People choose to eat organic food for any number of reasons. The most common benefits attributed to consumer choice are health, environment, animal welfare, quality and taste. While some advantages of organic food are clear cut, others have been more challenging to prove. On the other hand, there is also a dark undercurrent to the production of organic food that create disadvantages from an environmental perspective. Here, then, we explore both sides of the organic food coin.
Advantages of Organic Food
One of the most obvious benefits of organic food concerns the lighter impact of its production on the environment. These eco friendly benefits, and by extension the benefits to our health, come about in multiple ways.
Organic food is free of synthetic chemicals. Every day there seems to be a new research study showing the harmful effects of various chemicals on our bodies and endocrine systems. In some stunning research by the Environmental Working Group, it was found that conventional produce can contain as many 57 pesticides by the time it reaches our tables.
We are told these pesticides at residual levels are “harmless” to human health, but why chance it? Studies like those from the EWG suggest that switching to organic fruits and vegetables substantially decreases your exposure to pesticides, which can only be a good thing for you and your family.
Soil quality is maintained or even improved using organic farming practices. Different crops will use different elements out of the soil. Repeatedly planting the same crop year after year can literally drain the soil of certain nutrients and require the addition of more chemical fertilizers to compensate for the loss.
Organic farmers use sustainable soil practices such as crop rotation and the use of green manure. This maximizes the nutrient and mineral content of the soil, along with renewing its structure. Planting different crops allows the soil to replenish its various nutrients naturally over time.
Organic farming captures atmospheric carbon dioxide and helps battle global warming. In 2003, the Rodale Institute released the results of a 23 year study that provided strong evidence that organic farming could go a long way to meeting greenhouse gas reduction targets.
Organic matter is made up of carbon and so the more organic matter maintained in the soil, the less is available for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Conventional farming practices tend to deplete the organic matter in soil whereas organic practices build it. By building organic matter in the soil you are essentially “capturing” carbon in a harmless way that doesn’t contribute to climate change.
The Rodale Institute has a statistic on its website that states “If only 10,000 medium sized farms in the US converted to organic production, they would store so much carbon in the soil that it would be equivalent to taking 1,174,400 cars off the road, or reducing car miles driven by 14.62 billion miles.” That’s a lot of carbon sequestration.
Reduced ground and surface water contamination. Stopping the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers means that these chemicals are not running off the land to contaminate water supplies and delicate aquatic ecosystems. However, organic farms do still use manure that can run off and cause nitrogen problems, so it’s not a perfect solution.
Greater biodiversity. Wildlife loves organic farming methods. One study showed that an average of 30% more species inhabit organic farms versus conventional ones (wiki). All manner of species from birds and butterflies to soil bacteria and earthworms show a marked preference for the organic farm. Beneficial soil-bound organisms and bacteria are particularly advantaged by organic farming because they thrive on natural fertilizer and don’t get killed off with chemical pesticides.
Organic farmers also benefit from biodiversity, because the natural processes of organisms (from digestion to decomposition) create organic nutrients for the soil, further reducing the need for the use of chemical substitutes.
Better animal welfare and treatment. For those concerned about animal welfare, organic certification by the USDA ensures certain practices are upheld for livestock rearing. Besides not being injected with hormones and antibiotics, organically raised animals must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants such as cattle and sheep must be allowed to graze pasture.
Organic food presents economic opportunities for 3rd world farmers. In 2008, a United Nations study suggested that organic farming may be the best opportunity for African countries to overcome issues of poverty and malnutrition. Organic farms there have seen increases in yields and improvements in the soil compared to previously used methods, and have meant a boost in income for Africa’s small farmers.
Quality and taste are said to be superior. This advantage of organic food is more challenging to measure as it is largely a personal preference. However, there are many studies that have tried to quantify it. One study showed that rats consistently chose an organic biscuit over one made with non-organic ingredients despite there being virtually no measurable difference in nutritional value.
Scientific or not, nobody can tell me there is no difference in taste between organic and conventional foods, ranging from chicken to tomatoes. For tomatoes especially, there is a world of taste difference between the explosion of flavor from farmers market or organic tomates versus those bought in regular grocery stores, which this book on modern tomato farming practices readily explains.
Disadvantages of Organic Food
Now we turn to the dark side of the coin, and look at some reasons why organic foods are sometimes less than a good thing.
Claims of nutritional benefits are inconclusive. Most people quote health reasons as the main driver behind the decision to buy organic food. However, if you turn to the scientific literature there is somewhat contradictory evidence and confusing results about the nutritional benefits of organic food.
According to the USDA, organic food contains higher levels of trace minerals, vitamin C, and antioxidant phytonutrients on average than conventionally grown crops. However, a comprehensive study in 2009 carried out by the UK’s food watchdog, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) found no significant difference in the vitamin and mineral content of organic food compared with non-organic. Critics of the latter study noted that toxic residues such as pesticides found in non-organic food weren’t taken into consideration and have a significant impact on health. It is also worth mentioning that the FSA study was a review of existing literature and no new research was conducted.
Organic food is not globally sustainable, using current methods, for feeding the entire planet’s current and growing population. I have previously pointed out that there is a difference between being green and being sustainable. Briefly, “green” refers to practices that help or at least do not harm the planet. Sustainability refers to the ability for a particular practice to continue indefinitely.
Ideally things are both green and sustainable, but that is not always the case. An example is building a solar panel array in a desert that ends up destroying a habitat. The solar array may be green, but destroying habitats is not a sustainable practice.
When people refer to the disadvantages of organic food they are often expressing concerns over global sustainability associated with mass food production and the ability to feed all of the world’s hungry people. The shift to conventional, industrial scale farming practices has come as a result of the explosion in population growth after the Industrial Revolution. There are simply more mouths to feed at the same time that land use for farming has decreased, or has become less economically feasible due to global competition and automation. Land has also become less fertile or productive due to bad soil management in many parts of the world, exerting additional demand for food from the farms that remain.
While organic farming practices are eco friendly, they are inefficient from the point of view of producing enough food to feed everyone on the planet. Organic farming methods are simply not as productive as conventional farming practices, since the usual chemical fertilizers and pesticides cannot be used. Therefore more land is required for organic farms to produce equivalent yields.
One could perhaps argue that in places like the US, unneeded housing developments could theoretically be returned to productive farm land, but that is not the case in most other parts of the world. Think of coffee in Colombia or sugar cane in Brazil. Grabbing more land to increase crop production, even for organic food, means destruction of precious rain forests or other ecological treasures.
In this regard, therefore, organic food is not a sustainable practice. We cannot continue it indefinitely while simultaneously feeding the entirety of the world’s increasing population and protecting the planet’s disappearing forests and ecosystems.
Organic food is more expensive. Another disadvantage of organic food is generally cost, the reasons for which arise from the issues just discussed. Organic methods produce lower yields, and therefore what is produced is more expensive for consumers.
On the other hand, perhaps our expectations of food costs are unrealistic, such that the price of organic food is “not that bad.” According to Forbes.com, Americans spend anywhere between 6-12% of their income, depending on their tax bracket, on food at home (groceries as opposed to eating out). Compare this with somewhere like Indonesia where an average of 31% of the household income is spent on food. Compare it even with the US just over a century ago, when 50% of household income went toward food.
In light of all that, is organic food really that expensive–especially when its advantages are considered?
Confusion with labels. Perhaps the biggest disadvantage surrounding organic food is confusion about organic labeling. When organic marketing and labeling proved to be popular with a niche market, everyone jumped on the organic bandwagon. There was a flood of labels, making it confusing as to what certified organic actually meant.
Does natural mean organic? What does “made with organic” mean? In many cases, your guess is as good as mine. While I love my local farmer’s market, they take pains to assure me that the produce is “organically grown,” but doesn’t carry the label “USDA certified organic.” Why not, and does this matter?
The United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program develops, implements and administers national production, handling and labeling standards in the US. If a product bears the USDA Certified Organic label it has met uniform standards – 95% or more of the product is made with organic ingredients. If a product has 70-94% organic ingredients, it can bear the label “made with organic.” Below 70% the product can list ingredients as organic in the ingredient list only. There is more information about understanding organic labeling on the USDA website.
Still, can people be expected to know the difference? And how organic is good enough?
In the case of farmer’s markets, they may not carry the official “USDA certified organic” for items like heirloom tomatoes perhaps because the costs of certification are too high. I plan to do more research on this soon, but I suspect that even produce that doesn’t carry the official label is bound to carry advantages over conventional food–and that’s good enough for me.
Do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages?
In my view, yes. Despite the problem that organic food cannot sustain the entire world right now, every acre of farming land that is devoted to organic methods is another acre that is not being subjected to the pollution and damage of conventional farming.
Perhaps some day we will solve the sustainability problem with new ideas such as vertical organic farming (see video below), which builds farms upwards instead of outwards and therefore saves on land use. They would also probably reduce the cost of organic food as well, since it could be grown efficiently and much closer to where it will be consumed.
If we can solve that one vexing problem, and focus on better labeling, there can be no question that organic food is the ideal way to feed the world and our families.
See this video for how some innovative people are trying to increase organic food yield by building vertical organic farms: