Weighing the Pro’s and Cons of Organic Produce

Is Organic Food Better?

Is Organic Food Better?

I get asked the question all the time: “Should I spend twice the amount for organic broccoli compared with conventional varieties?” Then I hear, “Honestly, the organic variety didn’t look so hot, and for that amount I could practically buy wild-caught salmon.”

Strolling grocery store aisles present more decisions than ever, and chief among them includes whether you should buy organic produce.

Price becomes one factor, but you’re probably also lured by prettier-looking conventional produce varieties. After all, conventionally grown apples – apples grown with pesticides and other conventional farming methods – yield shinier, more vibrant, less-expensive fruit compared with the (sometimes) lackluster organic apples.

Even if it’s not as pretty, organic produce – produce grown without pesticides (to kill insects), herbicides (to kill weeds), synthetic fertilizers (to grow crops faster in larger amounts) and other chemicals – suggests produce that’s theoretically friendlier for the environment, more profitable for farmers, and healthier for you.

Even if all those factors are true, does that justify the cost?

The History of Organic

Once upon a time, all produce grew organically. During World War 2, research on chemicals as nerve gas revealed a “beneficial” effect to kill insects, and the first pesticides emerged.  As the war wound down, excess amounts of these chemicals allowed clever scientists to utilize them as synthetic fertilizer.

Ammonia nitrate, originally used to make explosives, became an ingredient in fertilizers because it increases nitrogen content, boosting soil fertility. In other words, soil that might not normally produce many crops becomes much easier to farm.

As industrialized agriculture became more popular, ammonia nitrate and other chemicals increased productivity. This time period embraced modern, intensive farming practices that allowed for mass crop production on an unprecedented scale. In other words, those post-war excess chemicals became a savvy way to reduce waste and increase food productivity.

Studies show pesticide residues often linger in conventional crops, sometimes even after washing or peeling. If you browse natural health blogs, you’ll find plenty of articles associating these chemicals with neurodegenerative diseases, cancers, and birth defects. Concerns relate to the health impact these chemicals may have on the health of conventional farm workers and even their children.  For instance, researchers found an increased risk of cancer in children living near strawberry farms in California that used pesticides.(1)  Although there are arguments that the same chemicals are used in such negligible amounts that one need not be concerned about their risks, it was the concern otherwise that gave birth to the organic movement. Cumulative lifetime toxicity is the far greater concern than the individual pesticide concentration on an item-by-item basis.

Organic enthusiasts resurfaced around the 1960s, opposing modern food production and demanding we return to our original, natural farming methods.

During the ensuing decades, organic rose slowly but steadily. Originally, organic qualifications were different state to state.  A demand for consistency drove Congress to pass the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990, creating national standards for organic food production.

To provide greater depth for these ethics, the OFPA later established the National Organic Standards Board and required them, with the support of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), to create guidelines on what substances could be used in organic production and handling.

In 2002, the USDA implemented the Certified Organic label with expanded qualifications that addressed all aspects of organic agriculture. Far from its counterculture origins, organic business became mainstream. (2)

Organic vs. Non-Organic

Visit any Whole Foods or other “health” market and you’ll encounter a slew of adjectives describing produce, including “conventional” (AKA non-organic), “organic,” and “local.” Some of these are legit terms; others are hyperbolic buzzwords. Caveat emptor.

Let’s clarify first what organic isn’t. Local food typically means reduced carbon emissions, stronger local economies, and fresher produce. All is fine and good, but that doesn’t necessarily mean certified organic. Conversely, organic doesn’t mean local: Organic foods might be shipped from very large farms thousands of miles away.

If you buy produce classified “organic,” or you order organic broccoli at your local restaurant, you can be pretty sure you’re getting organic. Organic sells, so grocers and menus will use it whenever possible. Otherwise, assume you’re eating non-organic produce.

U.S. Organic Policies

In the United States, organic produce labeling falls under USDA jurisdiction.  To get certified, farmers must comply with specific regulations, including where they buy their seeds to how the food is grown, harvested, and packaged.

Any products used to produce organic crops like natural fertilizers must comply with the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances established in the USDA’s National Organic Program.

(Worth noting: A 2012 study found organic produce sometimes contains pesticide residues.(3) There’s more to discuss about the potential problems with organic (read on), but for now, it’s fair to suggest that buying and eating organic is optimal — but not perfect.)

Each farm must also be certified by a USDA-approved certifying agent, a third-party not affiliated with the farmer or buyer.  These agencies uphold the standards of the National Organic Program and determine whether farms meet specific criteria to sell their products with the Certified Organic label. (4)

While organic encompasses a wide range of foods, beverages, and ingredients, here we’ll simply look at produce.

Today, almost 13 percent of American produce is organic. For decades, produce has been the top-selling organic category, considered a “gateway to organic” by the Organic Trade Association. In other words, many consumers initially buy organic produce but end up buying other types of organic products. (5)

For produce to become certified organic, it must grow on land free from all prohibited substances (certain pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers) for at least three years. Seed sources, water systems, contamination prevention, and thorough record keeping also impact the organic certification process. (6)

Other countries have their own organic certifications. Canada uses the “Canada Organic Logo,” regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.  Since they use the same methods as the USDA Organic Certification, the two countries agree to accept each other’s organic certifications with proper documentation, easing the import process and providing greater variety to consumers. The European Union carries this same policy.(7)

Organic and Biodiversity Benefits of Organic Farming

Regulations aside, organic farms typically maintain biodiversity, supporting a large variety of different life forms including plants, animals, fungi, and microorganisms within a particular area.  Biodiversity signifies a strong, healthy, balanced ecosystem.

Biodiversity on an organic farm might mean insects like butterflies help pollinate and encourage food growth. Butterflies and other insects also help control other insects or pests that could adversely impact crops.

Conventional farms often lack this biodiversity, instead employing pesticides that kill many insects (not just the ones eating the crops) and negatively impact the entire ecosystem.  Fewer insects might mean fewer birds, which damages land productivity and crop production.

Soil organisms like earthworms, fungi, or certain types of bacteria – more prevalent on organic farms – also illustrate biodiversity. (8) Think of these soil organisms as probiotics for the earth. They help aerate the soil and break down decaying matter into food for plants.

The concern with conventional farms is their greater likelihood of having barren soil, stripped of its naturally occurring nutrients and organisms. The land produces crops with the help of stimulating chemicals like synthetic fertilizers, which can run off the fields and hurt animals, plants, and water supplies.

Synthetic fertilizers decrease biodiversity and lessen plant health by altering the soil’s mineral composition and poisoning helpful microorganisms.  These fertilizers leak into lakes and streams, killing aquatic life and destroying the ecosystem.

Conventional farmers often mass-spray crops using herbicides to kill weeds that might damage their produce.  Organic farmers, on the other hand, often manually pull weeds or physically use a hoe for each row of crops to remove weeds.

Organic farming also helps maintain soil integrity, benefiting a plant’s future for the seed to grow and thrive. Organic soil maintains a stronger structure. Its higher mineral content makes soil sturdier so it actually holds water better. That means better hydration for plant roots and less surface runoff.

Organic farmers strive to use small, localized interventions. They compost to produce their own natural fertilizer instead of ordering fertilizer from some far-away mega-corporation.  This gives them more control over what goes into their land and encourages recycling, which benefits the environment (less waste, less chemicals) and the farm’s stability (decreased costs for supplies, more money for farmers).  A more productive, self-sufficient company also reduces the use of fossil fuels.

Organic Produce and GMOs

Certain agricultural methods are off-limits for organic crop production, including genetic modification (GMOs) that change a plant’s DNA to produce desired traits. Altering genes can create produce resistance to viruses or insects.

While conventional crops may or may not contain GMOs (you never really know unless they are labeled), organic produce cannot be GMO. Current law does not require labeling GMOs. The only way to avoid them is to buy Certified Organic food or anything with the “Non-GMO Project Verified” label.

Weighing pros and cons about GMOs goes beyond this article’s scope. When you buy organic, you needn’t be concerned since you’re guaranteed organic is entirely non-GMO.

What about Organic Food Prices?

Supporting a living wage for farmers and protecting the environment all sounds great, you might think, but is organic spinach really worth spending two bucks more a pound on?

Despite price, growing sales trends show consumers are fine spending more on organic. An analysis in Consumer Reports found organic costs about 47 percent more, in fact. (9) That’s a lot!

Researchers at Washington State University analyzed 44 studies on organic agriculture and found organic farms can be between 22 – 35 percent more profitable than conventional farms when they charge a premium for their products.(10) Those premiums mean a higher cost for customers.

Organic Has Gone Big and Mainstream

If a silver lining exists in the organics-are-pricier problem, it could be thanks to big corporations.

What used to be a small farm concept has become a multi-billion dollar industry among some large food corporations.  In 2015, organic increased 12 percent, with organic produce exceeding $14 billion in sales.

As organic sales grow, so do corporate interests.  Many initially weren’t interested in health or environmental concerns, but huge corporations – called “Big Organic” – are now often behind organic brands.

They include General Mills (who owns Cascadian Farms), Campbell’s Soup (who owns Bolthouse Farms), and WhiteWave Foods (who owns the country’s largest source of organic greens, Earthbound Farm). (11, 12)

These conglomerates buy out smaller farms and companies because they see the organic market’s financial growth and have money to invest, while smaller businesses often get an offer they can’t refuse.

Unfortunately, these mega-corporations sometimes employ sneaky tricks to manipulate consumers, especially when it comes to the “health halo effect.” After all, if the label says “USDA Certified Organic,” it must be healthy, right? (Nope. Visit your health food store and check out the ever-expanding array of organic cookies, crackers, and other junk foods.)

Many corporations that buy out smaller businesses don’t hold the same principles, yet manipulate the original company’s small town, naturalist, friendly-farmer, “mom and pop” persona because it sells.

In other words, while you might imagine a small, local field with cows happily grazing, with Big Organic that product might come from a farm hundreds of acres wide utilizing machinery and decidedly un-quaint growing techniques. Much of that pretty packaging is smoke and mirrors.

Remember the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances established by the USDA? The program doesn’t restrict the use of any and all substances — just prohibited substances. Debate remains today as to whether there should be more or less substances on this list. Organic farmers aren’t barred from using anything but water.

Mega-stores like Wal-Mart and Costco also capitalize on this organic boom.(13) They place enormous bulk orders, usually receive a discount, and sell their products for slightly less than smaller grocers.

While that might sound like a drawback to smaller vendors, greater accessibility and variety benefit consumers. You no longer need to drive around town to spend five dollars on a pint of organic strawberries when a nearby Safeway carries them on sale for three dollars.

Is Organic Food Healthier?

Recent studies reveal organic to be superior to conventional produce as far as its nutrient density – and reduced toxic load.  The British Journal of Nutrition conducted a meta-analysis of 343 peer-reviewed studies and found organic crops had significantly higher levels of many protective antioxidants, while conventional crops had higher levels of the toxic metal cadmium and pesticide residues. (14)

Another study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found organic fruits, vegetables, and grains had higher levels of vitamin C, iron, phosphorus, and magnesium than conventionally raised crops, while also having lower levels of heavy metals and nitrates. (15)

John Reganold, professor of Soil Science and Agroecology at Washington State University, has analyzed 40 years of data about organic agriculture. “Organic agriculture has been able to provide jobs, be profitable, benefit the soil and environment and support social interactions between farmers and consumers,” he argues. (16)

Consumer Reports also supports organic; their experts site higher levels of nutrients, reduced levels of pesticides and antibiotics (linked to health problems ranging from childhood eczema to cancer), and increased long-term environmental sustainability as major benefits of organic farming. (17)

Despite these studies and endorsements of respectable publications like Consumer Reports, studies of populations consuming exclusively organic foods and their overall health outcomes remain limited.  The conventional farming community argues that no studies prove eating organic means you’re less likely to get cancer or have better health.  Partly, that’s correct: There aren’t that many studies (of this type).

That said, I’ll take more antioxidants (and fewer heavy metals) with organic fruits and vegetables any day, even if they cost a little more and finding them isn’t always convenient, any day of the week.

Is Organic Better for the Community?

Health and environmental aspects aside, studies show organic farms can improve community economic development by increasing social interactions between farmers and consumers, providing employment opportunities, and emphasizing healthy relationships between farmers.  Less exposure to harmful chemicals means healthier farmers (18), and healthier farmers equal a happier community.

Yet because big businesses buy up organic farms, workers aren’t necessarily making a better living.  Workers on both organic and conventional farms often receive less than the state minimum wage and denied overtime pay.  A report from the California Institute for Rural Studies found 24 percent of all farm workers live below the poverty line and 70 percent did not have access to health benefits. (19)

Swanton Berry Farm, the first organic berry farm in California, seems determined to change that. They lead the country in humanitarian efforts for farm workers.  Though relatively small at 200 acres and 50 employees, they are the country’s first unionized organic farm, providing workers fair, livable wages, and access to affordable healthcare.

Swanton adopted another label, “Food Justice Certified,” which means they meet the Agricultural Justice Project’s strict human rights standards for farm worker conditions involving fair compensation and worker safety. (20)

While the Certified Organic logo lets you know how your food was grown, the Food Justice Certified logo lets you know how the people who grew that food were treated, reflecting the standards of the farm and its owners.

“Fair Trade Certified” is another label that lets you know your purchase supports positive social and environmental farming conditions that help communities thrive economically. (21)

When You Can’t Go Completely Organic…

All those labels can become confusing, and a strictly organic diet doesn’t fit everyone’s budget. If that’s you, how can you get the most bang for your organic buck?

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has composed two handy lists to help navigate shopping for organic produce.  The Dirty Dozen, a list of the 12 crops most heavily contaminated with pesticides, are the ones you should buy organic.

These include strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, peaches, pears, cherries, grapes, celery, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, cucumbers, potatoes, and (honorable mention) hot peppers. (22)

The EWG has expanded the Dirty Dozen category to include additional crops including kale, collard greens, and hot peppers. These vegetables contain trace levels of extremely hazardous chemicals, though fewer than the Dirty Dozen.

The Clean Fifteen, as their name implies, are crops least likely to hold pesticide residues even when you buy them conventionally. You’re probably safe buying these 15 foods conventionally and not paying steeper prices for organic versions.

These include sweet corn, avocado, pineapple, cabbage, onions, sweet peas, papaya, asparagus, mango, eggplant, honeydew melon, cantaloupe, kiwi, cauliflower, and grapefruit. (23)

The EWG determines these lists by analyzing more than 35,000 crop samples from the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to rank pesticide levels for 48 most popular fruits and vegetables. (24)

Organic Criticism

In a perfect world, we would pick apples off the tree in our backyards. We would breathe pristine air and drink pure water. Organic wouldn’t be a selling point because all produce would grow chemical-free. Obviously, we live far, far from that perfect world.

Buying organic isn’t without its potential problems, like the pesticide residues noted earlier.  Some critics accuse the EWG and organic advertising in general of encouraging consumers to completely avoid buying fruits and vegetables if they can’t afford organic.

One study looked at low-income families in Chicago found shoppers bought less produce overall because of bad publicity about conventional options.

Another study at the University of California found produce on the Dirty Dozen list had chemical residues below the safe reference limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Even when farmers don’t use them on crops, pesticides and other chemicals can end up on organic produce through wind, water, packing, and transportation.

Regardless of these and other glitches, the EWG agrees eating conventional produce is better than avoiding fruits and vegetables. (25)  I do, too!

Becoming an Informed Organic Consumer

In many cities, businesses like Farmbox Direct, Door to Door Organics, or Amazon Fresh deliver organic directly to your door. You’ve also got more options at your local supermarket.

Back to the broccoli dilemma. To save on costs buying organic, one could:

  1. Check out the frozen section
  2. Try a different grocery store
  3. Check online
  4. Consult the EWG
  5. Hit up a local farmer’s market — Some farmers’ practices are, in fact, very organic, even if they have not invested in the certification. The only way to know is to get to know your farmer!
  6. Opt for a different vegetable if the organic version is cheaper
  7. Join a food co-op — Food co-ops are often the best-kept, certified organic secrets in town!

Factor in cost with other variables. Maybe organic broccoli is more expensive at a farmers market or smaller market, but you can justify supporting smaller businesses rather than a mega-store.

Quality matters with food. It matters with meat and seafood, as I explained in an earlier blog. And it matters with organic. Lack of studies aside, organic will almost always prove superior, even if critics (who sometimes have profit over your health in mind) argue otherwise.

If organic isn’t available or is outside your budget, don’t let that deter you from eating more produce period. More often than not, the nutrient content of conventional broccoli will outweigh its pesticides and other problems. At the same time, adding organics to your diet becomes the perfect way to upgrade your food intake. More globally, voting with your dollars is the best way to support the natural health movement for all. Those who have already benefited from the movement will certainly tout its benefits and their passion to see others have the opportunity.

Is Organic Food Better?

Dr. B.J. Hardick

About Dr. B.J. Hardick

Raised in a holistic family, Dr. B.J. Hardick is an organic food fanatic, green living aficionado, and has spent the majority of his life working in natural health care. In 2009, he wrote his first book, Maximized Living Nutrition Plans, which has now been used professionally in over 500 health clinics. Dr. Hardick regularly blogs healthy recipes and holistic health articles on his own website, DrHardick.com, and speaks to numerous professional and public audiences every year. In his spare time, he invests his keen interest in sustainable living into urban development in his hometown of London, Ontario.

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  • QuestionItAll

    Organic is such a complete no-brainer! Constant reports of the horrors of pesticides, such as glyphosate, showing up in our bodies… Why would anyone resist? Yes the initial cost is more, but is it really in the long term? What price is your health worth? I view the extra cost as medical insurance.