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Organic vs. Nonorganic - Why is it so important?

Rachel O'Reilly

Are organic foods just marketing hype, or should we be paying the extra buck?

For everyone, the answer to this question will be a little bit different, as several factors must be considered. There are some key differences in the way organic/nonorganic produce and animal products are grown/raised, which may bring clarity to this decision. In addition, accessibility, finances and one’s value of environmental impact can make this a very personal decision.

Nonorganic Farming

Here are just a few facts about nonorganic, or food grown or raised on conventional or industrial farms:

  • Conventional or industrial farms use synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Additionally, they can and often times do use genetically modified seeds, and have no restrictions around using fertilizers from sewage sludge. (Nestle, 2006)

  • Animals from industrial farms are treated with antibiotics and hormones, and there are no regulations around feeding animal by-products to other animals. Additionally, industrial farms are never required to raise their animals humanely, which means they are routinely confined, don’t have access to outdoors and are fed grains using chemical pesticides, just to name a few. (Nestle, 2006)

  • The largest impact of conventional farms is the contamination of fresh water. Farms that use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers inevitably leak into the soil and water, which in turn runs into the sea, creating “dead zone” areas where no plant or animal life can survive. These “dead zones” have doubled since 1990 and the United Nations Environment Programme has identified this issue as a top emerging environmental threat. (Conventional farming, n.d.)

Based on the above facts, it sounds clear that nonorganic = not our friend. But, let’s not take sides just yet!

Every year the Environmental Working Group (EWG) analyzes produce for pesticides and creates a list of foods that contain the largest amounts of dangerous pesticides (Dirty Dozen) and the least amount of pesticides (Clean Fifteen). These lists can be a great guide for making informed decisions about what to buy or organic or not, especially when shopping in places with limited options or if on a tight budget. Click here for EWG’s 2015 Dirty Dozen list and Clean Fifteen.

Does Organic = Healthier?

Do organic fruits and vegetables actually have more nutrients than nonorganic ones? Surprisingly, yes! When you buy organic foods, not only are you saving your body from synthetic additives, you are also gaining a greater concentration of key nutrients, like polyphenols, which are not as abundant in conventional produce. Recent research shows that conventionally grown produce can be lacking in up to 40% of key nutrients due to unsustainable agricultural methods (Bauman, 2013). With organic produce you can enjoy better taste, too! Nearly 40% of shoppers buy organic based on taste preference (especially apples, strawberries and tomatoes) and several studies show that organic produce has a longer shelf life (Theuer, 2006).

Tip: Keep it fresh. Some people interpret the green USDA Organic sign as an automatic indication that the food is “healthy.” This is certainly not the case. We all have a varying degree of what we consider to be healthy or not, but just because a bag of chips has an organic stamp, it doesn’t mean the rancid oil they were fried in or extra salt is necessarily a food that will enhance health.

Personal Considerations

For some, the simple option for an organic versus nonorganic apple isn’t available, in which case I would advocate that nonorganic (conventional) fruits and vegetables are always better than packaged and processed foods.

Budget can also be a strong marker for whether or not to buy organic, especially when it comes to meats and poultry. A few money-savers include:

  • Buying in bulk
  • Eating a mostly plant-based diet, or choosing at least 1 day a week to go vegetarian
  • Finding/starting a community garden
  • Growing your own lettuce/herbs in a few small pots
  • Ordering through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
  • Hitting up your local farmer’s markets (sometimes you can get better deals toward the end of the market!)

Additionally, you can connect with farmers markets and more via these helpful websites:

Environmental Impact

Unfortunately, gone are the days when the majority of our farms were grounded in sustainability and local production. Instead, our food system has become industrialized with disregard to the preservation of our soil, water, and air. The majority of negative environmental impacts can be traced to large scale industrial farms, also known as factory farms. Research shows that about 30% of the total global warming effect can be linked to the industrialized food system (Grace, 2015). This is a large topic that advocates local foods rather than strictly organic or nonorganic. For instance, local farmers don’t always have “organic” products because attaining the official organic certification can be quite costly, especially for small farm operations. In this case, I would happily buy peaches not labeled organic from a nearby farmer, especially after having a conversation with her or him about whether or not they used pesticides. Another benefit of buying local produce is fewer natural resources and energy used for transportation and delivery.

In summary, here’s what I’d recommend when it comes to choosing organic versus nonorganic foods: 

  1. Follow the guidelines given by the Environmental Working Group for Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen. If you have to choose, prioritize buying organic for foods included on the Dirty Dozen list.
  2. Buy from local farmers as often as you can, and talk to them about their growing practices when possible.
  3. Always do the best you can within your means, even if that means choosing nonorganic over processed and packaged foods.

     

References:

Bauman, E. and Friedlander, J. (2013). Foundations of Nutrition. Penngrove, CA: Bauman College.

Conventional farming-Dead zones in the ocean (n.d.) Retrieved from Om Organics: http://www.omorganics.org/page.php? pageid=90&contentid=69

EWG’ shopper’s guide to pesticides in produce. (n.d.) Retrieved from Environmental Working Group: http://ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php

Nestle, M. (2006). What to Eat. New York: North Point Press.

Theuer, R. (2006, Sept.) Do Organic Fruits and Vegetables Taste Better than Conventional Produce? [Electronic Version]. The Organic Center. Available at http://organic-center.org