Organic vs. Conventional: A Closer Look at the Facts

We’ve all heard it before: “Eat organic. It keeps your body and our environment healthy!” But where is this advice coming from? Aside from information from a handful of knowledgeable professionals, many of the things we hear touting the health and environmental benefits of organic foods are mostly hearsay, without substantial, scientific evidence to back up claims made. The same is true for claims that conventionally grown foods are just as healthy as organic, and that their growing methods don’t harm the environment.

In many instances, information presented to us simply isn’t reliable. Positive information and dismissal of concerns usually come from individuals with something to gain from swaying public opinion. Let’s take a closer and more critical look at the debate.

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What is organic food anyway? Organic.org states, “Organic produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones.” The USDA has three categorizations for organic foods –100% Organic, Organic, and Made with Organic ingredients. Many in the organic industry argue that foods grown using organic methods produce more nutritious, better tasting foods and are better for soil health and the environment. They infer that organically grown foods are simply higher quality because in their minds, less is more — in this case, less chemicals and less mass production.

The environment is also a hot-button topic in the organic industry. Organic farmers don’t use the same chemicals that the conventional food industry uses on their crops and fields. Less chemicals used on fields means fewer pollutants leaching into local water systems. Since no synthetic pesticides are used, organic farming must be better for the biodiversity on farms and surrounding areas.

Conventionally grown foods also have their advocates. Foods grown in a conventional manner still have to meet certain requirements and, according to the University of Arizona, chemical levels are still below what the EPA considers safe for human consumption. It’s also pointed out that the use of raw manure instead of composted manure on some organic farms can cause higher levels of e.coli and salmonella in the soil which can taint the end food product. Proponents of non-organically grown foods also say that there is no scientific proof that organic foods are more nutritious. Mass production is also seen as a benefit because conventional farming produces much more food and maximizes the use of land and resources available for increased crop yields.

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Image credit: Andy Dean Photography / Shutterstock.com

You’ve heard both sides of the debate. Now let’s take a look at the facts. In 2012, a controversial Stanford University meta-study declared organic foods were no more nutritious than conventionally farmed foods. The study was held as a standard and seen as a blow to the organic industry. But recent 2014 research published in the British Journal of Nutrition has proven that organic food is unquestionably more nutritious. These different results came after researchers included a larger data set which included 343 peer-reviewed studies—much larger than the 237 used for the Stanford meta-study. The researchers discovered higher levels of anti-oxidants (linked to lowered risk of diseases such as cancer) and Omega-3 fatty acids in organic foods. This L.A. Times article explains the new findings in plain English.

The safety of organic foods has been called into question over the years, with many reported instances of organic foods causing illnesses because of manure and farm slurry (liquid manure) use in organic farming methods. As a result of ongoing issues with manure, in 2014 the FDA proposed new rules regarding its use in organic farming. Due to feedback from the organic industry, the FDA has postponed new proposed rules regarding the use of manure until further research can be done. In the meantime, the FDA recommends that organic farmers move to compost since the composting process reduces pathogens that may exist in raw manure.

Organic foods are widely thought to be pesticide-free. In fact, there are over 20 chemicals commonly used and permitted by US Organic Standards in organic crop production. These chemicals are natural (vs. synthetic) in origin. But just because something is natural doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe. Rotenone, for example, is an organic pesticide used for decades until it was found to cause Parkinson’s Disease-like symptoms in rats and to be potentially fatal to humans. Unfortunately, Rotenone was re-approved by the EPA in 2010 and is currently used by fisheries to remove unwanted fish species. Rotenone is a concern but it’s not likely to be used on organic farms in the USA. However, certified organic farms in other countries have different rules and it’s possible to receive certified organic products from other countries where Rotenone was used.

In a rebuttal to synthetic pesticide use in conventionally grown crops, UC Davis food toxin and pesticide expert Carl Winter says, “Our typical exposures are at least 10,000 times lower than doses we can give to laboratory animals every day throughout their lifetimes and not cause any effect. If your concerns about pesticide residues are leading you to reduce your consumption of fruits and vegetables, then I think you’re doing yourself more harm than good.”

Pretty young woman making a decision with arrows and question ma

Image credit: changingcourse.com

So what’s the best thing to do now that you have an overview of the facts? Make a choice and do what’s best for you, given your budget and values. There are many ways to support the organic farm industry should you choose to go the organic route. To support organic farming methods, buy foods that require large tracts of land such as wheat, corn, and beef. To support how animals are raised, try free-range, organic chickens and grass-fed beef. And if you’d like to support the organic industry as a whole but have limited resources, try eating organic versions the Dirty Dozen.

-Posted by Joe

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