The organic food industry has never been healthier. Sales of organic products last year topped $32.9 billion, and from 2005 to 2008 organic sales increased an astounding 67.6 percent. What makes these figures even more remarkable is the (guarded) state of our nation’s economy over that same time period. Research by the Hartman Group, a marketing research firm, showed that about 70 percent of Americans buy organic food occasionally and 25 percent buy it weekly.
Undoubtedly, a primary reason for the popularity of organic food is the desire by Americans to “eat healthy”. As a nation we are becoming more and more conscious of what we put in our mouths and want safe, fresh and nutritious food. While the label ‘organic’ in the produce section of a local supermarket was a rather infrequent sight just a decade ago, today two-thirds of our nation’s supermarkets carry organic products. However, shoppers usually encounter a fairly significant price increase when purchasing organic food when compared with the price of conventionally produced food. The question arises whether or not organic is worth the extra money.
Since many consumers don’t understand what is meant by ‘organic’ we should start by defining it. The National Organic Program of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers the following definition: “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”
The USDA includes organic production as part of its marketing program. To display the USDA Certified Organic seal or otherwise make the claim of being organic, a product must be both produced and processed according to the USDA standards for organic production originally established in the 1990 Farm Bill. Those standards regulate the inputs that can be used in organic production and prohibits things such as synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, sewage-based organic fertilizers and biotechnology. Producer certification is necessary in order to make the claim that a product is organic. The certification process is very thorough; details can be found at: www.usda.gov/nop/ .
By its own admission, USDA organic labeling standards and certification do not address nutrition or safety of organic products. While the production methods required for organic certification are designed to promote food safety there is no assurance organic food actually is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. Therefore organic identifies a production method as opposed to a product outcome.
Universities and private institutes have researched the safety aspects of organic food and the results are mixed. Without doubt, organically produced food contains less synthetic pesticide residue than conventionally produced food. Numerous research reports document this fact. However, many of the same reports revealed that levels of synthetic pesticide residue on conventionally produced food was under the level established by the government as being safe for adults. This finding was reinforced by the British Nutrition Foundation who concluded: “If pesticides are present at all in non-organically produced fruit and vegetables, the levels are very low. These low levels do not present a risk to human health.” It must be pointed out that, according to the National Academy of Sciences, even low levels of pesticide exposure can be significantly more harmful to children and pregnant women.
In contrast, investigations have revealed that organic produce is more likely to contain harmful bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella, “natural” toxins and heavy metals because of manures (improperly) used in organic production. Organic regulations clearly state that animal manure must be properly composted before it may be used. Composting manure destroys pathogens while improper composting does not. Since there is a fine line (related to temperature) between proper and improper composting and since animal manure is a major input in organic production, microbial contamination is a possibility especially on organic “root crops” such as potato and carrot.
Organic food also has been found to contain more non-synthetic pesticides than conventionally raised food. The list of approved materials for organic production contains some rather toxic compounds. Because these materials are natural and non-synthetic, they are permitted for use (within guidelines) in organic production. Copper sulfate is a good example. Copper is a heavy metal quite toxic to most living organisms. It is widely used in organic production to control fungal diseases. It remains in the soil once applied and does not break down like synthetic pesticides. Nicotine sulfate is another example of a toxic natural compound labeled for use in organic production. However, unlike copper it breaks down rather rapidly after application.
As far as nutritional benefits are concerned, the jury is still out on organic foods. Published research supports the claim that organic foods have higher nutritional value than conventional. It has been documented that, on average, organic foods contain slightly higher levels of trace minerals, vitamin C, and antioxidant phytonutrients than conventionally grown crops, according to the USDA. Phytonutrients have been receiving much attention recently because of their benefits to human health.
Conversely, others maintain there is no conclusive evidence that organically grown produce is more nutritious. Research results published in an August, 2008 issue of the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture concluded “there is no evidence to support the argument that organic food is better than food grown with the use of pesticides and chemicals.” The fact is the composition of any plant depends on many factors including soil, nutrients, water, sunshine and genetic composition. These conditions tend to vary widely in both organic and conventional plant production.
A third factor which might motivate people to pay extra for organic products surrounds the environment. Organic farming focuses on the creation of a healthy soil and minimizing environmental contamination from fertilizer and pesticides. The latter are showing up in public water supplies at alarming rates in isolated cases. As an added environmental benefit, one extended study showed that organic farming uses 50 percent less energy than conventional.
All of the above have led to two separate “camps” relative to organically produced food. Alex Avery, outspoken organics critic and author of “The Truth about Organics”, maintains that “organics is a total con.” He cites the lack of scientific evidence to support the claim that organic food is safer or more nutritious to support his claim. David Katz, associate professor of medicine at Yale University, warns that “organic can be a gimmick.” He suggests the term is often used to make people think a food or product is wholesome. Katz insists that any risk posed by pesticide residue is more than compensated for by the proven beneficial affects fresh fruits and vegetables in our diet have. The implication is that even if organic produce is proven to be safer, people will tend to eat less of it since it is more expensive.
Conversely, there are learned individuals who laud the benefits of eating organically grown food. Dr. Marion Nestle, chair of the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, one of them. “I don’t think there is any question that as more research is done, it is going to become increasingly apparent that organic food is healthier,’’ she concluded.
When all is said-and-done the decision to buy organic or not is a personal one. This often boils down to a matter of “risk versus reward” or “cost versus benefit.” For some, eating organic imparts peace of mind, as they attempt to do everything within their power to promote health and longevity for themselves and their family. But this peace of mind does not come without a cost. Buying organic is likely to increase the family food bill by at least 20 percent according to a study conducted by the University of California--Davis. The same study concluded that eating organic can consume 35-40 percent of the total food budget of a typical lowincome family.
Whether you buy organic products or avoid them they probably are here to stay. However, for those who are concerned about the safety of their food and either question the benefit of or cannot afford organics there is a viable alternative. Buy locally grown food. Personally, I would trust more the safety of conventionally grown food produced locally by a conscientious grower with whom I am acquainted than organic food produce by someone I don’t know. The University of Missouri’s “Food Circles” program addresses this issue and promotes the consumption of safe, locally grown food. It attempts to allow consumers to become familiar with those who produce their food, be it conventional or organic in nature, by forming symbiotic relationships. Such relationships can go a long way to create the peace-of-mind coming from the knowledge that you are feeding your family the same wholesome the producer is feeding his or her family, at a price most can afford.
REVISED: August 1, 2012