Is Organic Food Really Better?

by | Mar 23, 2009

organic artichokesIt seems all the nation is abuzz with organic fever. The number of farmers markets has increased dramatically in the past several years, sales of organic products have more than doubled and even the new First Family has jumped on the organic bandwagon.

But in uncertain economic times, some people are asking if the higher cost of organic foods is worth the benefit. And when it comes down to it, what benefit are we really talking about anyway?

When discussing organic food, most people are referring to food that complies with and has been accepted as “Certified Organic” by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). USDA’s Organic Standards were set in 2002, twelve years after the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.

In order for a food to become Certified Organic, the grower of the food must be inspected for compliance with the USDA’s “Organic Standards” by an accredited state or private agency. Generally this means the foods are free of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and have not been irradiated or genetically modified in any way.

There is extensive evidence that adults and children who eat exclusively organic foods have lower levels of pesticides in their bodies. How these pesticides can affect your long-term health is not clear, but they are unlikely to make you healthier and may in fact have lasting, negative consequences. If pesticides are a concern to you, organic is certainly a better option.

Beyond pesticides, the benefit of organic foods becomes a little murky. As recently pointed out by Mark Bittman in the New York Times, organic certification offers no guarantee that foods are either better for you or for the planet.

But that is not to say that how food is grown is not important. Soil quality is in fact one of the most significant determinants of the nutrient value of foods. Another important factor is the genetic make up (the strain and variety) of plants being grown. That is, ice burg lettuce will add little value to your diet whether it is organic or not.

But as Bittman points out, the reason Certified Organics “fall short of the lofty dreams of early organic farmers and consumers” is because Organic Standards make no mention of how far food may travel from soil to sale, nor do they promise anything about a food’s safety or nutrition. In other words, organic food is not local food.

It is generally accepted that the farther food travels to reach your plate, the less nutrients it has and the bigger its carbon footprint. Slapping a Certified Organic sticker on it does not change this fact. Better than buying Certified Organic is shopping at smaller, local farms that may or may not have the resources to comply with costly organic regulations.

But these subtle distinctions are largely irrelevant to most American’s who consume little, if any, fresh vegetables and fruits. At a certain point, arguing about the costs and benefits of organic produce is of little value. For most Americans, the first step in eating healthier is to focus on freshness.

That being said, there are many good reasons to avoid big agriculture whenever possible, organic or not. Whole Foods organic peanuts were not immune from the recent Salmonella outbreak. Large processing plants come with their own unique set of risks in food production.

Local produce is also better if money is your biggest concern. The fuel cost of shipping organic asparagus from Chile to San Francisco is substantial, as is the price of becoming a Certified Organic grower. For these reasons, locally grown but non-organic foods are less likely to carry the hefty price tag that most of us associate with Certified Organic.

Do you buy organic produce?

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22 Responses to “Is Organic Food Really Better?”

  1. Sandra says:

    When it comes to organics- some things matter to me and some not as much. I pick local over organic nine times out of ten. But if I am going to spring for organics over conventional- it is for something like apples or strawberries where I am eating the skin….

  2. Aurore says:

    I try to only buy organic AND local. I go to the market every week and have built a relationship with the vendors there. I find the best bet financially is to not be too worried about what the USDA says but to look for farmers who are pesticide free, whether or not they have been certified. Most of them will be local and the produce will have been picked that morning or the night before. The freshness is most important, but having a body free of chemicals as much as possible is also very important to me. HAve you heard of bill HR875? ITs a bill that is trying to be passed to outlaw organic farming. Pretty scary if it’s successful.

  3. Darya Pino says:

    @SandraI agree, I’m not totally nuts with my organics, but somethings are definitely worse than others. Whether or not you eat the skin is a great rule of thumb. Thanks for the tip!—–@AuroreAbsolutely! Local farmers are often organic in all but name, and sometimes even substantially better than certified organic.As for the bill, all the sources I trust including Marion Nestle and the organic consumer advocate newsletter I subscribe to say the bill is not actually trying to outlaw organic farming and this has been misinterpreted my the public. No need to worry 🙂

  4. Healthyliving says:

    Great post, Darya. I resisted organic for a while for our family, but like you talk about, the horrible stories of industrialized food made me change; its interesting though, there is still a number of things that I always have to go to the grocery store for though; I don’t know if I could ever make the complete break from grocery stores. If it is healthier at all, I’m willing to pay the extra for it.

  5. Scott says:

    I like organic food because it tastes better. And it is just a feeling I have when picking out the food. When I pick up an apple from the grocery store, peel off the sticker “Inspected by #4012”, and still have trouble getting that waxy-coating off, I just feel like something is wrong. When I go to the market however, none of that exists and I feel like it just came off the tree, and it is much more reassuring. Thanks goodness for organic.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Okay then, so whats more important, organic or local?

  7. Travis Saunders, MSc says:

    I have often heard the argument (Bittman himself has mentioned it a few times) that it might take less energy to bring a load of apples from NZ to the USA than if everyone were to buy local apples. The argument is that it takes more energy for many farmers to drive many trucks a short distance, than it does for one giant ship to bring millions of apples a very long way. (Here is the link that outlines it much more eloquently than I just did http://artsci.wustl.edu/~anthro/articles/economist-goodfood.htm)I’ve been unable to come up with a good counter-argument, and as such am pretty conflicted on the local vs organic issue. Any thoughts?

  8. Darya Pino says:

    @HealthylivingWe all have to decide where to draw the line for ourselves when it comes to health and the planet. There are many reasons why someone might not be able to eat 100% organic. No need to stress about it.—–@ScottGreat point.—–@AnonIt is up to you. For me personally, I think local is more important than certified organic. But that is because here in SF the local farms tend to be even better than organic. That will not be true for everyone though. I am really lucky.—–@TravisYes, I was just discussing that with a friend. If you are really into the Green thing and the Planet, and that is all you care about, I agree it may be difficult to weigh the cost/benefit of many local producers versus one distant producer.For me personally, the carbon footprint is only one piece of the equation and health still trumps all else. If something has traveled 10,000 miles to get to me, there is no way it is as fresh as what I bought at my local market. I am also supporting my local economy by shopping here. Again, this is not true for everyone. I live in SF and am lucky to have local access to some of the finest produce on the planet. If you live in, say, Canada, this decision may be a little more difficult 😉

  9. Matt Shook says:

    As I have mentioned on ST before, I am not a fan of the USDA…and it’s certification process has dramatically changed since it’s inception in order to accommodate large agribusinesses. I have far more faith in the quality of Oregon Tilth and QAI certified organics…

    I agree that buying local probably should be a priority for most consumers…however, I also strongly believe in buying organic. Organic is better for your health (I have a difficult time believing that pesticides are NOT bad for you) and if you have a “green” conscious. Although I completed my graduate degree in environmental studies and would probably be labeled an environmentalist, I believe humans worry about the planet too much…it’s not going anywhere anytime soon, although we (as a species) may be.

    Buying local and organic is not a problem at all where I live. If I did not have access to organic produce to farmers markets and local establishments I would heavily invest in growing my own. It can be very difficult and time-consuming, but it can also be extremely rewarding…and completely sustainable. Ultimately I believe we’re all going to be forced to engage in the local economy…whether we choose to or not. Might as well start familiarizing ourselves while it’s a choice. 😉

    • Darya Pino says:

      LOL, great video! I agree with you 100%. I’m also lucky to have great food here. Would love to have a garden, but somehow I don’t think it would be very big in my 3rd story apartment 😉

  10. Rae says:

    I buy organic when I can afford it. Buying local seems to only work for a few months of the year, and is still tricky then. I definitely think that gardening is the best solution and hope to live somewhere where I can have a garden soon!

    • Darya Pino says:

      I agree! Gardening is wonderful, but very tough if you live in a city. You can check the Dirty Dozen list to see which fruits and vegetables are most contaminated by pesticides. That way you can be more selective when deciding which organic products to buy.

  11. Melissa says:

    I agree with you – I’d rather have local food, either grown by myself or someone I can speak with, than organic from an unknown farm or location. In some cases, organic isn’t necessarily better – there have been instances of organic meats and milks coming from animals kept in terrible conditions, but given organic feed in their tiny cells in order to keep the organic label (didn’t Horizon come under a lot of pressure to allow their cows to be able to pasture in the open?) Speaking of knowing where your food came from – what do you think of this idea of food “traceability”? http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/28/technology/internet/28farmer.html?ref=dining
    I was in SF last weekend – that is a great market!

    • Darya Pino says:

      Wow, cool! Glad you were able to make it to our market!

      You are right that organic is not always better for animals, but it is usually better for humans if you can make it work for you 🙂

      And thank you very much for the article, it was a fantastic read and I re-posted it on the Summer Tomato Facebook fan page (new!) and Twitter (@summertomato). I think making food more traceable is definitely a step in the right direction. If you haven’t read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, I highly recommend it. It is one of my favorite books ever on this topic. I feature it in the Summer Tomato shop 🙂

  12. Love the distinction between local and organic. Many farmers’ markets are great places to meet farmers who have smaller farms and who often have more affordable organic produce. And of course Certified Farmers’ Markets are always local!

  13. I just sat with a client of mine yesterday who has had MS for years. She has struggled to get organic food over the years, happy that now there is much more access. Her compromised immune system cannot process what a healthy body can (as far as toxins,etc.) and she says “if she doesn’t want pain, she eats organic.” Eye opening to me and makes you wonder, how much can the “healthy” body take before it breaks down. So cheers for organic food.

  14. Jamie Studzinski says:

    I would love to buy local, but some of us cannot benefit from local produce all year around based on our location. As far as genetically engineered fruits and veggies over conventional or organic, obviously look for organic more, then conventional, but stay away from the genetically engineered stuff. Also, a rule of thumb is to never microwave anything, when you microwave stuff you are using radiation which is killing all the nutrients, thats also another thing you need to be weary about.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Even if you can’t buy local you can still get foods that are in season in North America rather than in the Southern Hemisphere. They will be cheaper and tastier.

      I disagree about the microwave. I don’t use one because I don’t think it tastes as good, but the data I’ve seen suggests it is one of the best cooking methods for preserving nutrients. Microwaves are “radiation” the same way visible light is radiation. Technically it is true but relatively meaningless.

  15. Maryanne Mesplé says:

    Certainly the carbon footprint is a concern and if one looks closely at many of the vegetables and fruits in a produce section that carbon footprint is the largest on produce that is not organic and is not locally grown. The price of local, organic food will not be competitive until all people make the sacrifice and pay a little more to drive the market even more towards what is not only best for the human body but best for the planet. WE are all responsible for the growers of foods using their pesticides and herbicides because WE as consumers have spoken with our dollars and our voices have stated that we want “perfect looking produce/vegetables” no blemishes, no bugs and WE want to pay very little for that perfect looking piece of food. People are strange critters.

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