To eat or not to eat….organic foods

by Peggy Olive

A recent Stanford study has received a lot of attention because it finds that organic foods are no more nutritious than those grown “conventionally”. Apparently this comes as a surprise to many, although there have been similar reports in the scientific literature over the years. Leaving aside the fact that until the 20th century all food was grown organically, does this mean that we’re wasting our money paying extra for organically grown foods?

It’s not obvious to me why crops grown organically should contain more vitamins and minerals. That’s determined genetically for the most part. Popeye eats spinach and not green beans because of the higher vitamin and mineral content of spinach. The level of vitamins is also closely tied to the time since harvest. Vitamin C levels drop precipitously in many vegetables held at room temperature or even some kept in our refrigerators for a few days. If concerned only about nutrition, eating freshly-picked vegetables from your local gardens makes more sense than buying organic foods from afar.

Food safety issues are no different for organic and non-organic foods, although many people think the higher price paid for organic foods should make them safer to eat. There’s also no reason to believe that organic meat comes from animals that have been treated more humanely than animals fed hormones or antibiotics.

So why should we choose to eat foods grown organically if they aren’t more nutritious, they aren’t safer to eat, and the animals haven’t led happier lives?

An excellent reason to eat organic foods is because they are grown without the use of pesticides, additives, and hormones that we should avoid for health reasons. Just as important, organic refers not only to the food itself, but how it was produced. Organic foods are grown using methods that recycle resources and promote biodiversity, considered key elements of environmentally sustainable agriculture. Monoculture and intensive farming methods using petroleum-based fertilizers depletes the soil of important organisms that supply nutrients to growing plants. Soil degradation has been of concern for a long time in Canada and elsewhere, and ultimately conventional farming practices result in reduced crop yields, now exacerbated by climate change.

The argument has made that organic farming methods cannot increase agricultural productivity because they are too inefficient. However, the UN Environmental Program reported in 2008 that organic farming practices in Africa outperformed industrial, chemical-intensive conventional farming, and improved soil fertility, retention of water, and resistance to drought. Scientific studies support the conclusion that organic farming methods are better at retaining soil productivity than conventional methods.

Ten benefits of organic farming/ organic food

  • Better for our environment, by definition: A production system that integrates cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.
  • Not treated with pesticides, hormones, or potentially toxic additives
  • Safer for farm workers (limits exposure to toxins)
  • Safer for farm animals
  • Safer for crop pollinators
  • Better for soil (fosters biodiversity, water retention, productivity)
  • Animals not fed animal by-products
  • Not genetically modified (when labelled 100% organic)
  • Not treated with antibiotics so organic meat contains less antibiotic-resistant bacteria
  • More likely to be farmed locally (fresher)

The major disadvantage of organic food is the price you will pay at your supermarket checkout, typically 10-40% higher. Organic foods are more expensive because production costs are higher. Production costs are higher because farming methods are more labour intensive and there is potentially greater crop loss from pests. Because the price is higher, the choice to eat organic foods is not always available to those on limited incomes, and this could be viewed as a social equity issue. Certifying that the organic food you buy has actually been grown organically and is chemically free is an ongoing concern. To counter this problem, Canadian organic food now bears a logo but more oversight is required.

Fortunately, not all the foods we eat need to be grown organically if we want to significantly reduce our exposure to pesticides. The Environmental Working Group, a U.S. based non-profit organization specializing in research and advocacy to protect public health and the environment, has given us a list of the dirty dozen fruits and vegetables that are likely to present with the highest levels of pesticides, so it makes sense to use your “organic dollars” to buy these ones. Now, if only my aging mind could remember which ones are best to buy ‘organic’ when standing in front of the vegetable displays and fruit bins.

It is true that some of the benefits of organic food might be accomplished by no-till farming methods and by the use of genetically modified foods (GMFs) that are naturally pesticide-resistant or tolerant to environmental stresses. No-till methods will improve the soil, but many GMFs are grown to be resistant to the drugs used to kill the weeds or pests, and we, like honeybees, are not resistant. The potential of GMFs to add new toxins, allergens and genetic hazards to our food supply is a concern for many consumers and the paucity of studies on the long-term safety of GMFs has been reported in the scientific literature.

As demand for organic food grows, economies of scale will reduce cost to the consumer and cost to the farmer who implements organic farming practices. Before we complain about the price of organic foods, we need to be reminded of how little of our income we actually spend on food. In 1961, Canadians spent on average 19% of their income on food, but by 2005 this had dropped to 9.3%. In comparison, Europeans spend about 15% of their income on food, South Americans about 30%, and Africans more than 40%. Also, we shouldn’t forget how much food we waste. Total losses and wastage in the food chain can reach 50% in Western countries, so we would pay much less for our food if we simply reduced waste. With the benefits of organic foods listed above (which do not include nutrition per se) and the low relative cost for food in this country, price alone becomes a poor excuse for not choosing to eat organic foods.

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