Tune into any news station, watch a daytime talk show, or skim through a clean living blog. One thing will become abundantly clear: there’s a war happening in agriculture. And according to most sources, organic farming is the underdog fighting corporate agriculture for a better world. Ma-and-pop farmers are raising their rakes to beat back Frankenfoods, chemical-laden crops, and literal metric tons of air and water pollution.
Or are they? What does “organic” mean?
While organic farming has its roots in family and community farms, there’s nothing that prevents large scale organic production. In fact, according to a 2016 report by the Pew Research Center, there were more than 14,000 certified organic farms in the United States. And sales of certified organic goods doubled from $3.5 billion in 2011 to nearly $7.6 billion in 2016. The same report shows that 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. eat mostly organic, despite organic products costing 10-30% more than conventional food.
When it comes to organics, people are willing to pay more.
This may be because many consumers believe that organic foods are inherently more nutritious, safer, and part of a greener, more eco-friendly lifestyle.
But what does organic mean, really?
Do a quick Google search, and you’ll see the same thing again and again: organic vs. conventional, organic vs. industrial, organic vs. GMO. The implications are clear: these farming practices are opposites. They never overlap, and they always oppose each other. This black and white thinking makes it easy to cast organic farms as community-based upstarts sticking it to Big Agriculture.
Unfortunately, the reality is much more complicated. These words and their definitions are hard to pin down, and there’s often significant overlap. It’s essential to have a clear understanding of these misconstrued terms to understand what that “certified organic” stamp of approval on your spinach actually means.
Organic farming refers to a particular set of practices and products
These days, you can buy just about anything organic— soap, t-shirts, produce, eggs, and meat. Avocado Green Mattress even sells pillow tops made with 100% certified organic latex, wool, and cotton. Many consumers believe that organic is synonymous with “better,” “natural,” “healthy,” and “clean.” However, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department’s definition, organic simply refers to the practices and products used to grow and process organics, not their quality or health benefits.
Organic certification means no conventional pesticides, petroleum-based or biosolid fertilizers, herbicides, genetic engineering, antibiotics, growth hormones, or irradiation were used in growth or production. “Overall,” the site goes on to say, “organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.”
The USDA’s labeling standards outline three ways to label organic products
To be USDA certified organic, foods and other products follow specific federal guidelines. But not all organic products are created equally. The USDA’s organic labeling standards outline three possible ways to label products: 100% organic, organic, and “contains organic ingredients.” For something to be marked organic (and bear the USDA organic seal), only 95% of the ingredients need to be organic. Up to 5% of the ingredients may be nonorganically produced agricultural products such as carnauba wax, colors derived from agricultural products, pectin, and gelatin.
Organics still use toxic pesticides. They’re just natural
Many people opting for organics assume that because organic farmers don’t use synthetic or commercially-made pesticides, they’re not using pesticides at all. In reality, organic farming still uses toxic pesticides, with the caveat that they’re naturally-occurring. These substances can include pyrethrin, derived from chrysanthemums, and azadirachtin, from the Asian neem tree. Organic farms can also use synthetic compounds, so long as they contain a naturally-occurring mineral such as copper or sulfur.
Sometimes, less is more
In fact, according to a report coming from the University of Berkeley, farmers may have to use more applications of natural toxins to achieve the same effect as a single application of a synthetic one. One study comparing the effectiveness of an organic rotenone-pyrethrin mixture versus a synthetic pesticide, imidan, found that it took seven applications of the natural pesticide to obtain the same level of protection as two applications of imidan.
“It seems unlikely that seven applications of rotenone and pyrethrin are really better for the environment than two applications of imidan,” the study concludes. “Especially when rotenone is extremely toxic to fish and other aquatic life.” Now consider the additional negative impact of compaction on soil health when you drive over the ground seven times instead of two. This organic farming practice can lead to long-term complications like degraded root health because roots can’t penetrate the hard-pan you created. You might even see topsoil erosion because water can’t absorb past the point of compaction. Instead, this precious resource will just be washing away the top layer.
It seems like common sense that organic food would be handled in an isolated or sterile environment to maintain its organic qualities. But in fact, the opposite is true.
Consider an example at the beginning of the supply chain, when the grain comes off during harvest. Farmers can either harvest their crops themselves or hire it out to someone called a “custom harvester.” In either case, the machinery used on a conventional field may have come from an organic crop before. Or vice versa.
So in this scenario, the harvester works a conventional crop one day, then moves to an organic crop the next. The only thing required to maintain organic certification? A written record that the machinery was cleaned to certain standards. For some, this may be surprising. To others, it may not sound like a big deal. But ask a farmer about cleaning out every kernel of grain from a harvester. They’ll tell you it’s impossible due to all of the nooks and crannies.
“Your organic food product was probably harvested, trucked, stored, and processed (to some degree) through the same equipment that does conventional crops.”
The same goes for the next step in the supply chain: the trucks that transport the grains from field to storage in a farmer’s yard, or directly to a grain buyer or processing facility. Even at organic processing facilities, they can flip-flop between organic and conventional grain processing, so long as they have a record of cleanout. The same principle applies—your organic food product was probably harvested, trucked, stored, and processed (to some degree) through the same equipment that does conventional crops.
So, did you notice any difference in taste, flavor, or nutrition when you bit into your organic slice of toast this morning?
But is organic food healthier?
One of the draws of organic food is the perceived health benefits. Consumers believe organic food is healthier, and some even report that it tastes better. But according to the scientific community, a lot of this is just speculation and clever marketing.
Nutrient levels in produce do vary, but not how you might think
According to Crystal Smith-Spangler, a researcher at the Stanford University School of Medicine, there’s little to no evidence that organic food is more nutritious than conventionally-grown food. In fact, according to a 2012 NPR article, it’s all about where food is grown, when it gets picked, and its genetic makeup. These factors may impact nutrients more than organic or conventional growing practices.
“When it comes to their nutritional quality, vegetables vary enormously, and that’s true whether they are organic or conventional,” the authors claim. “One carrot in the grocery store, for instance, may have two or three times more beta carotene (which gives us vitamin A) than its neighbor.”
A 2014 study in the British Journal of Nutrition similarly found that organic and conventional vegetables offer similar levels of many nutrients, including minerals, vitamin C, and vitamin E. So, nutrient levels do vary. But there’s no clear evidence that organic foods across the board have higher vitamin or mineral levels than conventional foods.
Meat and dairy may be the exception
While there’s little discernible difference between organic and conventional produce, more than 200 studies show that organic dairy and meat contain about 50 percent more omega-3 fatty acids. The increase is the result of animals foraging on grasses rich in omega-3s, which then end up in dairy and meats. Research in the U.S. has pointed to similar benefits.
Some organic produce may contain higher levels of antioxidants
Antioxidant levels may be organic produce’s most substantial claim to provide superior health benefits. The chemical compounds that fruits and vegetables produce to protect themselves from insects and disease are called antioxidants. Because organic crops experience more stress during their growing period (receive less fertilizer, are protected by fewer pesticides), they naturally produce more antioxidants. Or so conventional wisdom would have you believe. This generalization, however, may be problematic. For example, Jeffrey Blumberg, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University, draws attention to the fact that there is no clearly defined “organic” or “industrial” farming practice.
In his 2014 NPR article, author Dan Charles expounds on Blumberg’s idea. He writes: Some organic crops get lots of organic fertilizer; some don’t. Some are protected with lots of natural pesticides; some are not. Conventional practices vary widely, too. So it’s difficult to know, in the end, what you really are comparing. And food that’s compared in these studies may not be the same as the food you’re buying in the store.
So is organic farming—and food—better?
In the end, most experts recommend that Americans across the board need to consume more fruits and vegetables. Blumberg laments, “Most Americans are getting only a couple of servings of fruits and vegetables every day. We’re recommending that they get up to nine servings.” Whether those servings are grown using organic or conventional methods is a matter of personal preference. “What really will make a difference in people’s health,” he says, “is just eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.”
That’s on a national scale. And the hard truth is we can’t apply national thinking to a global scale. For the good of the whole world, including developed, developing, and underdeveloped countries, sustainability is key.