Since the beginning of human history, humanity has been concerned with the food they eat and where it comes from. Early humans carefully selected the plants and animals that were safe to eat as humans today select food from the grocery stores to fit their nutritional needs. There are thousands of products that are offered in grocery stores today, ranging from conventional to organic and everything in between. People are left to wonder, is organic food actually better than conventional? Although it is more expensive than conventional foods, buying and eating organic food is more than worth it, offering both health and environmental benefits.
What is organic food? It is food that is grown or raised without use of conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage, irradiation, genetically modified organisms, or antibiotics and hormones in meat. The United States Department of Agriculture released their standards and regulations for producing organic food in 2002. According to the USDA, “Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods.”(USDA Organic Standards). There are strict standards for organically grown foods and they must first be certified by a third party before becoming USDA certified.
Though it didn’t officially enter the mainstream of society until the early 2000’s, organic farming practices have been around for over a century. In 1840, a German chemist discovered the primary elements (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium) that are needed for plant growth and it resulted in farming becoming an industrialized machine (Pollan, 146-147). There were some people who felt this discovery was not a breakthrough but the mechanizing of nature and ultimate destruction of the soil. Sir Albert Howard, an englishman and agronomist, is credited with many of the ideas behind organic farming, though he never actually used the term organic, and he believed the soil should be treated like a living organism (145). He reasoned that the health of produce, livestock and humans was dependent upon the health of the soil and the addition of synthetic chemicals destroyed the nutrients in the soil (148). His ideas about natural and sustainable farming practices were the foundation for the organic movement to build upon.
First, eating healthy and balanced meals, no matter if they are conventional or organic, is most important. In a society dominated by the ease of processed foods, it must be pointed out that although consuming organic products is optimal for overall health, eating a healthy diet in general is key. It should also be understood that organic food is not necessarily more nutritious than conventional. The nutritional value of any produce depends on the health of the soil. For example, produce grown in sandy soil won’t develop as many nutrients in the plant as produce grown in rich, healthy soil. Because many of the chemicals used in conventional farming strip the soil of its nutrients, organic foods can have higher nutrient content than that of conventionally grown products because of the soil health.
By far the most common reason for eating organically is the ability to avoid ingesting harmful chemicals thats effects on humans have not been fully studied (Haspel). These chemicals are synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which encompass a wide array of compounds like insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, rodenticides, plant growth regulators and more. The use of these chemicals allows for farmers to harvest higher yields from their crops, ensure that they don’t become overrun by weeds, and to protect the crops from diseases (Aktar, Sengupta, & Chowdhury 2009). The USDA and Environmental Protection Agency assure the public that the concentration of pesticides consumed through food are too low level to cause harm but there has been little testing conducted that show the effects that long term exposure could have (Aktar, Sengupta, & Chowdhury). Consuming pesticides even at low level concentrations is thought to be linked to numerous health issues in humans ranging from respiratory issues and food allergies to more serious illnesses like cancer.
Another problem is that an individual chemical, even if deemed safe, can be enhanced or changed if it is combined with other pollutants and substances in the body. Every day we are exposed to a cocktail of chemicals and because little testing has been done on this aspect, who can say what effects consistent low level exposure to such a mixture of chemicals can cause. (Aktar). In an article by Tamar Haspel, a food-policy writer and oyster farmer, she talks about the findings of 2016 Pesticide Data Program, which reports the pesticide levels on different foods for the year in both conventional and organic food. Haspel explains that the problem with the data is many of the most commonly used pesticides in both conventional and organic farming aren’t even tested for. Some of the most used pesticides are just beginning to be tested and others aren’t tested for at all (Haspel).
There are millions of people in the world that are facing malnourishment with 1 out of every 7 people going hungry. With the environment in an increasingly unstable state, many areas of the world are experiencing record breaking droughts and massive flooding leading to crop failure. Since pesticides can basically guarantee a harvest, they are widely used in developing or highly populated countries where a crop failure could be catastrophic. With high quantities of pesticides being used globally, the fact that in certain regions pesticide poisoning is not only common but is a public health issue comes at no big surprise. Not only are people being unintentionally poisoned from spray or ingesting food with residue but pesticides are also often purposefully ingested to commit suicide, demonstrating how hazardous these chemicals can actually be.
Pesticides are just as toxic for the environment as they are for health. They contaminate water systems, the soil, the air, and other non-targets (unintentional recipients). There are three different ways pesticides contaminate the water system. 1. Pesticides can drift outside the area they were sprayed through the wind and physical carriers. 2. They leech into the groundwater through direct absorption. And 3. Pesticides can be carried into other water systems through run off. It is almost impossible to keep chemicals contained to one area so naturally pesticide concentrations show up in a variety of places besides the fields.
Pesticides can ruin the structural integrity of the top soil and obliterate biodiversity that is essential for plant growth. When applied to plants that have already flowered, it can kill pollinators like bees and reduce the reproductive qualities of the crop. Many of these pesticides are very harmful to flora and fauna and have the potential to disrupt entire ecosystem. A book written by Rachel Carson talks about the impact of pesticide use on the animals that unintentionally ingest these chemicals. She discusses the loss of several bird species due to accumulation of pesticides in their tissues. Types of fungicides used in farming are only slightly toxic to birds and mammals, but may kill off earthworms, which can in turn reduce populations of the birds and mammals that feed on them. Additionally, as some pesticides come in granular form, birds and other wildlife may eat the granules, mistaking them for grains of food.
Besides pesticides, there are also the hormones and antibiotics that are pumped into conventional livestock. Chickens are given hormone rich food to expedite their growth and cause them to form abnormally large breast muscles. Many chickens are grown to butchering weight in 40 days or less. Antibiotics that were fed to livestock to cure and prevent infections were also used as growth boosters until people started understanding the effects of overuse. Although the FDA attempted to cut back on antibiotic use, livestock are still fed about 80% of the antibiotics used in the U.S (fda.com). The rampant overuse has created strains of bacteria that are now resistant to antibiotics and pose a serious threat for people’s health (Pig Out).
If chemicals and antibiotic laden animals weren’t bad enough, irradiation was introduced to the food industry. An article written by Curt Anderson in the Missoulian in 1997 talks about consumers worries concerning the then recent FDA approval of irradiating red meats. Irradiation uses gamma radiation to kill some (not all) bacteria and diseased organisms to make the product “safe” to eat (Anderson). Irradiation had already been widely used before this point for spices, fresh produce, chickens, and pork. Another Missoulian article by Michael Colby points out that again, the USDA has not done adequate testing on this subject.
Most alarming is that when irradiation was approved by the FDA, the studies that were supposed to prove its safety ended up being less than convincing and the then chair of the FDA committee felt the tests were flawed and lacking (Colby). Again, the USDA insists that irradiation is a tool to keep produce fresh for longer and reduce chances of catching a food related illness (USDA.com). Because the radiation can only kill up to 90-99% of bacteria and pathogens, what remains has been altered by the radiation and can have unknown effects (Colby). Organic foods on the other hand are, according to USDA standards, free of irradiation of any kind.The many health benefits of organic food allow the consumer to avoid pesticides, antibiotics and irradiation but the benefits don’t end with health.
Organic farming is rooted in sustainability. Many of the practices of organic farming are from simply observing nature. Sir Albert Howard, credited with the ideas that founded the organic movement wrote, “Mother earth never attempts to farm without livestock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; [and] the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another.’ (Howard). It takes a lot of time and energy to synthesize the chemical nutrients needed for conventional chemical farming and with climate change and the environment in an increasingly unstable state, it is time to start looking into alternative sources like organic farming.
Similarly, the antibiotics excreted by livestock are integrated into the soil, polluting the ground and water even further. Livestock themselves are one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases. America is ranked second for most meat consumed in the world with 200.6 lbs per person, per year. Cattle that are raised conventionally are indoors almost their entire lives and are fed diets of low quality grain. This diet creates very unhealthy cows that produce unhealthy meat. Conventional red meat has high fat content, contains properties that cause prostate cancer and it is generally considered and unhealthy meat. The opposite has been found in cows raised organically and fed a grass based diet. There are far higher levels of Omega 3 and Omega 6, lower fat content, cancer fighting properties and more.