With more and more people opting to buy organic foods instead of foods produced with mainstream agricultural methods, you may wonder if it’s really a better choice or whether it’s just another health trend. Since organic is usually quite a bit more expensive, it’s of course wise to find out whether it’s really worth it.
What makes foods organic?
Organic foods are foods that have been produced without the use of any artificial fertilizers, pesticides and other agrochemicals. Everything they contain is completely natural and there is no genetic modification involved. Animals reared to produce organic meat or dairy are also reared in a more traditional way, without the use of growth hormones and without being fed antibiotics on a regular basis.
Many countries have strict standards about what constitutes organic. However, in many developing countries, farmers who use traditional agricultural practices are in effect producing their crops and livestock organically too. After all, the use of artificial chemicals in agriculture is relatively new and until the Green Revolution that industrialized agricultural production in the 20th century, all farming in Europe and North America was really organic too.
The health argument for buying organic
The jury’s still out on whether organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally grown produce. The science is not yet clear, although I would argue that sticking to natural, organic foods is always going to be the safer option.
What’s certain, though, is that when you eat organic foods, you’re not putting all kinds of nasty extras into your body. There is a good reason why farm workers have to wear protective clothing when using certain agrochemicals, especially pesticides. These chemicals are downright dangerous and have been linked to health problems ranging from respiratory ailments to certain types of cancer.
Also worrying is that some chemicals like the fungicide carbendazim act as hormone disruptors, causing problems like birth defects, disruptions in sexual development, learning disabilities and cancer. They often start causing problems in low doses and build up in your body over time. (To find out more about the effects of commonly used pesticides, download the World Health Organization’s individual data sheets at http://www.inchem.org/pages/pds.html.)
The environmental argument for buying organic
One of the main advantages of organic foods is that they’re better for the environment. By cutting out the use of artificial chemicals and going for all-natural, biodegradable alternatives instead, farmers who use organic production methods cut down on environmental damage. Organic farming is more sustainable than mainstream commercial farming since it takes into account the long-term effects of different farming practices instead of focusing on the here and now. (The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations has a wealth of publications about the benefits of organic farming. For more information, see http://www.fao.org/organicag/oa-home/en/).
Two of the biggest threats to food security are water pollution and soil degradation. The agricultural industry places more pressure on the world’s water resources than any other, according to UNESCO’s World Water Development Report for 2012. (Download the full report here: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/environment/water/wwap/wwdr/wwdr4-2012/.)
Not only does it take an immense amount of water to grow crops and rear livestock, but conventional agriculture is one of the main culprits when it comes to water pollution. All those chemicals used to increase yields have to go somewhere and they do: Runoff after rain or in the form of wastewater ends up in rivers, streams, lakes and the ocean, transporting all those harmful chemicals with them and causing environmental havoc miles away. For instance, coral reefs in the western part of the Caribbean are being destroyed at an alarming rate because of runoff from Central America’s coffee plantations.
While natural fertilizers can still damage water resources through processes like eutrophication, organic farming at least reduces its impact by reducing the amount of chemicals that can get into water resources. Organic farming practices also tend to be more water-wise, using less water than conventional farming methods.
The methods used to produce organic foods also tend to have a smaller impact on the soil. Conventional farming methods often favor the same crop year after year and involve a huge amount of tillage. Over time, the soil’s structure and nutritional content changes and the land becomes useless for growing anything. Organic farming methods use methods like crop rotation, cover crops and minimum tillage to help protect the soil, decreasing the risk of erosion and desertification.
Another important benefit of organic farming is that it maintains and even encourages biodiversity. For instance, pesticides designed to kill insects that may harm crops also kill those insects that plants need for pollination, like bees and butterflies. If you’re still not convinced about conventional agriculture’s impact on the environment, simply think about when last you saw fireflies.
How to get around the cost issue
There are very few people who can say that money’s no issue when it comes to buying food. If you simply can’t afford to buy organic foods only, there are ways to reduce the risks of eating conventionally produced foods. For instance, you can buy conventionally grown potatoes or apples and simply scrub or remove the skins. Then save your money for buying organically produced strawberries, leafy greens and other foods that are more difficult to scrub or peel.
Another option is to grow your own. While you may not necessarily qualify for organic certification if you grow your own vegetables or keep a couple of chickens in your backyard, you can control what goes into and onto your home-grown produce. It’s more economical too and you get to use the freshest ingredients possible if they come from your own garden. An added bonus is that you can get the whole family involved, getting them off the couch and back to the land.