Over the last decade, the concern for what’s in our produce has been steadily increasing. Higher numbers of people are beginning to question how their food had been farmed, under what conditions, and what kind of pesticides were used in the growing process. According to industry statistics, over 4 percent of all U.S. food sales are for organic products. Also, using data from Nutrition Business Journal, 2013, it is estimated that the organic food industry reached $28 billion in sales in 2012, and the trend continues to grow through 2017. The primary concern for consumers buying organic food are the effects on health and the environment. So much so that they are willing to pay significantly higher prices for them. Is it worth the extra cost? Is organic produce better for our health?
First, let me define what guidelines must be followed for produce to carry the organic label. When food is designated “Certified Organic” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), it means that the fruit is grown and handled according to strict guidelines set forth by this federal agency and includes rules regarding soil treatment, as well as pest and weed control. These standards allow for natural substances in organic farming and prohibit most synthetic (man-made) materials. The land the produce is grown on must not have any banned substances applied to it for at least three years before the harvest of an organic crop. Crop pests, weeds, and diseases are to be handled primarily through physical, mechanical, and biological controls. When these practices are not sufficient, a biological, botanical, or synthetic substance approved for use by the National Organic Standards Board may be used. The board is made up of growers, handlers, retailers, scientists, environmentalists, and consumer advocates. Therefore, organic food is not pesticide free. Farms must also use organic seeds.
The use of genetic engineering (GMO), ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge is prohibited as well. It is important to remember that just because a substance is “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safer than a synthetic substance.
In some cases, natural pesticides may be more harmful. There is a rule when dealing with chemicals that indicates “the dose makes the poison.” What this means is that all substances can be toxic if too much is eaten, drunk, or absorbed. Many times synthetic forms of natural pesticides (used in organic farming) are used in conventional agriculture, and both have the same chemical structure. Whether a substance is natural or synthetic, it is still a chemical.
In some cases, more of the natural chemical pesticide has to be used to gain the desired effect and may be worse for the environment. In fact, according to this study at ScienceDaily.com "...some organic pesticides can have a higher environmental impact than conventional pesticides. Researchers investigated the effectiveness and environmental impact of organic pesticides to those of conventional and novel reduced-risk synthetic products on soybean crops. The researchers found the organic pesticides required larger doses and were more harmful to pests that help protect the crop compared to the synthetic pesticides."
All of these regulatory factors do not prove that organic produce is more nutritious or any safer than their conventional counterparts. A group of scientists at Stanford University compared four decades of research that compared organic to traditional food. Their study concluded that on average, organic produce was no more nutritious than conventional produce. Pesticide residue was slightly higher in conventional produce but still well below the allowed safety limits determined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Those limits have been proven to be safe.
Also, according to this study in the Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences, Organic farming was significantly more profitable (22–35%) and had higher benefit/cost ratios (20–24%) than conventional agriculture. Even though prices were increased by 29-32% at the store for organic produce, it was only needed to be a 5-7% increase to break even. In other words, there is a very high markup on anything labeled "organic."
Many of the misconceptions regarding organic vs. conventional produce are based on fear and misinformation. This unfounded fear doesn’t help the average consumers eat more fruits and vegetables, which has the potential to improve health significantly. As a Registered Dietitian, I speak with people who cannot afford the extra expense of eating all organic foods. It can be quite a discouragement to those striving to feed their families fresh produce to hear that only organic will benefit them nutritionally and conventional produce may be harmful. This just is not true. The Alliance for Food and Farming has stated that they encourage consumption of both traditional and organic produce for good health.
Across the broad spectrum of scientific research, all agree that the consumption of large amounts and varieties of fruits and vegetables is essential for good health. Antioxidants, phytols, vitamins, minerals, and fiber are crucial components of these foods. They have been proven by numerous studies to be one of the most critical factors in fighting disease. Both conventional and organic are safe and nutritionally sound options and should be consumed without worry. Always wash your produce before eating no matter what the source to help cut down on pesticide residue. Don’t listen to fearmongering but make sound decisions based on scientific facts. Include more produce in your diet and strive to live a healthy lifestyle!