Organic or not Organic?

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Biology 103
2001 First Web Report
On Serendip

Organic or not Organic?

Rebecca Roth

Lately whenever I go to the supermarket I see fruits and vegetables labeled as 'organic'. Both the non-organic and organic fruits and vegetables look fresh and plump, but the organic foods cost almost twice as much. There are now organic drugs, drinks, fruits, bread, yogurt, and vegetables. The market for organic foods is growing by 20 percent a year (1). I hear my father telling me that some of his friends only eat organic fruits and vegetables and would never think of buying the foods if they were not organic. When I spoke to one of his friends and asked why she chooses to purchase organic foods, she strongly stated, "we are being poisoned by pesticides". When I looked through my nutrition magazines I noticed that they often mention the word 'organic'. So I ask myself are organic foods really better than their non-organic counterparts?

I do not buy organic fruits or vegetables. However, whenever I buy fruits, I always rinse them properly before eating. I feel that this removes the pesticides and the surface microbes. Am I mistaken, or should I in fact be buying only organic foods?

There are increasing concerns about food safety and the fact that many processed foods are made from genetically modified products. Organically grown foods mean that these organic foods have been grown on land that is absent of any chemicals for a minimum of 3 years. The crops are grown without the use of pesticides or any chemicals whatsoever. Organic foods are processed and packaged without the use of artificial preservatives, colorings, irradiation or any other additives(2).

One of the strongest arguments in favor of organic farming is that it supposedly does not pose the threat of pesticide and chemical run-off and the resulting contamination of watersheds and drinking water (3). North American studies indicate that organic farms tend to be smaller and more socially supportive, have a greater diversity of crops in rotation, and reduce health risks associated with pesticides, antibiotics and nitrates (4). Organic farming creates a richer, more sustainable soil through the use of cover crops, diverse crop rotations and organic composts. In order to infuse their soil with essential nutrients, organic farmers might first plant a "cover" crop such as clover, which naturally puts nitrogen in the soil. Cover crops also can attract beneficial insects that help control pests. Instead of growing the same crop in the same field year after year, organic farmers use crop rotation, which means they vary the types of crops that are grown in any particular field each year. Crop rotation helps to deter pests from returning regularly. It can be beneficial in slowing soil erosion, and it also varies the nutrient demands placed on the soil (3).

One French study analyzed twelve foods, and concluded that organic is ahead in terms of nutritional quality and micronutrients. In organic food one finds more micronutrients essential for good health: vitamins A, C, E, vitamins of the B group, and other elements such as zinc and minerals such as calcium. These findings, coupled with health concerns linked to pesticides, antibiotics, nitrates and additives occurring in non-organic foods, suggests increased government support for organic production could have significant health benefits in addition to the environmental benefits already proven (5). A recent article in the Journal of Applied Nutrition gave credence to the notion that organic foods have higher nutrient levels that non-organic food. In this study the mineral content of organic apples, pears, potatoes, wheat, and sweet corn were compared to commercial varieties. Overall, the organic foods showed much higher levels of nutrient minerals and much lower levels of heavy metals (6).

However, on Feb. 4, 2000, the ABC News correspondent John Stossel hosted a report on "20/20" that probably surprised many fans of organic foods. It made the case that organic food is not necessarily healthier than conventional food -- and might actually be dangerous (7). Manure used in organic compost may be more harmful than the health risks from pesticide residues. Manure may contain E. coli bacterium, which can spread harmful animal-borne diseases to humans. However, the USDA's proposed regulations for organics include temperature guidelines to kill any human pathogens that could be present in the manure (3).

Despite its benefits, organic cropping faces greater management challenges. The most troubling constraint to organic cropping is when soil nutrients removed from land are not replaced to maintain soil balance. Current organic standards limit fertilizer use, placing organic fields at risk of nutrient depletion. Studies have shown organic fields to have low levels of soil phosphorus and sulfur (4).

The pros in 'going organic' is that organic food is free from artificial chemicals, pesticides, antibiotics, growth-promoters and fertilizers. It is produced using environmentally friendly methods and is free from genetically modified ingredients (term used to describe foods that have had genetic material from other edibles artificially inserted into them using a process known as 'genetic engineering'. The idea behind this is to transfer the beneficial properties found in some types of plants or animals - such as resistance to attack by diseases, insects or herbicides - to other plants or animals that normally lack these properties). Organic foods reduce dependence on non-renewable resources and places emphasis on animal welfare. Some people think organic food tastes better than non-organic. Organic foods according to some studies show that they have more vitamins and beneficial trace elements than conventionally grown food and so may be more nutritious (8).

However, with all these pros come some cons. Organic foods are not mass-produced and traditional organic farming often produces lower yields than modern intensive farming methods. That is why organic food is generally more expensive than non-organic. For example, a half gallon of non-organic milk in New York City is $1.49, while the cost of organic milk is $2.99 The fruits and vegetables produced organically sometimes look less appealing than conventional produce that's been specially bred for the commercial benefits (8).

In conclusion, there are different views on whether organic foods are really helpful to us, or in fact may be harmful. Science is always subject to challenges based upon new observations. There are still many questions that I am not sure of the answer. For instance, can a processed food be called organic if it also contains some non-organically produced ingredients? If so, what percentage of ingredients should be organically grown and what percentage can be non-organically grown? Consumers may pay up to double the price for organic foods. What happens to those people who can not afford organic foods, are they really at a disadvantage? I believe that the organic food label is not enough to prove that it is better than non-organic foods. I mean what about the nutrition of the food itself? How about the soil in which the crops were grown? What about the post-harvesting handling of the foods? Soil management will vary from farm to farm. I guess this just proves that science does not have an ending loop or a conclusion.

In the future science will have to address these issues. As more studies are being done, our views about organic foods might change. In the past, we thought the egg was the perfect food. Now we know that although nutritious it contains high levels of cholesterol. Who knows what will be considered healthy eating in the future? At this point, organic foods seem to be beneficial.

 

WWW Sources

1)The pros and cons of organic fruit production

2)Organic food, fruit, and nuts

3)All about organic food: public health, environmental, and social benefits

4)National Institute of Nutrition

5)UK study showing organic food is healthier

6)Are organic foods really healthier for you?, Published in Organic Gardening Almanac

7)Report on organic foods is challenged, NY Times

8)Pros and cons or organic food

 

Another Interesting Link

9)Nutritional quality of organically grown food

 

 

 

Continuing conversation
(to contribute your own observations/thoughts, post a comment below)

11/19/2005, from a Reader on the Web

I wanted to let you know that the article on Organic Foods, was very well written. It contained unbiased information, which is exactly what i was looking for, and contained many facts which were also helpful. I'm glad that you included the pros and cons of organic foods, and some support to those ideas. I am a loyalist to 20/20 howver, I did not see that episode, and I wish i did. Anyway, a job well done.

 

Additional comments made prior to 2007

I am a Massage Therapist from Indiana. In my nutrition class we learned a lot about organic food. The same as you mentioned in the article "organic or not organic" but one that a lot of people fail to mention is the fact that the wax that is sprayed on the produce that we are allowed to pick out(the commercially grown)is not digested in our bodies. Our bodies do not turn that into energy or fat and is actually turned into cholesterol and deposited in our arteries. That is one other reason why I choose not to eat regular fruits and vegetables. Thank you for your time ... Craig Havens, 9 June 2006

 

 

I enjoyed reading your article on organics. It was easy to read, and laid out facts instead of opinions ... Reader on the web, 19 June 2006

 

 

I used your article to help my friend with her health project on pros and cons of organic food. I found exactly what i was looking for. Thanks ... Chrispi, 25 October 2006

 

 

I would just like to say that the writer has gone about this complex issue with a great angle and has done well to both explain the facts and present both sides of a very interesting and ongoing argument. I am pleased to see that such good research and knowledge has gone into this piece and await another one as good as this with great anticipation. Well done ... Reader on the web, 15 January 2007

 

 

It's obvious that organic is better than eating pesticides, fertilizers and all that other crap. You can't believe everything you hear on the news or TV for that matter. How many times have they lied to us? Its really special for anyone to take advice from CNN and apply it to their health. That's fine for your family but don't try to teach others to do the same, your not responsible for their medical bills. It's obvious when you look at the Amish people who eat nothing but organic, that they have less illnesses, cancer, obesity....Its a good question about how do they determine whats organic? We joined a community support farm in the area. the organic veggies are actually cheaper than any in the store and the soil is plenty rich. You can get organic meat there or eggs and personally talk to the farmer to see how they run the farm. They will even let you help! The best part is that the farmer eats from the same fields as you do, so they are not going to try to pull one over on you! ... Alyssa, 17 January 2007

 

 

Thanks for the chance to write you. I just finished reading organic foods pros and cons and I found it interesting, but incomplete. The real reason I'm writing is because I want to find out whether or not eating organically grown will help in the slowness of my thoughts and memories. I had to have interferon treatments for HEP C about 5 years ago. Although my blood levels stabilized and medically my tests showed ok I never recovered from tiredness and mentally I'm slowing down. My wife buys the food here she tries to buy good stuff but it seems like something isn't working. I am a food demonstrator and come in contact with many products and people to give samples to. so many of them have complained that they experience similar symptoms as mine. It's beginning to frighten me...I feel there's danger here but I don't know how to fight it. I should start praying again, that never cost me anything but time. I hope you'll recommend something to me. Thanks ... Rick, 2 June 2007

 

 

First: there is a method of designating how much of a food is organic. If it says "USDA Organic", it is 100% organic. Only "Organic", it is 95% organic. Then there is another label (I forget what it says) that designates 75% organic foods. Look it up on the Mayo Clinic website. To me, the organic food fad is simply an elitist one that caters to people who are overconcerned with themselves. I am a skeptic and adhere to the dictum that "Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence." Organic food adherents claim that it is "better" for you (more nutritious? will help you live longer? help you fight disease?), but there is no compelling evidence to back that up. It may be more environmentally friendly, but the smaller supply, and currently greater demand, has forced the price way up, so it is purchased only by those who can afford it (i.e., elitist). Even if it IS higher in nutrients, so what? Take a multi-vitamin pill in the morning if you think you are not getting you RDA, and save a lot of money with non-organic food. Taste is a matter of personal choice. Life expectancies are rising in our country, but not because of organic foods ... Bruce Robbins, 25 November 2007

Comments

Chicknrice's picture

organic

Organically produced food items are an overated, overpriced, and misunderstood subject. As a son of a second generation farmer, I know firsthand the pros and cons of organic. Although that organic products are not clean of sprays, the fields are also filled with weeds that choke out the plants and lowering the quality of the plant. We cannot feed a starving world with organic foods. As for the Amish being healthy because they grow organic foods, this is completly false. My neighbors are true Amish and they use more spray than we do, in unregulated amounts, and they still are healthy.

Leon's picture

misinformation

"Organically grown foods mean that these organic foods have been grown on land that is absent of any chemicals for a minimum of 3 years. The crops are grown without the use of pesticides or any chemicals whatsoever."

Sorry but you are wrong in paragraph 3. Organic foods require spraying with pesticides as much as (7) seven times more than regularly grown crops. I know because I am a spray pilot. The chemicals used are preventive chemicals to keep the pests out of the crop. Regular crops use chemicals to kill the pests after they are there. Without one of these types of chemicals, the crops would not be fit to eat. Worm holes (some with the worm inside), insect holes, pieces of the fruit missing from some insect eating it. You wouldn't even want to look at some of it, let alone eat it.

Serendip Visitor's picture

Organic soils and regular soils

Hi,
I found your site in a search on Alexa, and organics caught my eye. I have been eating organic, and natural foods for several years now and feel better than I did when I was younger. The nagging question in my mind is, "How can something natural be bad for you?"
It is also well known that our regular farm lands are also nutrient depleted, and with out the round up and other types of enhancers, even the non organic farming soil would be useless, so take your pick.
I believe folks are waking up to the food industry and their methods of creating products out of nothing, virtually. Then adding in man made vitamins to get any good at all out of the product.
Try growing an organic beefsteak tomato plant, let it ripen on the vine. Then ask your self if organic is better or not.
Peace

value of organic?'s picture

organic productivity

I do take issue with some of the statements in your article adn feel it is not necessarily wholely accurate. For one thing, organic food is more expensive because it is not subsidized by the government- low prices for many foods are the result of government subsidies and not inherent costs of production. Or perhaps you could say that organic prices reflect true costs, whereas subsidies hide the cost of conventional production. In fact, organic production can be as efficient and productivity rates as high as "conventional" and definitely is more efficient if you factor in the cost of production on conventional farms- pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers.

Jennifer's picture

Fruit which you have to peel

Very interesting article. Would I be right in saying that if you are trying to avoid the chemicals they spray onto the fruit you would be wise to buy apples, pears, plums etc organically but things like oranges, mangos and bananas which you have to peel are safe even if they are not organic.

Frederico's picture

There are certain fruits and

There are certain fruits and vegetables that are really covered with pesticides (like apples and cucumbers) that are worth buying organic.

Serendip Visitor's picture

EWG

Great article! Well written and researched! I would just like to add that EWG.com, a non-profit, organization lists the pesticides found in various fruits and vegetables. Because of this information, I try to get whatever organic produce is available for my kids. Looking at the results obtained from EWG's testing is enough to convince most people that the organic products are definitely worth the extra money.

Serendip Visitor's picture

Soil Nutrition

Very well written. Thank you. I would like to contribute on the issue of soil nutrients. Most of the organic and certainly the bio-dynamic farmers I know in several countries use green manures. Green manures are crops grown specifically to improve soil condition and nutrition. Suppression of weeds and soil-borne diseases are additional benefits of particular green manures. Only those who have a partial picture would suggest there is any real danger or detriment to organic and bio-dynamic farming. Those who chose to follow these methods, which bring much lower financial returns, do with great knowledge and love of both the animal and human biosphere. The added cost of that which you find in a large supermarket is mainly down to the middle man. The supermarket. The is a higher cost to the farmer, yes and therefore a higher cost to the buyer. The exaggerated difference is the 'store' knowing that people will pay more for health. Our best solution would be smaller circles of distribution and larger availability of kitchen gardens for more homes. But that's a conversation for the urban planners.

Christopher Rowan's picture

5 Th Grade Science Project

Thank You for your information. It helped me a lot.. St Augustine Florida

Reed's picture

Organic and Taste.

This is a reply to Bruce. He called the organic produce an " elitist " item for purchase. I disagree. Last year I spent a long time researching this topic. I decided to test it for myself and re-directed my research into gardening and how to grow fruits and vegatables. I found a book called All New Square Foot Gardening, by Mel Bartholomew. It disagreed with all the other books I had read in regards to gardening and growing my own produce. So I went with Mel's method. It turned out great. I love to make a carrot smoothy. I would normally just put almost a whole pound of carrots in my juicer to get my drink. It always tasted good to me. I then made one with my home grown carrots. I used the same amount of carrots as before but when I took a drink is was so much stronger in flovor that I watered it down. In the same amount of produce I used before I was now able to have a three day supply of my drink. It ended up being a 1 part carrot and 2 parts water combination. I found the same results in flavor with the other fruits and vegatables I grew last year. I am excited about this years produce. It also cost me about 50 % less to start, grow and harvest my own that it would have been to purchase it from any store. including Wal-Mart.

organic delivered's picture

Organic and Taste

It is good to have a small garden at your backyard because you can plant just a little vegetabes and even fruits you'll be enjoying it once you see that it bares fruit.. I wish I can attach some of my garden photos.. I do have these avocado and jackfruit tree, what I did is make it a avocado milk shake and for the jack fruit I'm gonna use it as an ingredient for my ice candy and the rest of it is I am going to sell it to my neighbors. So far they love the taste.

Regards

Guest's picture

Looking for the Micro Difference

I am taking a training in microscopy at Merritt College, Oakland, California. Understanding the growing issue of organic vs non-organic food worldwide, I have been searcching since recently for any information that deals with the anlysis of the difference between the two major categories in terms of their microconstituents. That is, I would like to use my microscope knowledge to identify the differences betweeb organic and non-organic foods by taking certain selected plant products. However, until now I have not gotton any study material that deals with the stated issue. I would be grateful if any one knows any study that I can use it as a springboard so that I can proceed with my study.

A man in Japan's picture

Allergic to food? Or allergic to chemicals?

Me and my wife used to live in the UK but we now live in Japan. When we were living in the UK, my wife always wanted to get as much organic food as possible. Sure enough, we bought it. But something rather unusual always happened whenever my wife ate something "organic" Whenever my wife eats something she's "allergic" to, she always gets an itchy throat and feels sick. So this was the reason why she wanted to go for organic food, and thats easy to understand. However, when it came time to eat some organic pears from the supermarket, she got an itchy throat and felt unwell! Also, whenever my wife eats tofu in Japan the same thing happens. My wifes parents own an egg farm in Japan and they also grow their own fruit and vegetables for them selves to eat,(they also deliver us vegetables which are tastier than ANYTHING you can buy at the supermarket!) so we both know for a fact that it's grown organically.

And whenever she eats her mother and fathers vegetables, which are grown on the farm with no junk sprayed on them, she never gets an itchy throat and sick feeling like she does when she eats the supposed "organic" fruit and vegetables from supermarkets, both in Japan and the UK. Now, to me, I have come to the conclusion that shes not allergic to tofu or certain kinds of vegetables. But in fact, allergic to chemicals that are used to grow these foods! If something says organic on the packet and she eats it and gets an itchy throat, you can be damn sure it's not "organic" So this also leaves the question if people are being wrongfully diagnosed with food allergies, when in actual reality it's the chemicals that people are allergic to?

What do you all think of that one?

Anonymous's picture

Thank you very much, this

Thank you very much, this essay helped me a lot writing my biology coursework! It is an excellent summery and gives a lot pros and cons for and against organic farming.
best regards
Verena, year 12

Anonymous's picture

interesting

i am having a middle school debate about organic and nonorganic foods. this article was very intersting and might just be what i was looking for.

can you please post some good things about non organic foods, if you can find andy, because i want to know what the oppsoing side has to say.

thanks!

Becca, 7th grade

Jeff Perren's picture

Well Done

An excellent summary of some of the pros and cons of organic food.

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