When I reviewed FoodSmart, I made a quip about how organic food might not be as good for you as you might think. I promised I’d explain myself, so I am doing so.

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Just what does organic really mean?

In the past year or two, certified organic sales have jumped around 30% to about $52 billion (2008 dollars) worldwide despite the fact that organic foods cost up to three times as much as those produced by conventional methods. More and more, people are shelling out their hard-earned cash for Certified Organic. Imagine, people say: you can improve your nutrition while helping save the planet from the evils of conventional agriculture – a complete win-win. And who wouldn’t buy organic, when it just sounds so good?

Here’s the thing: here are a lot of myths out there about organic foods, and a lot of propaganda supporting methods that are rarely understood. It’s like your mother used to say: just because everyone is jumping off a bridge doesn’t mean you should do it, too. Now, before I get yelled at too much, let me state that I’m not trying to say that organic farming is bad – far from it. There are some definite upsides and benefits that come from many organic farming methods. For example, the efforts of organic farmers to move away from monocultures, where crops are farmed in single-species plots, are fantastic; crop rotations and mixed planting are much better for the soil and environment than conventional monocultures. Instead, I only want to point out that not everything is as it seems. So here are some of the myths of organic produce, and the realities behind them.

Myth: Organic Foods Are Free From Pesticides And Harmful Chemicals

The number one reason that I hear as to why to eat organic foods is that they have no pesticides or harmful compounds. I hate to burst your bubble, but that’s simply not true. Organic farming, just like other forms of agriculture, still uses pesticides and fungicides to prevent critters from destroying their crops. Confused?

NCFAP shows 'natural' pesticide use is dramatically higher than conventional produce

NCFAP shows ‘natural’ pesticide use is dramatically higher than conventional produce

So was I, when I first learned this from my boyfriend. His family owns a farm in rural Ohio (a farm which isn’t organic simply because they use a non-organic herbicide once a year, though they use absolutely no pesticides). The local organic farms, he explained, spray their crops all the time with a variety of chemicals. I didn’t believe him at first, so I looked into it: turns out that there are over 20 chemicals commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops that are approved by the US Organic Standards. And, shockingly, the actual volume usage of pesticides on organic farms is not recorded by the government. Why the government isn’t keeping watch on organic pesticide and fungicide use is a damn good question, especially considering that many organic pesticides that are also used by conventional farmers are used more intensively than synthetic ones due to their lower levels of effectiveness. According to the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, the top two organic fungicides, copper and sulfur, were used at a rate of 4 and 34 pounds per acre in 1971 [1]. In contrast, the synthetic fungicides only required a rate of 1.6 lbs per acre, less than half the amount of the organic alternatives.

The sad truth is, factory farming is factory farming, whether its organic or conventional. Many large organic farms use pesticides liberally. They’re organic by certification, but you’d never know it if you saw their farming practices. As Michael Pollan, best-selling book author and organic supporter, said in an interview with Organic Gardening,

“They’re organic by the letter, not organic in spirit… if most organic consumers went to those places, they would feel they were getting ripped off.”

What makes organic farming different, then? It’s not the use of pesticides, it’s the origin of the pesticides used. Organic pesticides are those that are derived from natural sources and processed lightly if at all before use. This is different than the current pesticides used by conventional agriculture, which are generally synthetic. It has been assumed for years that pesticides that occur naturally (in certain plants, for example) are somehow better for us and the environment than those that have been created by man. As more research is done into their toxicity, however, this simply isn’t true, either. Many natural pesticides have been found to be as bad if not worse than synthetic ones 2.

Rotenone, still for sale despite its health effects - its 'natural' though

Rotenone, still for sale despite its health effects – its ‘natural’ though

Take the example of Rotenone. Rotenone was widely used in the US as an organic pesticide for decades 3. Because it is natural in origin, occurring in the roots and stems of a small number of subtropical plants, it was considered “safe” as well as “organic“. However, research has shown that rotenone is highly dangerous because it kills by attacking the mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of all living cells. Research found that exposure to rotenone caused Parkinson’s Disease-like symptoms in rats 4, and killed many species, including humans. Rotenone’s use as a pesticide has already been discontinued in the US as of 2005 due to health concerns, but shockingly, it’s still poured into our waters every year because it is approved for fisheries management use as a piscicide to remove unwanted fish species. The point I’m driving home here is that just because something is natural doesn’t make it non-toxic or safe. Many bacteria, fungi and plants produce poisons, toxins and chemicals that you wouldn’t want sprayed on your food.

Just this year, nearly half of the pesticides that are currently approved for use by organic farmers in Europe failed to pass the European Union’s safety evaluation that is required by law 5. Among the chemicals failing the test was rotenone, as it has yet to be banned in Europe. Furthermore, just over 1% of organic foods produced in 2007 that were tested by the European Food Safety Authority were found to contain pesticide levels above the legal maximum levels – and these are of pesticides that are not organic 6. Similarly, when Consumer Reports purchased a thousand pounds of tomatoes, peaches, green bell peppers, and apples in five cities and tested them for more than 300 synthetic pesticides, they found traces of them in 25% of the organically-labeled foods, but between all of the organic and non-organic foods tested, only one sample of each exceeded the federal limits 8. The scary truth is that you’re exposed to bad chemicals every day when you drink water out of a plastic bottle (see our series Plastic Troubles if you want to learn more).

That said, those who do eat organic can take to heart that many smaller farms use few to no pesticides, and overall, organic foods do usually contain lower levels of pesticides than conventional foods. If, as time wears on, we find that the pesticides used by modern agriculture are more dangerous than we think, then it may be a good thing that so many of us are eating Certified Organic.

But, there is another problem: even those organic farms which really do use less or no pesticides aren’t necessarily producing food that is free from harmful things. Between 1990 and 2001, over 10,000 people fell ill due to foods contaminated with pathogens like E. coli. One study found E. coli in produce from almost 10% of organic farms samples, but only 2% of conventional ones 9. The same study also found Salmonella only in samples from organic farms, though at a low prevalence rate. The reason for the higher pathogen prevalence is likely due to the use of manure instead of artificial fertilizers. Many pathogens are spread through fecal contamination. Conventional farms often use manure, too, but they use irradiation and a full array of anti-microbial agents, and without those, organic foods run a higher risk of containing something that will make a person sick.

In the end, it really depends on exactly what methods are used by crop producers. Both organic and conventional farms vary widely in this respect. My boyfriend’s family farm, for example, is “conventional,” but they use absolutely no pesticides, synthetic or otherwise. Some organic farms spray their crops twice a month. Of course, some conventional farms spray just as frequently, if not more so, and some organic farms use no pesticides whatsoever. It’s best if you know your source, and a great way to do that is to buy locally. Talk to the person behind the crop stand, and actually ask them what their methods are if you want to be sure of what you’re eating.

Myth: Organic Foods Are More Nutritious

Some people believe that by not using manufactured chemicals or genetically modified organisms, organic farming produces more nutritious food. However, science simply cannot find any evidence that organic foods are in any way healthier than non-organic ones – and scientists have been comparing the two for 50 years now.

Food Standards Agency (UK) said 50 years of science disprove organics are healthier than conventionals

Food Standards Agency (UK) said 50 years of science disprove organics are healthier than conventionals

Just recently, an independent research project in the UK systematically reviewed the 162 articles on organic versus non-organic crops published in peer-reviewed journals between 1958 and 2008 10. These contained a total of 3558 comparisons of content of nutrients and other substances in organically and conventionally produced foods. They found absolutely no evidence for any differences in content of over 15 different nutrients including vitamin C, β-carotene, and calcium. There were some differences, though; conventional crops had higher nitrogen levels, while organic ones had higher phosphorus and acidity – none of which factor in much to nutritional quality. Further analysis of similar studies on livestock products like meat, dairy, and eggs also found few differences in nutritional content. Organic foods did, however, have higher levels of overall fats, particularly trans fats. So if anything, the organic livestock products were found to be worse for us (though, to be fair, barely).

“This is great news for consumers. It proves that the 98% of food we consume, which is produced by technologically advanced agriculture, is equally nutritious to the less than 2% derived from what is commonly referred to as the ‘organic’ market,” said Fredhelm Schmider, the Director General of the European Crop Protection Association said in a press release about the findings11.

Simply put by the New Zealand Food Safety Authority, “there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that organic food in general is more or less safe or nutritious than conventionally produced foods” 12.

Furthermore, while up to 43% of organic consumers buy organic foods because they believe they “taste better” than conventionally produced crops, studies have found that people can’t tell the difference between the two in blind taste tests 13.

So organics are not better for us and we can’t tell the difference between them and non-organic foods. There may be many things that are good about organic farming, from increased biodiversity on farms to movement away from monocultures, but producing foods that are healthier and tastier simply isn’t one of its pluses.

Myth: Organic Farming Is Better For The Environment

As an ecologist by training, this myth bothers me the most of all three. People seem to believe they’re doing the world a favor by eating organic. The simple fact is that they’re not – at least not necessarily.

Vectobac - a BT containing pesticide used in organic agriculture

Vectobac – a BT containing pesticide used in organic agriculture

True, organic farming practices use less synthetic pesticides which have been universally found to be ecologically damaging. But factory organic farms use their own barrage of chemicals that are still ecologically damaging, and refuse to endorse technologies that might reduce or eliminate the use of these all together. Take, for example, organic farming’s adamant stance against genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs have the potential to up crop yields, increase nutritious value, and generally improve farming practices while reducing synthetic chemical use – which is exactly what organic farming seeks to do.

But then hypocrisy steps in. Organic farmers apply Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin (a small insecticidal protein from soil bacteria) unabashedly across their crops every year, as they have for decades. It’s one of the most widely used organic pesticides by organic farmers. Yet when genetic engineering is used to place the gene encoding the Bt toxin into a plant’s genome, the resulting GM plants are vilified by the very people willing to liberally spray the exact same toxin that the gene encodes for over the exact same species of plant. Ecologically, the GMO is a far better solution, as it reduces the amount of toxin being used and thus leeching into the surrounding landscape and waterways. Other GMOs have similar goals; making rice flood-tolerant so occasional flooding can replace herbicide use as a means of killing weeds, for example.

But the real reason organic farming isn’t more green than conventional is that it’s far less productive. Organic farming yields only around 80% the amount of conventional methods (some studies place organic yields below 50% those of conventional farms!). Right now, roughly 800 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, and about 16 million of those will die from it. If we were to switch to entirely organic farming, the number of people suffering would jump by 1.3 billion, assuming we use the same amount of land that we’re using now. But what’s far more likely is that switches to organic farming will result in the creation of new farms via the destruction of untouched habitats. And organic farming has another spacial price – by relying on natural fertilizers, it requires more land for the animals that produce those fertilizers. Already, we have cleared more than 35% of the Earth’s ice-free land surface for agriculture, an area 60 times larger than the combined area of all the world’s cities and suburbs combined. Since the last ice age, nothing has been more disruptive to the planet’s ecosystem and its inhabitants than agriculture. What will happen to what’s left of our planet’s wildlife habitats if we need to mow down another 10% or more of the world’s ice-free land to accommodate for organic methods?

The unfortunate truth is that until organic farming can rival the production output of conventional farming, its ecological cost due to the need for space is devastating. As bad as any of the pesticides and fertilizers polluting the world’s waterways from conventional agriculture are, it’s a far better ecological situation than destroying those key habitats all together. That’s not to say that there’s no hope for organic farming; better technology could overcome the production gap, allowing organic methods to produce on par with conventional agriculture. If that does occur, then organic agriculture becomes a lot more ecologically sustainable. And in the small scale, particularly in areas where food surpluses already occur, organic farming could be beneficial. But presuming it’s the end all be all of sustainable agriculture is a mistake.

The Battle Rages On

Mix it up to stay happy people!

Mix it up to stay happy people!

The point of this piece isn’t to vilify organic farming; it’s merely to point out that it’s not as black and white as it looks. Organic farming does have many potential upsides, and may indeed be the better way to go in the long run, but it really depends on technology and what we discover and learn in the future. Until organic farming can produce crops on par in terms of volume with conventional methods, it cannot be considered a viable option for the majority of the world. Nutritionally speaking, organic food is more like a brand name or luxury item. It’s great if you can afford the higher price and want to have it, but it’s not a panacea. You would improve your nutritional intake far more by eating a larger volume of fruits and vegetables than by eating organic ones instead of conventionally produced ones.

What bothers me most, however, is that both sides on the organic debate spend millions in press and advertising to attack each other instead of looking for a resolution. Organic supporters tend to vilify new technologies, while conventional supporters insist that chemicals and massive production monocultures are the only way to go. This simply strikes me as absurd. Synthetic doesn’t necessarily mean bad for the environment. Just look at technological advances in creating biodegradable products; sometimes, we can use our knowledge and intelligence to create things that are both useful, cheap (enough) and ecologically responsible, as crazy as that idea may sound.

But I also firmly believe that increasing the chemicals used in agriculture to support insanely over-harvested monocultures will never lead to ecological improvement. In my mind, the ideal future will merge conventional and organic methods, using GMOs and/or other new technologies to reduce pesticide use while increasing the bioavailability of soils, crop yield, nutritional quality and biodiversity in agricultural lands. New technology isn’t the enemy of organic farming; it should be its strongest ally. It continues to bother me that both sides refuse to discuss the idea of a middle ground.

As it stands now, to be honest, if you want to eat the healthiest food for you that has the least environmental impact, buy local produce. Smaller farms, like the one owned by my boyfriend’s family, often use less pesticides and take better care of their land and crops. Also, one of the biggest environmental impacts of both conventional and organic farming is the transport of foodstuffs to the consumer. Even the most ecologically responsible farms have to ship their products to grocery stores. By buying foods produced locally instead, where we can talk to the growers and learn exactly what is in the food we’re buying, we can dramatically reduce the impact of agriculture on our environment and still get meals jam-packed with nutrition. See? There is a win-win solution after all!

References

. National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, National Pesticide Use Database. Available from http://www.ncfap.org (Viewed 19 Nov, 2009).
Gold, L., Slone, T., Stern, B., Manley, N., & Ames, B. (1992). Rodent carcinogens: setting priorities Science, 258 (5080), 261-265 DOI: 10.1126/science.1411524
. Rotenone: Resource Guide for Organic and Disease Management. Cornell University. Available at www.nysaes.cornell.edu/pp/resourceguide/mfs/11rotenone.php (Viewed 19 Nov, 2009).
Caboni, P., Sherer, T., Zhang, N., Taylor, G., Na, H., Greenamyre, J., & Casida, J. (2004). Rotenone, Deguelin, Their Metabolites, and the Rat Model of Parkinson’s Disease Chemical Research in Toxicology, 17 (11), 1540-1548 DOI: 10.1021/tx049867r
. EFSA 2009. Pesticides used in organic farming: some pass and some fail safety authorization. European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Available from: www.ecpa.eu (Viewed 19 Nov, 2009).
. Reasoned opinion of EFSA prepared by the Pesticides Unit (PRAPeR) on the 2007 Annual Report on Pesticide Residues. EFSA Scientific Report (2009) 305, 1-106
. Consumer Reports 1998. Organic produce. Consumer Reports 63(1), 12-18.
. FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (2000). Pesticide Program: Residue Monitoring 1999. Available at http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov (Viewed 19 Nov, 2009)
Mukherjee A, Speh D, Dyck E, & Diez-Gonzalez F (2004). Preharvest evaluation of coliforms, Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Escherichia coli O157:H7 in organic and conventional produce grown by Minnesota farmers. Journal of food protection, 67 (5), 894-900 PMID: 15151224
. Dangour, A., Dodhia, S., Hayter, A., Aikenhead, A., Allen, E., Lock, K. & Uauy, R. 2009. Comparison of composition (nutrients and other substances) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs: a systematic review of the available literature. Food Standards Agency (UK).
. EFSA 2009. Study finds no additional nutritional benefit in “organic” food. European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Available from: www.ecpa.eu (Viewed 19 Nov, 2009)
. NZFSA 2009. Safety of organic food. Food Focus February 2009. New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA). Available from: www.nzfsa.govt.nz (Viewed 19 Nov, 2009)
Fillion, L., & Arazi, S. (2002). Does organic food taste better? A claim substantiation approach Nutrition & Food Science, 32 (4), 153-157 DOI: 10.1108/00346650210436262