “organic,” especially those of us who do our own grocery shopping. To some, it is associated with higher prices; to others, it is a worthwhile expense for safer, more nutritious food options.
The organic movement took hold in the United States in the 1940s, a response to outrage at the practices being used in conventional agriculture, particularly the use of synthetic pesticides and nitrogen based fertilizers. This conscious counter-culture opted for healthier, more natural food sources originating from small-scale farms, without the pesticides and hormones, and without the immense environmental damage and depletion of the land. Thus, a new food industry was born.
These days, organic farms more resemble their large-scale, industrial, conventional counterparts. The organic movement grew exponentially, and continues to grow; the Organic Trade Association found that organic sales make up 5 percent of the national food market in 2015. In fact, many of the U.S.’s organic farms are owned and operated by the same large corporations at the head of conventional agriculture. Yet the term “organic” is held to a specific standard by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which requires organic farms to maintain the goals of “protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.” Farms are inspected annually to ensure they are up to par and that practices remain consistent with the established goals of organic farming.
As the organic movement has grown in popularity over the years, many scientists have set out to determine whether organic produce is really healthier from a nutritional basis than conventional alternatives. As it turns out, there is much discrepancy among scientific findings. One particular 2012 study at Stanford determined that the differences in health benefits are of little significance – there are a few slight variations in nutrient levels in certain foods, but no highly notable differences. Alternatively, a 2014 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition implied that many organic foods contain higher levels of antioxidants, molecules believed to prevent disease by inhibiting cell damage. With such conflicting information in circulation, it is difficult to assess whether organic is truly a better choice. Connie Diekman, Washington University in St. Louis’s Director of University Nutrition, attributes these discrepancies to situational variations. “What is important is that soil, time of year, and area where food is grown all can impact nutrients, especially antioxidants. In reality every peach you eat has a slightly different nutrient content, and this is why nutrient databases are based on averages to reflect seasonal variations and geography variations.” Therefore, it cannot be concluded that organic food is necessarily more nutritious than conventional alternatives.
What about pesticides? Pesticides are a significant motivator for consumers to turn to organic food, often believing it to be pesticide-free. Both of the studies mentioned above are in agreement that organic food does indeed leave significantly less synthetic pesticide residue in the body. However, contrary to popular perception, pesticides are used when growing organic produce – they are just naturally-derived (organic) pesticides that have been approved by the USDA. In some cases, as an article in Harvard Science Review states, larger quantities of these pesticides are used to obtain the same results that a grower would get with synthetic pesticides. It is also important to note that the pesticides that are conventionally used have been declared safe by the USDA (often in restricted amounts or on specific crops) and without risk of potential dangerous side effects. Despite this, over the years researchers have linked synthetic pesticide residue in the body has been linked to a multitude of health issues: heart disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, asthma, birth defects, just to name a few. While much of the research on pesticides is indicative rather than conclusive, leading to some divergences within the scientific community, the overwhelming indications of the harmful effects of synthetic pesticides push many consumers to take the ‘better safe than sorry’ approach and opt for organic produce.
Many people choose to buy organic for ethical and environmental reasons, while others buy for health reasons – namely, produce that is believed to be more nutritious and that is grown without synthetic pesticides. Perhaps unsurprisingly, with lesser guilt or risk comes a higher price tag. So, when it comes down to the decision in the produce aisle, what is the best choice for health-conscious consumers?
Diekman believes that the best solution is to buy food that is produced locally. “Go to a farmers market, talk with the farmer, learn how they raise their crops or animals and ask the questions about care for their land. Buying local keeps money in the community, gives you a nice variety of options and helps you get the nutrition you need.” After all, buying locally produced food is returning to the true roots of the organic movement. In the end, buying organic is a personal choice, perhaps for environmental reasons or for peace of mind. However, there is no conclusive reason to feel unsafe opting for conventionally produced produce.
Diekman sums it up: “If you prefer organic, and can afford the often higher price, enjoy! But again, the most important thing is to consume those plant foods, and fortunately you can consume conventionally grown and feel safe.”