Organic Food

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Most people have heard about “organic” food, but surprisingly few understand what organic certification means and why it’s important. Organic farming practices differ from conventional practices in their primary use of naturally-derived rather than synthetic pesticides and fertilizers as well as a ban on using antibiotics, growth hormone, artificial ingredients, trans fats, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The decision to avoid conventionally-grown food and consume only organic carries broad health and environmental implications.

Organic Food and Health

Organic food is generally healthier than conventional food for four reasons. First, organic food is on average more nutrient dense than conventional food. For example, a recent review of studies found that the antioxidant levels of organic food samples were frequently more than 20 percent higher than the antioxidant levels in conventional food.[1]

Second, organic food decreases your exposure to toxic pesticide residues. Pesticide exposure, especially during pregnancy and childhood, has been linked to a greater risk of birth defects, cognitive impairment,[2] breast cancer, autism, attention deficit disorder, and endocrine (hormone) disruption.[3] For example, exposure to insecticides during pregnancy can reduce a child’s IQ by 4-9 percent, depending upon exposure level.[4] Recent research also suggests that pesticide exposure may increase the risk of developing Parkinson’s Disease.[5] A comprehensive review of the health effects of pesticide exposure is currently underway.[6]

A third potential health reason for consuming organic food is to avoid GMO’s. Genetically engineered (GE) seeds, introduced in 1996, are most widely used in the United States for corn, soybean, and cotton crops. Many GE crops are designed to tolerate the direct application of herbicides intended to kill weeds. For example, “Roundup Ready” crops have been engineered to tolerate Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, glyphosate, which has been recently identified by the World Health Organization as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”[7] Other GE crops are designed to release a Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin that is lethal to some insects.[8] Interestingly, the introduction of genetically-engineered crops actually increased pesticide use by 318 million pounds over 13 years, primarily due to the rise of Roundup-resistant weeds. Farmers have attempted to control Roundup-resistant weeds by applying more herbicide with different chemical mixes, including 2,4-D, a key ingredient in Agent Orange.[9] While the effect of GMO diets in humans is uncertain, laboratory animals fed GMO diets frequently exhibit allergic reactions, stomach lesions, advanced aging, and liver and kidney problems.[10]

Finally, certified organic meat means that antibiotics were not administered to the animals. This is highly desirable as the use of antibiotics in raising cattle promotes the development of some types of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.[11] Antibiotic-resistant bacteria kill 23,000 Americans per year.[12]

Organic Food and the Environment

When you buy organic food, you are supporting sustainable farming practices that do not harm the environment. For example, many insecticides and some herbicides used in conventional farming are lethal to honey bees. This is problematic because several crops depend on bees for pollination to produce fruit, including alfalfa, apples, apricots, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, cucumbers, cantaloupes, nectarines, peaches, pears, plums, pumpkins, raspberries, watermelons, and cranberries. Without bees, these crops would not exist. The use of commercially managed bees has been valued at $18 billion in the United States, and crops pollinated by wild bees have been valued at $3 billion.[11] To learn more about this problem, watch the documentary, Vanishing of the Bees.

The use of organic instead of synthetic fertilizer also matters. Nitrogen from synthetic fertilizers washes into lakes, rivers, and oceans, which depletes the concentration of oxygen in the water, triggers algae to bloom, decreases fish reproduction, and diminishes the ability of fish to survive. Synthetic fertilizers running off into the Mississippi ultimately pool into the Gulf of Mexico, creating the second largest “Dead Zone” in the world, wherein oxygen is insufficient to support marine life.[12]

Behind the Label

A USDA Organic seal certifies that a product meets rigorous standards of “organic growing, production, handling, storage, and processing.”[13] [14] At least 95 percent of ingredients in a certified organic product are organic. Up to 5% of the ingredients can be non-organic but cannot by synthetic. The seal also means that farms undergo a pesticide residue analysis for verification. Compliance with organic standards is verified by a third party certification agency, which is in turn externally audited. The fee for non-compliance is as much as $11,000.

 

Differences between “Organic” and “Conventional” Farming

 ConventionalUSDA-Certified Organic
Pesticides: insecticides (to kill insects), herbicides (to manage weeds), and fungicides (to control plant diseases)A broad array of synthetic chemicalsMainly a limited number of naturally-derived pesticides and weed management techniques that prevent weed germination, such as deep tillage
FertilizersSynthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge (industrial wastewater solids)Organic fertilizer derived from animal or vegetable matter, such as compost
AntibioticsAllowedProhibited
Growth hormoneAllowedProhibited
Artificial ingredientsAllowedProhibited
Trans fatsAllowedProhibited
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)AllowedProhibited

 

Isn’t “All Natural” the Same as “Organic?”

Whereas the “organic” label is highly regulated, there is no regulation governing the use of “All Natural.” The FDA only recommends that “All Natural” not be applied to products with added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.[1] This means that nearly anything that is partly derived from nature could be label as “All Natural,” including GMOs and foods produced with pesticides, antibiotics, and growth hormones. Food manufacturers frequently ignore the FDA recommendation and apply the “All Natural” label to foods with synthetic substances.[2] In fact, a recent study by Consumer Reports examined multiple types of “All Natural” processed foods and found that nearly every one had genetically-modified corn or soy ingredients.[3]

Organic Options for Dining Out

Few restaurants have obtained official organic certification, but some serve organic food. Use the “organic” filter on restaurant search sites to find and support local restaurants that serve organic food. Note that the proportion of organic entrees varies considerably among these restaurants, so be sure to check the menu and ask your server for clarification.

When Organic Food is Unavailable or Too Expensive

The availability and price of organic food varies across grocery stores. Moreover, depending upon your budget, an organic-only diet may not be economically feasible. On average, organic food costs 47% more than conventional food, though some organic products cost the same or less than conventional food, such as lettuce, carrots, maple syrup, olive oil, and cream cheese.[14] Any negative price difference is mainly due to the relatively limited supply of organic food and the inclusion of several social-environmental costs that are neglected in conventional food production. The price of organic food not only reflects the cost of production; it also captures the cost of protecting the environment, providing better conditions for animals, reducing health risks for farm workers, and creating rural employment opportunities for labor intensive organic farming.[15] Nonetheless, the presence of an “organic premium” likely exacerbates socioeconomic inequalities in health outcomes, and thus collective action is needed to make organic food available and affordable for everyone.

If organic food is not available or too expensive, you can still limit your exposure to pesticides by consuming conventional foods that typically have a low pesticide residue. We use the pesticide dietary risk index to determine which conventional foods should be avoided and which can be eaten.[16][17]

Conventional Fruits and Vegetables with High and Low Pesticide Residue Risk

High-Risk FruitsHigh-Risk VegetablesLow-Risk FruitsLow-Risk Vegetables and Other Foods
ApplesBroccoli (imported)AvocadosAsparagus
CherriesCarrots (imported)BananasCabbage
CherriesCeleryCantaloupeCauliflower
CranberriesCollard greensCitrus fruitsEggplant
GrapesCucumbersDried fruitGrains and grain-based products
NectarinesGreen beansGrapefruitOnions
PeachesKaleKiwiSweet peas
PearsLettuceMangosSweet potatoes
StrawberriesPeasPapayasMost processed foods
PotatoesPineapples
Snap peas (imported)
Spinach
Sweet bell peppers and hot peppers
Tomatoes

 

 

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