Wednesday, October 2, 2013

What’s the Big Deal About Organic Foods?

These days, most grocery stores offer both conventionally grown foods as well as organically grown foods. Do you know the difference? Clearly, there is a price difference, with organic foods usually costing more – sometimes up to twice the price. In this introduction to organic farming, we'll take a glimpse at organic processes and how they affect the food you eat.  It may help you decide if organic meat and produce is worth the extra cost.

Organic strawberries

What is “organic” produce?

Organic foods are the product of organic agriculture.  Organic agriculture or organic farming is defined somewhat differently depending on the source and the country.  A summary definition: Organic products are those that are made entirely with certified organic ingredients and methods.

The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (FOAM) defines organic agriculture more holistically, describing it as a production system that:
  • Sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people.
  • Relies on ecological processes, biodiversity, and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects.
  • Combines tradition, innovation, and science to benefit the shared environment and promote their relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.
In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines "organically grown" food as that which is grown and processed using no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. The EPA definition does allow for the use of organic pesticides when producing organically grown food.

Organically grown vs. conventionally grown

Perhaps the easiest way to understand what makes organically grown foods unique is to look at how it differs from conventionally grown foods.

While all farmers enrich the soil to produce a more substantial crop, a conventional farmer uses such techniques as adding synthetic, chemical fertilizers to the soil. By comparison, an organic farmer would likely use natural fertilizers and composting to enrich the soil.

To control pests and weeds, conventional farmers use chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.  On the other hand, an organic farmer is more likely to control weeds by thorough and consistent tilling of the soil, by using crop rotation techniques that discourage weed growth, or by laying mulch or tarps over the ground to create heat that will kill the weeds. For pest control, organic farmers are more likely to use insects that prey on the crop-damaging pests, or by planting two different crops together – the crop that needs protection from pests and another crop that repels those same pests.

Organic peaches

Organic gardening for sustainability

The above FOAM definition of organic agriculture may surprise you, going far beyond what is or isn't in that apple or spinach on your plate.  The definition also speaks to the many other benefits inherent in the process and outcome of organic farming.

The problem with conventional farming techniques used on most farms today is that, while they are often very effective methods of boosting output of the current crop, the techniques rarely consider sustainability.  The chemicals used, for instance, can damage the soil, infiltrating it with an annually increasing amount of toxins. These toxins not only find their way into the future crops, but also damages watersheds. Every inch of soil in the United States is part of a watershed; all water travels where gravity tells it to go. Thus, anything that we spray or dispose of on the ground around us will ultimately influence water sources downstream to some degree.

Conventional farming uses enormous amounts of herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers* that are harmful to these watersheds – harmful to the animals, plants, and human life forms that rely on the water for their health and survival.  Organic farming techniques not only produce more pure, chemical-free products for us to consume but also protect the environment of the farm and its watershed.  For this reason, many city and county governments have specifically encouraged organic farmers to "take root" alongside waterways as a means of protecting the watershed.

Those herbicides and pesticides that do not get washed away but rather remain in the conventional, non-organic farm's soil create serious sustainability problems.  By definition, herbicides and pesticides are designed to kill living organisms. As a result, the farmland soil eventually become stripped of its small and microscopic life forms, resulting in weakened soil and ever weakening crops. 
Two other sustainability problems with conventional farming techniques:
  • A 2013 study identifies the alarming bee colony decline in recent years to the toxic soup of pesticides and fungicides used in farming. 
  • As reported by Fox News, many non-organic farmers use antibiotics to fatten up their livestock. While it means that the farmer will get more income from each chicken, pig, or cow, public health advocates have identified this conventional farming technique as a significant source of our growing nationwide problem of antibiotic-resistant germs.  It's a case of robbing Peter Public to pay Farmer Paul.

The direct health benefits of organic foods

While there is some debate regarding whether or not organic foods have more vitamin content, there are a number of statistics and scientific studies that have identified many health benefits in organic foods:
  • If you're not a fan of fruits and vegetables, this may be very good news for you; A 2011 British study reported that organic fruits and vegetables have roughly 12 percent more nutrients than their non-organic equivalents – that, from a disease-fighting perspective, you would need to eat 12 percent more conventional produce to get the same same health benefit.  More bang for the bite!
  • One study found that germs in non-organic meats have a 33 percent higher risk of being antibiotic-resistant than those found in organic meats.  
  • The same study also determined that pesticides were 60 percent more likely to found in non-organic produce than in organic.
  • What you are not getting in organic foods is also beneficial:  EPA statistics estimate 20,000 doctor-diagnosed cases of farmworker poisoning from the pesticides used in crops. And many of the synthetic herbicides or pesticides used in conventional farming infiltrates the produce, making it impossible to simply wash them away.
Organic kale

Buying organic food on a budget

Whether all this adds up to justifying the extra cost of putting organic foods on your table is up to you.  Organic farming methods are, by nature, much more sustainable, but also more labor-intensive – one of the main reasons that organic produce is more expensive to buy.

Suggestion: If financial means requires you to "draw a line," in your shopping cart, then use the "dirty dozen" chart to help you choose which conventionally-farmed foods are most toxic, and start there.

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer

* EPA estimates over 2 billion pounds of pesticides being used in U.S. soil annually – roughly eight pounds for every U.S. citizen.

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