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  • Writer's pictureValinda

Organic Food: Is it Really Better for You? A Critical Analysis

Updated: Dec 20, 2023

Organic food has experienced a surge in popularity over the past two decades, with U.S. consumers spending a staggering $56 billion on organic produce in 2020 alone, representing a nearly 13% increase from the previous year. The sustained growth in demand suggests that people perceive organic food to be safer, healthier, and more flavorful than conventionally grown alternatives. Moreover, many individuals recognize the environmental benefits of organic farming practices and the positive impact on animal welfare. To better understand the nuances between organic and non-organic foods, including their nutrient content and effects on human health, this article aims to provide a comprehensive comparison. In a world filled with countless food choices, the concept of organic food stands out, prompting questions about its true value and worth the added cost. Join us on a captivating journey as we unravel the meaning of organic food, exploring its significance as a harmonious blend of nourishment, ethics, and environmental consciousness.



What is Organic Food?

Let's start at the beginning, what makes food organic food? The Department for Agriculture and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) states that: ‘Organic food is the product of a farming system which avoids the use of man-made fertilizers, pesticides; growth regulators and livestock feed additives. Irradiation and the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or products produced from or by GMOs are generally prohibited by organic legislation. Organic agriculture is a systems approach to production that is working towards environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable production. Instead, the agricultural systems rely on crop rotation, animal and plant manures, some hand weeding and biological pest control’.

Organic certification ensures that strict standards are met throughout the entire production process, from soil management to livestock care. By choosing organic, consumers can have confidence that the food they consume is produced in a way that promotes soil health, biodiversity, animal welfare, and the long-term sustainability of our planet.

farmland - Pros and cons of organic food farming

Standards of Organic Food

Organic food standards are regulations and guidelines that define the production, handling, and labeling of organic agricultural products. While specific organic food standards may vary between countries and certification agencies, below is an overview of the general principles and requirements commonly found in organic food standards.

  1. Prohibition of Synthetic Chemicals: Organic standards typically prohibit the use of synthetic chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers in the production of organic food. Instead, organic farmers rely on natural and organic pesticides and fertilizers.

  2. Soil Management: Organic farming emphasizes the maintenance and improvement of soil health through practices such as composting, crop rotation, and the use of organic fertilizers. Soil conservation and the avoidance of soil erosion are also important aspects.

  3. Genetic Modification: Organic food standards generally prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in organic agriculture. Organic crops must be grown from non-GMO seeds.

  4. Livestock Standards: Organic standards often include specific requirements for the treatment and welfare of animals. These may include access to outdoor areas (for a certain amount of hours per day), pasture grazing, organic feed, and restrictions on the use of antibiotics and growth hormones.

  5. Pest and Disease Management: Organic farmers rely on preventive measures and natural methods for pest and disease control. They may use techniques such as crop rotation, biological pest control, and the use of resistant plant varieties.

  6. Certification and Inspection: Organic food standards typically require farmers and food producers to undergo a certification process conducted by authorized third-party organizations. Regular inspections are carried out to ensure compliance with organic standards.

  7. Labeling: Organic food products must meet specific labeling requirements. They may use terms such as "organic," "certified organic," or display the organic certification logo to indicate compliance with organic standards. Different labeling categories (e.g., 100% organic, organic, or made with organic ingredients) may exist, indicating the percentage of organic ingredients in a product.

It's important to note that the specific details and regulations can vary between countries or regions. Different certifying agents may have their own additional standards or requirements meaning these standards may vary in your country.

agriculture - Pros and cons of organic food farming

Certifications of Organic Food

  • There are several organic food certifications that exist globally. The certifications ensure that the organic food products meet the specific standards and requirements set by the respective certification agencies. Here are some widely recognized organic food certifications:

  • USDA Organic (United States): The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) operates the National Organic Program (NOP) and grants the USDA Organic certification. Products with this certification have been produced and handled in accordance with the USDA organic regulations.

usda organic logo - Pros and cons of organic food farming
  • EU Organic (European Union): The European Union (EU) has established regulations for organic production and labeling. Organic products that meet these regulations can bear the EU Organic logo, also known as the "Euro-leaf."

eu organic logo - Pros and cons of organic food farming
  • Canada Organic (Canada): In Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) oversees the organic certification process. Organic products in Canada can be labeled with the Canada Organic logo or the term "Certified Organic."

canada organic logo - Pros and cons of organic food farming
  • JAS Organic (Japan): The Japanese Agricultural Standard (JAS) certification is issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries in Japan. It ensures that organic products meet specific Japanese organic standards.

jas organic - Pros and cons of organic food farming
  • Soil Association Organic (United Kingdom): The Soil Association is a UK-based organic certification body that certifies organic food and farming practices. Products certified by the Soil Association can carry the Soil Association Organic logo.

soil association - Pros and cons of organic food farming
  • Australian Certified Organic (Australia): Australian Certified Organic (ACO) is a prominent organic certification body in Australia. It provides certification services for organic producers and products in Australia.

australian organic - Pros and cons of organic food farming
  • Naturland Organic (Germany): Naturland is an association based in Germany that offers organic certification according to strict ecological and social standards. It certifies organic agriculture, aquaculture, and other related products.

naturland organic - Pros and cons of organic food farming
  • Bio Suisse (Switzerland): Bio Suisse is a Swiss organic certification organization that sets organic farming standards and provides the Bud label for certified organic products in Switzerland.

bio swiss - Pros and cons of organic food farming

These are just a few examples of well-known organic certifications. Different countries and regions may have their own specific certification bodies and logos. When purchasing organic food products, look for the certification logos or labels to ensure that they meet the organic standards and do your research if you are unsure about a label on a product.


Advantages of Organic Food

Organic produce is great, not only for your body but also because of the impact your organic food choices have on the environment. Read here all about the pros of organic food regarding pesticides use, water and soil pollution, nutritional value, etc.


Pesticides

Pesticide use, including the use of insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides, is widely used in agriculture. There is however a growing public concern because of the impact it can have on human health.

One very commonly known pesticide is glyphosate (Roundup). This pesticide has been labeled safe by the US Environmental Protection Agency. However, glyphosate is known to accumulate in the food chain.This means that this pesticide remains in the soil and can be taken up by the next crop that is grown on the same field. If the farmer applies glyphosate on this new crop again, it actually receives a higher dose than initially is thought which could result in a much higher pesticide residue ending up on the crop. In the meantime, the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) has clarified glyphosate as a Group 2A (probably carcinogenic to humans) carcinogenic while this pesticide is still being used on non-organic crops.

In order to avoid any harm to our bodies, we could choose organically produced crops. Because one of the biggest differences between organic and non-organic food is the number of pesticides used. In organic food, pesticides are used 94–100% less compared to non-organic food. This means that fewer pesticides are used on the field and less pesticide residue will remain on the food after harvest.

As mentioned before, regular (non-organic) food often receives a lot of pesticides during crop production. This means that lots of residues may be left behind on the crop. So, if you purchase non-organic fresh produce (as the organic version is not available) wash all your food before consumption to avoid the intake of pesticides and the possible impact this might have on your health.

agricultural field - Pros and cons of organic food farming

Soil

Another big advantage is that organic food production makes sure the soil is not affected by the treatment the farmer gave the field. Even though the crop that was grown on a field may have received organically approved pesticides, with organic crops you are sure that the next year the field will receive a different treatment. This is because crop rotation is one of the requirements of organic farming. This means that each cultivation cycle (usually a year) a new crop has to be grown on that field. This also means that the organic pesticides and fertilizers used differ because each crop has different requirements. Because harmful pesticides are prohibited on organic fields, the overall soil quality is better. This leads to bigger biodiversity in these soils there is less soil erosion.


Soil Erosion

Soil erosion is a big problem in conventional fields. This is because the same crop is grown each year, the field receives the same chemicals over and over again. This together with a very high irrigation rate, the soil is slowly degrading. The high water use flushes out all the nutrients and minerals that are naturally present in the soil causing both salination and erosion of the soil. This means in the end the soil will be completely depleted from nutrients and minerals and no longer usable for cultivation.


hands in soil - Pros and cons of organic food farming

Water

When choosing organic produce, you not only make sure the soil remains in great shape, also the water around the area where the crop is grown remains in excellent conditions. This is because an organic farmer has to pay attention to the water output of their farm. The farmer has to make sure that the water applied to the field does not harm the environment and this is strictly monitored to make sure this is indeed the case.


Dead zones

For conventional farming, excessive water use is a big problem. The water that is used to irrigate non-organic fields contain high amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers. These chemicals can severely affect nearby aquatic life. This is because algae love both nitrogen and phosphorous. This initially doesn’t sound too bad but when these algae continue to grow in a lake and thrive they can completely take over the entire water source. The fishes living in these waters will in the end suffocate due to lack of oxygen as the algae have blocked the entire supply. This is also called an aquatic dead zone.

pros and cons organic - Advantages and disadvantages of organic food

No GMO’s

Traditional breeding

The use of genetically modified produce is not allowed in organic farming therefore, organic farming solely relies on traditional breeding to improve the crop. This means that if the farmer wants to add a certain trait to the crop variety he is currently using, he needs to cross this variety with the crop that has this trait. When this crop is crossed, the generated seeds are sown again and the ones that are most like the farmer's original crop but also have this new trait he is interested in, are selected and crossed again. This process repeats itself several times to have the original crop again with the extra trait from the other crop. This is very time-consuming (sometimes more than 10 years) but does not involve any biotechnology like genetic engineering.


Genetic engineering

In traditional farming, biotechnology and the creation of GMOs are allowed. With genetic engineering, the goal is similar, adding a new trait to the current crop but the process is much faster. With genetic engineering, a trait from a plant is isolated and put in another plant to create a genetically modified plant (the GMO). This is a very fast process but is not used worldwide yet for food production due to differences in legislation. It is allowed in the US but not in the EU.

organic garden - Pros and cons of organic food farming

Nutritional Value

Increased nutritional value is one of the reasons why people often choose organic food over regularly produced food. However, research shows different outcomes when it comes to this thought.

The American Academy of Pediatrics reviewed the literature on organic food in 2001. They found that “current evidence does not support any meaning full nutritional benefits or deficits from eating organic compared with conventionally grown foods, and there are no well-powered human studies that directly demonstrate health benefits or disease protection as a result of consuming an organic diet” So, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics there are not health benefits of eating organic food.

While different research found that food produced that is organically certified has higher mineral content. Both magnesium and iron are significantly higher in organic food. Organic produce also contains more anti-oxidant micronutrients such as phenols and salicylic acid compared to non-organic food which means organic food is better for your body as it has a higher nutrient content.

So, the research differs on this topic and I think more research is needed to come to a well-founded conclusion. Until then I don’t recommend choosing organic food just because it has a higher nutritional value. Choose it because it is better for the environment.


Yield

Many think that the yield from organic farming is lower compared to the yield from conventional farming. This is indeed the case when a farmer recently transitioned from producing conventionally to organically. However, research has shown that after several years of organic farming on a field, there is no longer a yield gap between the two farming systems. This is because in an organic field, over time, the soil changes and nutrients present in the soil are used much more efficiently by plants in organic farming. This increases the yield for organic farming and reduces the difference between yield for organic farming and conventional farming.


tomatoes - Pros and cons of organic food farming

Animal products

Until now I mainly covered organically produced plants/crops but for animal products, the difference between organic and non organically produced animals derived products is also considerable.

Products derived from organically grown animals containing a higher level of protein and polyunsaturated fatty acids. This is because of a difference in feeding regimes between conventional and organic dairy production.

Next to improved nutritional value, organically grown animals live in circumstances in which the animals are treated much friendlier. A few of the many aspects of organic animal farming are; they need to be able to range freely outdoors (‘zero-grazing, where cows are kept indoors and fed cut grass or other feeds like soya, is banned under organic standards). They need to have access to sufficient space to express their natural animal behavior which reduces stress and disease. They can only graze and forage on natural, organic grasses and other organically grown crops. These can only be treated with natural fertilizers as synthetic pesticides are severely restricted. This ensures that the animals don’t ingest these toxic chemicals and can produce healthier products. And, most importantly organically grown animals don’t receive any antibiotics.

cattle - Pros and cons of organic food farming

Disadvantages of Organic Food

Overall organic food has many benefits however, there are also a few disadvantages of organic food that I would like to point out.


Costs

Organic food is more expensive. There is no denying that. Sometimes organic products are over twice as expensive making this type of food unacceptable to people with a smaller budget. This is due to several reasons.

Organic produce does not receive any aggressive treatment with herbicides to remove weeds from the field. Instead, weeds are removed by hand. This is a very labor-intensive process and because manpower is very expensive, this increases the price of organic food.

Another reason for the increased costs is that organic produce can not be harvested with the same machines and stored in the same place as conventional produce to avoid cross-contamination. This increases the costs for space and labor for the farmer and therefore the cost for the consumer has to pay for produce.

Organically raised animals require more space and more expensive organic food. They are also on the farm longer (time is money) as they don’t receive growth hormones to speed up their growth which increases costs for the farmer and therefore also for the consumer.


Bacteria contamination

Organic farming does not use synthetic fertilizers but instead relies on natural fertilizers like cow manure. This increases the potential risk of contamination with bacteria like E.coli. Research has shown that farmers who use fresh manure have 19 times greater the number of E-Coli on their produce compared to farmers who used manure that has been aged over a year. A different research also found that 5.2% of total organic samples they receive have a higher amount of E-Coli present than what is allowed by the supermarket.

vegetable shopping - Pros and cons of organic food farming

Shorter shelf life

A big disadvantage of organic fruit and vegetables is that they have a shorter shelf life. They spoil faster compared to conventional ones because they are not treated with waxes and other preservatives to keep them fresh longer. This means an increase in crop loss for the farmer which they need to compensate by increasing the price for their product.


Is Organic Food Really Worth it?

The question of whether organic food is worth it depends on various factors, including individual priorities, values, budget, and availability of organic options. Here are a few points to consider when evaluating the value of organic food:

  1. Personal Health: If reducing exposure to synthetic pesticides and chemicals is a top priority for you, choosing organic food may align with your health goals. While the evidence on the direct health benefits of organic food is not conclusive, some studies suggest potential advantages in terms of nutrient content and reduced pesticide exposure.

  2. Environmental Impact: Organic farming practices prioritize soil health, biodiversity, and water conservation, which can have positive environmental implications. By supporting organic agriculture, you contribute to sustainable farming methods that minimize the use of synthetic chemicals and promote ecosystem balance.

  3. Animal Welfare: Organic standards often include higher animal welfare requirements, such as access to outdoor areas and restrictions on the use of antibiotics and growth hormones. If supporting animal welfare is important to you, organic animal products may be worth considering.

  4. Personal Values: Many people choose organic food to align with their personal values, such as supporting local and small-scale farming, promoting sustainable agriculture, or avoiding genetically modified organisms (GMOs). If these values resonate with you, organic food can be a way to live in accordance with them.

  5. Budget Considerations: It's essential to consider your budget when deciding if organic food is worth it for you. Organic food products are generally more expensive due to the labor-intensive farming practices and certification costs involved. You may need to prioritize your spending and determine which organic items are most important to you.

  6. Availability: The availability of organic food can vary depending on your location. If access to organic options is limited or they are not readily available, you may need to weigh the effort and cost of obtaining organic food against its perceived benefits.

Ultimately, the decision of whether organic food is worth it is subjective and based on individual circumstances and values. It's worth considering a balanced approach, such as choosing organic for specific items that are most important to you or exploring alternatives like local and sustainable options that may align with your values even if they are not certified organic.


In conclusion, while organic food undeniably offers numerous benefits such as reduced exposure to pesticides and potentially higher nutrient content, it's essential to weigh these advantages against the higher costs and limited availability. Making informed choices about what we consume—whether conventional or organic—empowers us to prioritize our health, support sustainable agriculture, and contribute to a more conscious and resilient food system. Ultimately, striking a balance between the pros and cons helps us make thoughtful decisions that align with our values and well-being.


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