The great debate of organic vs conventional, isn’t really a debate anymore. I’m going to summarize it real quick for you. Organic is healthier for you, for your children and family, for the earth, and for society as a whole. Organic can be more expensive, but you can either pay for good food and health now, or pay for your hospital bills later. If you can’t afford it, I get it, I’ve been there. When you can afford it, get as much organic food for you and your family as you can.
I normally place in text citations in my articles, but I pulled all of this from one article by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which has done the work for me by reviewing all of the research. The resource is listed at the end of the article.
Let’s first understand what it means for a food to be labelled and certified as organic.
“100% organic” means a USDA agent certified that all of the ingredients and the products used in processing are organic, and the food product may display a USDA Organic Seal. This is the best of the best. “Organic” means all of the ingredients are certified organic, but up to 5% of the ingredients are allowed to not be organic. At least the ingredients have to be on the National List, which contains natural ingredients like turmeric extract color. This is still a pretty good choice. “Made with organic ingredients” means at least 70% of the ingredients must be certified as organic. So, it’s not perfect by any means, but it’s still better than conventional.
Farmers must meet and maintain specific requirements in order to meet the certification of organic. Obviously, the land can’t be treated with pesticides, fertilizers, or herbicides unless they are natural, and they must not do so for at least 3 years to clear out the soil. They can purchase these certified organic farming products from a couple of organizations. The other methods to be used for pest and weed control are physical and mechanical methods, such as trapping pests, and hoeing or burning weeds. Organic farmers cannot use genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge (so that’s good). Organic farmers can use some synthetic substances, but they must be on the National List. Also, they must use organic seeds if possible, which means they also cannot use genetically engineered seeds, and thus they are GMO free.
Labeling Livestock Organic
Livestock must be fed 100% organic feed, to be considered organic. Poultry must be raised organically by the second day of life. Cows and other ruminants have to receive at least 30% feed from organic dry matter, and spend at least 120 days roaming a pasture. All livestock must have access to outdoors throughout the entire year, unless it’s found to be dangerous or unhealthy to be outside. Vitamin and mineral supplements are allowed to be given to organic livestock, as long as they are on the National List. Dairy cows that are raised conventionally can become certified organic if they are given feed that is at least 80% organic for at least 9 months, and then given 3 months of 100% organic feed, which equates to at least 12 months. Organic livestock cannot be given growth hormones or antibiotics, but they can be given vaccines. If an animal needs treatment that is not organic (i.e. antibiotics), then the animal or its products are no longer deemed organic.
While conventional farming tends to outperform organic farming in the first years of cultivation, organic farming is actually superior long-term compared to conventional farming. Food produced from organic farming outperforms conventional farming during long periods of drought and temperature extremes. I was a little surprised by this, but it makes sense.
Better soil, thriving creatures.
Organic farming is much better for the soil, and all of the creatures that inhabit not only the soil, but also the farm itself. Organic farming increases the diversity of the microbiomes that live in the soil, decreases the level of soil pathogens, and improves soil quality and water retention. Conventional pesticides damage earthworms, birds, bees, and other invertebrate animals. Do you like butterflies? Well, organic farming has been shown to increase butterfly species richness by 20% and increase their abundance by 60%. On average, organic farming supports a 30% higher species richness in all types of living creatures, compared to non-organic farming.
It’s better for the environment.
Organic farming also has the ability to hide more carbon in the soil, which may be beneficial in terms of helping to deal with environmental pollution emissions and potentially combat global warming. Organic farming reduces the amount of runoff water contamination that contains pesticides, fertilizer, and other chemical toxins. It also reduces the consumption of fossil fuel and less energy overall, and produces less waste.
It’s just plain healthier.
Organic food has lower levels of pesticide residues, and that should be enough to sell it to you. It’s healthier and safer for the farmer and their family. Farmers who use conventional methods and have more exposure to pesticides have more DNA damage than organic farmers, and there is epidemiological evidence supporting an association between childhood exposure to pesticides and cancer, impaired cognitive function, and behavioral problems.
Pregnant or nursing women, infants, and young children are specifically at a greater risk to organophosphate pesticide exposure because of rapid developing cells. Prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides is correlated with lower IQ in children, even when the mother’s pesticide levels are within safe limits (I’m thinking that the “safe limits” should probably be reviewed again and changed). Some mothers with genetic susceptibility and do not produce enough PON1 enzyme to breakdown metabolites, causes an increased level of pesticides within their bodies. These mothers have given birth to children who are at risk of delayed cognitive development. If a pregnant mother is within proximity of an organophosphate during their pregnancy, the child has a 60% increased risk for autism or delayed development. Proximity to other conventional farming chemicals also increases the risk for autism or delayed development. One study found that wives of farmers are at an increased risk of diabetes when the farm uses organochlorine pesticides and certain organophosphate pesticides. Children are at an increased risk of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) if they have higher concentrations of organophosphate metabolites. Children who consume organic food have lower levels of organophosphate metabolites. Men who are exposed to pesticides may have altered semen quality, and may be at an increased risk of prostate cancer. Lastly, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) is associated with occupational exposure to pesticides. Pesticides may also increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease.
Organic grains have lower levels of the mycotoxin deoxynivalenol, and organic flour contains less heavy metals like arsenic and cadmium. The heavy metals in food can cause gastrointestinal, brain, kidney, and neurological issues, as well as cancer. Pesticides are also associated with cardiac and central nervous system diseases.
The good news is, eating organic for only a week decreases the amount of pesticides in the body of an adult by a whopping 90%.
Nutritional Benefits of Organic Food
It’s still unclear whether all organic foods are more nutrient rich, especially due to variations in farming methods, environment, and soil quality. However, there is evidence suggesting that organic meat, poultry, and dairy products are naturally higher in omega-3s than conventional products, probably because organically raised animals are fed fresh forage more often. The higher omega-3s and/or conjugated linoleic acids in organic dairy is probably why it is associated with a lower risk of eczema during the first two years of a child’s life.
As of right now, organic and conventionally grown food is similar in nutritional content when comparing vitamins and minerals. However, organic produce tends to be higher in antioxidants, polyphenols, and flavonoids. Also, organic produce tends to be higher in vitamin C and phosphorus, and lower in nitrates. Organic grains may contain lower protein, but higher protein digestibility. Grass-fed beef contains more omega-3s than conventional beef, but grass-fed does not mean organic, and unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of research on organic beef itself. Organic dairy contains more protein, omega-3s, and less omega-6s. So there are nutritional benefits to eating organic food. To some, it may not be convincing, to others who understand the importance of antioxidants, polyphenols, flavonoids, and omega-3s, organic foods clearly win here.
Conventional farming promotes antibiotic resistant microbes and pathogens. This is a problem because antibiotic resistance is increasing faster than we can keep up with making new antibiotics to get rid of the antibiotic resistant microbes. Although organic poultry contains higher levels of the pathogens Salmonella and Campylobacter than conventionally raised poultry, organic poultry contains less antibiotic resistant Salmonella and Campylobacter. This means it’s more treatable if you get an infection.
So there you have it. I’m 100% all for organic. My only concern is the price, even for myself at times. Always choose organic when you can.