Organic Food: Is it Really Better for You? A Critical Analysis
Updated: Mar 27
Organic food is increasing in popularity over the past decades with sales surging last year (2020) by 12.4% to $61.9 billion.
This is amazing but a lot of people don’t really know what the exact advantages of organic food are and that there are also some disadvantages of organically produced food. So, let's do a deep dive into both the pros and cons of organic food.
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’.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.