There was once a time when all food was grown organically (without synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers). There’s a joke that goes “try organic food, or as your grandparents called it, food”. But with the industrialization of our food system in the mid-20th century, farmers were told to “get big or get out”. Small family farms that grew a variety of crops were replaced by large farms planting monocultures (single crop). The main focus of growing food became quantity, and less attention was spent on quality. With farmers trying to produce as much as possible, the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides grew significantly. Now days, most food is grown with these chemical additives (referred to as “conventionally grown food”). Organic food only makes up a small percentage of the food grown and sold in the United States. This, however, is changing. More and more people are demanding organic foods due to the perception that organic foods are healthier. Are they healthier? Or is organic food just another marketing ploy? Opinions about organic food tend to be very polarized. But, as with any controversial topic, we should modify our opinions based on the facts; instead of modifying the facts based on our opinion. My opinion is that organic foods are healthier for consumers, the environment, and farm workers, based on the studies that have been done on the topic. Here’s what the evidence shows:
Organic Is Better For You
There have been a number of studies looking at whether or not organic produce contains more nutrients than conventional produce. The only difference they found was that organic produce typically contains higher levels of antioxidants, specifically polyphenols, which have been linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, and cardiovascular disease (1). Organic strawberries have been found to contain more antioxidants and vitamin C, compared to conventional strawberries (there were also judged to taste better) (2). In a petri dish, organic strawberries showed greater capability to inhibit cancer cell growth compared to conventional strawberries, likely due to their higher antioxidant content (3). Beyond antioxidant levels, there doesn’t appear to be any significant nutritional differences between organic and conventional produce. But, since we want to consume a diet rich in antioxidants, choosing organic would be preferable.
Organic food may contain more antioxidants, but it’s also important to look at what organic food does not contain. Studies show that organic produce contains significantly less pesticide residue, and in one study, less cadmium (a metal that has been linked to numerous health issues, including cancer) (1;4). How do we know that these pesticides enter our body? Because it’s been studied! A handful of studies have taken people eating only conventional food and replaced most of it with organic food for a set duration (5-7). Pesticide metabolites were then measured in their urine. All studies found that when people ate mostly organic, levels of these pesticide metabolites plummeted. Now, the health implications of this are not yet well-established, but having higher levels of pesticides in our body has been linked to non-Hodgkin lymphoma in adults and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children (8-9). Despite the limited amount of data on this subject, it’s probably safe to say that having less pesticides floating around our bodies is a good thing.
I should point out that just because something is organic, does not mean it’s healthy. For example, I occasionally purchase organic potato chips, organic coconut ice cream, and organic cookies– none of which are healthy, but they may be better for other reasons, which we’ll discuss below.
Organic Is Better For The Environment
In 2012, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, approximately 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides were used in the United States and 6 billion pounds were used worldwide (10). Pesticides are meant to kill, which they do. Although pesticides are sprayed to kill a target insect or weed, other animals, plants, and soil microorganisms are also affected, or even killed. These include birds, fish, insects, amphibians, and a variety of native plant species (11).
Honey bees are one of these non-target species. They are dying off at alarming rates, a phenomenon called “colony collapse disorder” (CCD). Numerous factors are likely contributing to CCD, but pesticides, specifically a class called neonicotinoids, appear to be the biggest culprit (12-13). Bees pollinate about 70% of the food we eat. If they die off, so will we.
Another environmental issue with pesticides, is that they remain in the environment for a long time (something called the “pesticide cycle”). Pesticides sprayed onto land will remain in the soil, leach or runoff into nearby waterways, be blown into adjacent areas, or lifted into the atmosphere. Wherever they end up polluting, they continue to carry out their harmful effect on native plant and animal species, including humans, which brings me to my next reason…
Organic Is Better For Farm Workers And Their Families
It’s one thing to eat food sprayed with pesticides, it’s another to work in the fields where pesticides are directly sprayed. An overwhelming number of studies have shown that long-term, low-dose pesticide exposure in farm workers increases their risk of: brain tumors, leukemia and lymphomas, various other cancers, birth defects, impaired neurodevelopment, impaired immune systems, asthma, hormone disruption, reproductive abnormalities, cardiorespiratory problems, gastrointestinal problems, all-cause mortality and cancer mortality (11;14).
In 1969, Cesar Chavez was quoted saying “The real issue is the danger that pesticides present to farm workers. We have come to realize that the issue of pesticide poisoning is more important today than even wages” (15). Although some improvements have been made since this statement, our ongoing pesticide use continues to put these farmers and their families at risk for the health issues mentioned above.
Humans have been eating organic food for most of our history. Only in the past half century has it become “the norm” to spray the food we eat with chemicals. When it comes to our personal health, we should eat more fruits and vegetables regardless of whether they’re organic or not, as the health benefits far outweigh the risk. However, as we have seen here, there are personal health, environmental, and ethical reasons we should try to buy organic whenever possible. People are often told to vote with their dollar. This is a perfect example. As more people demand organic food (which they are), farmers will be more likely to change their practices to help supply this demand. Organic food may be more expensive, but, in my opinion, you can’t put a price on human and environmental health. Think of it as a long-term investment for you, the environment, and the people who grow your food.
- Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses.
- Fruit and soil quality of organic and conventional strawberry agroecosystems.
- Antioxidant levels and inhibition of cancer cell proliferation in vitro by extracts from organically and conventionally cultivated strawberries.
- Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: a systematic review.
- Reduction in urinary organophosphate pesticide metabolites in adults after a week-long organic diet.
- Organic Diets Significantly Lower Children’s Dietary Exposure to Organophosphorus Pesticides
- Dietary Intake and Its Contribution to Longitudinal Organophosphorus Pesticide Exposure in Urban/Suburban Children
- A prospective study of organochlorines in adipose tissue and risk of non‑Hodgkin lymphoma.
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and urinary metabolites of organophosphate pesticides.
- Pesticides Industry Sales and Usage 2008 – 2012
- Impact of pesticides use in agriculture: their benefits and hazards
- Honeybees Produce Millimolar Concentrations of Non-Neuronal Acetylcholine for Breeding: Possible Adverse Effects of Neonicotinoids
- Neonicotinoid clothianidin adversely affects insect immunity and promotes replication of a viral pathogen in honey bees
- Exposure of Children to Organophosphate Pesticides and Their Potential Adverse Health Effects.
- Poisons in the Fields: The United Farm Workers, Pesticides, and Environmental Politics