Organic Versus Conventionally Produced Food

In our society of plenty, a trip to the grocery can dictate that a person make dozens of minor choices … i.e., store brand vs national brand vs organic vs low-fat vs fat-free vs gluten-free. You get the idea. Over the last decade, the emergence of organic products as staples at national grocery chains has added yet another layer to the process of choosing foods that meet your dietary needs and budgetary constraints. Buying organic presents a multi-faceted choice. Perhaps you are interested in organic products because you think they might be healthier for your kids, or maybe you are interested in the environmental impact of organic food production. Maybe you question whether there are any real health benefits associated with eating organic at all. Regardless, it can be difficult to sort fact from fiction in today’s information age. Together we can examine several areas of research around organic foods, so that as a consumer you can make the best decision for yourself and your family.

Organic production methods have direct implications for the environment, the producer, and the consumer. What does the evidence based research say about the impacts on each of the former?

The Environment

Studies show that organic farming results in increased carbon sequestration, improved soil water retention, increased soil microbial diversity, and improved soil quality. The increased biodiversity often found in organic farming facilitates natural pest control. More research is needed to understand how organic and no-till methods can help to manage top soil losses. Additional research is also needed to determine if organic farming practices help minimize nitrogen leaching into waterways.

The Producer

Organic producers can benefit from higher profit margins associated with organic crops. Organic farming techniques require fewer inputs (i.e., synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) which minimizes operational costs and results in decreased exposure to toxic chemicals. Reliance on fossil fuels is decreased with the elimination of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers from organic production. In the absence of synthetic pesticides, farmers adopt pest management techniques that require more manual labor – making organic farming a more labor intensive operation. Additional research will help to determine if these practices help to mitigate the losses associated with periods of drought. Organic certification, (which yields the higher profit margin) is expensive to obtain and organic farming practices must be followed for 3 years before certification can be obtained. This transition period and the costs associated with it can be prohibitive to smaller farms and ranches interested in obtaining certification.

The Consumer

Studies show that organically grown produce contains higher levels of antioxidants than conventionally grown, while overall differences in flavor and appearance may be negligible. Studies show significantly lower levels of pesticides on organic vs conventionally grown produce. This is important as this translates to decreased exposure for consumers. Epidemiological studies have shown correlations between early pesticide exposure and pediatric cancers, behavioral problems and impaired cognitive function. In adults, pesticide levels drop dramatically within a week of adopting an organic diet. Some organic crops have been shown to contain lower levels of heavy metals than conventionally grown. Further research is required to determine how the use of adjuvant crop treatments alter the toxic effects of pesticides on humans. There is no scientific evidence that the use of sex hormones in animals and the resulting remnants in foods, causes early onset puberty in humans or increases the risk of breast cancer.

There is a lot of research around the production and consumption of organic foods and associated impacts on the environment and consumers. It is important to recognize that the research is ongoing and new information will continue to emerge. As we wade through the latest news and try to be informed consumers, it might be helpful to apply the same type of moderation that is sustainable for our diets, to our decisions about purchasing organic foods.

Consider this, if buying organic is a viable financial option for you – you are lucky. Many people don’t have the luxury of making the choice. If you want to purchase a few organic products because that is what fits in your budget, focus on products that are important to you or items that are produced locally; you’ll get more bang for your buck by supporting your local economy. During the height of your local growing season, you’ll find local and organic to be cheaper. Enjoy the bounty while it is available! If you receive SNAP or WIC benefits, know that many farmers’ markets are accepting them as forms of payment and some states are offering promotions that will double the value of your benefits up to a certain dollar amount every summer. See the link below for an interactive map of Montana Farmers’ Markets. Above all, remember that a balanced diet comprised of lots of fruits and veggies, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats is the best option for supporting your health (organic or not).

Resources


All research information retrieved from, “Organic Talking Points,” a publication of the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition dietetic practice group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. See the link below for more information. Organic Talking Points »