Of course, there are many positive aspects to choosing organic over non-organic food. However, adherents to organic lifestyles often overstate the plusses whilst completely ignoring the many downsides to keeping it organic and forgoing genetically modified (GM) foods.
A fairly common reason people tend to choose organic foods is a perceived rise in quality over GM foods. They may think organic food tastes better. It absolutely can do. They may believe that it is nutritionally more viable, better for environmental and animal welfare- somehow healthier, safer and, of course, superior. Things get a little grey, here. Many of these biases are nothing more than that, however: they are biases brought about by clever marketing and the rise in certain trends. There is little truth to many claims so often made about organic food.
Organic food sales continue to grow. In part due to increasing worries about pesticide use, in part an awareness of food’s providence, in part due to good marketing, it is a booming industry. I want to emphasise this early on: it’s an industry. There is a vested interest in selling you these products, the same as any other.
I’ve put together this article to give a different point of view as you try to decide whether and how far you want to go organic. But before we get into the pros and cons, let’s first look at what it actually means to be organic.
Organic food is the product of production systems that avoid the use of man-made fertilisers, pesticides, hormones, growth regulators and feed additives for livestock. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are often proscribed under organic legislation, as is irradiation. Organic agriculture generally works towards environmentally, economically and socially sustainable products.
Organic agricultural producers subscribe to a system that pays close attention to nature’s health. With this in mind, they will tend to use fewer chemicals, like fertilisers and pest controls, that might pollute the environment. There will also be an absence of veterinary medicines and genetic modification in their livestock.
They will often aim to improve biodiversity in their farmlands and offer benefits for animal welfare such as free ranging, natural conditions.
Artificial flavours, colourings and sweeteners are banned in organic foods. Foods with such ingredients cannot be labelled ‘organic’ under most governing bodies’ laws.
So far, so good. Many of these are laudable aims. However, as with most things, the subject is not as simple as organic=good/non-organic=bad. Far from it.
What Does The Research Say?
As mentioned above, demand for organic food is on the rise. Many people are paying attention to their food’s providence. There is a continuing, widespread belief that organic foods have benefits including:
- A higher and more diverse micro-nutrient content
- Less, or more positive, environmental impact
- Greater health-giving benefits
However, the scientific community is a long way from any kind of consensus on the positive aspects of organic food. Many leading scientists are unconvinced by many of the health claims attached to organic production: the current research has not shown a consistent correlation between organic production and nutrient density, for example.
A 2009 report by the Food Standards Agency summarised several findings from previous studies that compared nutritional benefits between organic and non-organic foods. The conclusion was that the organic foods studied did not bring any significant health benefits above and beyond their non-organic counterparts. Although there is a noted difference in vitamin and mineral levels between the two, it is often incredibly slight.
It should be noted, however, that there are proven lower levels of pesticide residues and heavy metals in organic foods, which is a great plus.
The Bad Science Behind Targeted Pro-organic Information
There is a lot of misinformation put out there by pro-organic types. Indeed, they are one of the fastest growing lobbyist groups in the US, with diverse instances of immoral behaviour as they try to push the interests of their funders. Recent years have given us some very unethical scientific practices and advice accepted by mainstream media and Western populations as a whole. These are generally influenced by organisations with links to the organic industry.
Let’s debunk some of the misinformation spread by backers of the organic industry. Fertilizers are often a contentious area of debate, with chemical fertilizers being a key recipient of organic proponents’ ire. However, it can easily be argued that organic fertilizers are more dangerous. It is overwhelmingly manure based; manure is a host for both salmonella and e-coli, meaning that you’re more likely to get food poisoning from organic food than non.
Another of the main charges often levelled at non-organic foods is the level of toxicity they contain due to the pesticides used in their production. However, recent studies have shown that a year of eating food containing pesticide residues as the main component of a standard diet will be less toxic than a cup of coffee. There are more carcinogens in that coffee than are in a non-organic year’s diet as well.
Organic producers like to scare consumers about GMOs because they are genetically modified. Of course they are: all foods available in every market are genetically modified, through years of selective breeding. It’s what allows us to get the most out of our food, and to get the hardiest, most bountiful strains (I’ll go into more detail on why this is so important below.) Unless you’re trying to argue that fatty heifers and prize pigs evolved naturally from the primordial sludge (which they most assuredly did not!) then this point needs to be conceded: the most ‘natural’ crops and animals in the most organic of settings has had its genetically code entirely manipulated by humans. I’ll talk why this is good in a little while: for now, just appreciate that organic producers who genetic modification as an evil are being completely hypocritical.
GMOs are also incredibly well-monitored by a variety of global and governmental agencies that apply some of the strictest safety standards that it’s possible to find. Thousands of research trials has reached the consensus that there GMOs show no signs of causing any ill health.
So you cannot trust the science espoused by self-interested organic suppliers. Nor can you take it for granted that their products are either healthier than their non-organic counterparts, or indeed that they are healthy at all. The academic literature simply doesn’t concur with many of the claims surrounding organic food production.
The Key Issues With Organic Food
I gave cursory reference to this above. We live in a world of large industries employing first class marketing agencies. In this context, organic food producers and supporters have excelled themselves. ‘Organic’ has become something of a byword for quality: it conjures images of better, tastier, healthier, and somehow just nicer produce.
Of course people who can afford it want a part of this. Who doesn’t want better?
But this engenders nothing but a sense of elitism as you help to fund a multi-billion-dollar industry with little actual return on your increased spending in many instances.
Organic food is too expensive for what it is
Organic food costs a lot.
We could argue that producers and retailers have spotted a vulnerable, niche market eager to shill out their disposable income in the interests of being better and healthier than their peers. It has become a status good, much like designer handbags and luxury cars. This enables them to bump up their prices, putting a premium on the lifestyle they are selling.
Alongside this is the inherent risk involved with organic as opposed to non-organic production. There is always a higher risk of much lower yields, or even crop failure, in organic farming. Organic produce also often has a shorter shelf life, lacking preservatives and waxes to keep them looking fresh. This means that more is inevitably wasted. Such failures need to be priced in, buffering producers against the lean times by overcharging in the good times.
Either way, organic food is much more expensive than non-organic food. This makes it unattainable for many people. It makes it a stretch for others, who spend more money than they perhaps could when, as we have seen, there are far fewer health benefits to organic food than producers would have you believe.
That’s all well and good though, but a lot of people care about the environmental and social context in which their food is grown. Many would happily pay extra to know that their food is clear of all morally troubling charges.
However, this is not always the case with organic food.
Organic production is unsustainable
Organic food demand cannot be catered for by the Earth’s carrying capacity. There are simply too many mouths to feed. By some estimates, the Earth could yield enough produce to feed a population of 4 billion people if organic agriculture were adopted across the board.
Industrialisation and a growing population is rapidly eating into available land, as well. Large agricultural producers like China, India and Brazil are seeing the worst of this phenomenon. As the global population is closing in on 8 billion, this obviously doesn’t work: organic food is a failure in this regard. There is simply not enough soil and nitrate to supply us with enough produce organically to satisfy our needs: there is a very real, very Malthusian disaster looming.
The only way to get out of this situation is through a rethink in the basic science of our food production, as has been happening for a number of years now. Genetically modifying crops to yield more, using fewer resources and less landmass, whilst being hardy enough to cope with changes global climactic conditions, is the only way forward.
Organic food simply isn’t up to the challenge.
Organic food production promotes child labor in Africa
Many African subsistence farming communities are suffering from the boom in organic food demand. In Europe, a little over 5% of available agriculture land is used for organic farming. Demand outstrips this. However, the answer, many producers say, lies in Africa. Due to the prohibitive costs of many of the chemicals frowned upon in organic circles, much of African agriculture is organic.
This has led to an export boom in African organic produce.
Organic farming is much more labor intensive than non-organic farming, as weeds need to be pulled out by hand and crops tended to in traditional ways. This has led to a spike in child labor on African farms looking to match the global demand for their produce. Unfortunately, this is the only way that the West’s appetite for organic food can be met.
Organic food producers still use environmentally challenging, unhealthy chemicals
If you think that organic food production is somehow natural, that organic farms have no negative environmental impact, and that organic farmers don’t make use of harsh chemicals, then I’m afraid you’re in for a disappointment.
All farmers use pesticide. This is regardless of their or your agricultural preferences.
Most modern synthetic pesticides have been introduced since DDT was banned in the 1970s. They have been tested by the most rigorous governing bodies in the world and found to be safe. However, organic pesticides (the more ‘natural’ kind) are relatively untested. They have suffered far less scrutiny than their synthetic cousins and the effects they have on us is still basically unknown.
All pesticides are poison, and all farmers use them. If you eat food produced in a farm, it has benefitted from being doused in poison, regardless of what the labelling or the advertisement says.
I hope this article has been helpful. Of course, I’m not suggesting that you should forswear all organic food and fill your diet exclusively with Coca-Cola and processed foods. But you need to be wary of self-interested producers feeding you information, or of trends and fashions taking on lives of their own.
By all means, eat organic if you want to. Or, save yourself some money and eat non-organic. The chances are that you won’t see any difference at all in your nutritional intake and overall health.