If you’ve been to a grocery store in the past few years, you’ve probably heard of organically produced food. Organic food, once confined to small health food stores run by gleefully high middle-aged hippies, now has its own aisles in grocery stores and dedicated areas of produce sections. But what exactly is organic food? How are the production processes of organic food different from normally produced goods? Why does organic food cost more? Does organic food have scientifically substantiated health benefits relative to regular food? These questions, though many don’t know the answers to them, can not only change the way you shop but the way you think about the food you eat.
Organic refers to the farming processes in place to produce the food in question. Organic farming practices are those that attempt to create soil and water of enhanced quality, reduce the pollution created from farming, provide safe and beneficial habitats for livestock, enable the natural tendencies of livestock and promote self-sustaining practices among the resources utilized on a given farm. In fact, most categories of food can be produced through organic means. If farmers fail to uphold all of these standards, then they will not be given the token United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) “organic” seal on their products.
The farming practices represented by organic farming aim to eliminate cruelty toward the environment and the organisms utilized for food production. Organic farming practices exclude many materials and practices utilized by “factory farm” producers, including the usage of synthetic and inorganic fertilizers, sewage as fertilizer, most synthetic pesticides, using UV rays to eliminate pests and bacteria, genetic engineering to improve crop yield and the utilization of antibiotics and growth hormones in livestock. Organic farming practices, adhering to USDA guidelines, definitely promote a more ethical treatment of livestock through enabling animals to graze pastures for extended periods and providing them with organically produced food.
All this sounds great, but are there health benefits associated with consuming organic foods? Scientific evidence of the health benefits of eating organic has been budding in recent years because of its increasing prevalence in the eyes of shoppers. There are hundreds of studies that suggest organically produced foods carry some to moderately more amounts of essential nutrients relative to normally produced foods, depending on what nutrients are in question.
But nutritional enhancement, although important, is not the main justification for eating organic food from a health perspective; it’s what organically produced foods don’t have that make them healthy. Cadmium is a heavy metal sometimes present in soils treated with inorganic fertilizers. Cadmium, being a heavy metal, is also a carcinogen. Organically produced crops have been shown to have less heavy metal content than inorganically produced crops. Heavy metals can amount to more oxidative stress in the body and continued exposure can lead to the development of chronic illnesses. Pesticide residue is commonly found on inorganically grown produce, whereas organically grown produce has 30 percent less pesticide residue than inorganically grown produce. It is unclear how these deviations in heavy metal content and pesticide residue impact the health of consumers, but there could be health implications with the continual ingestion of small amounts of toxins.
I generally try to buy and garden organic products; it’s a lifestyle choice I made because of my beliefs regarding the ethical treatment of animals and the necessity for farming to positively benefit the environment. Understandably, the price of organically produced food is a barrier for a lot of potential consumers, with organic food costing 10 percent to 30 percent more than nonorganic food. Growing and buying organic is not always a viable option for people of lower incomes, but if expanded further, the standards in place for the cultivation of organic produce could end up benefiting those currently without access to organic food. This could reduce the cost of production through a more developed industry, which may cut the cost on the consumer end as well.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) generally act against the tenets of organic farming, but their uses could also be vital in helping drive down the cost of food because they garner higher crop yields. As far as we know, there are no confirmed health benefits from avoiding consuming genetically modified food. If patents on GMO seeds were eliminated and they were more readily available for commercial use, but grown in the environments akin to organic produce, the price of sustainable and ethical food would be much lower.
Factory farming companies and local farms alike should look toward organic farming practices to produce more high-quality food. But as of right now, for those who have the money, I urge all of you to purchase organic. In doing so, you will promote ethical practices in the produce and livestock industries and support local farms. Check out the local and organic section in your supermarket, familiarize yourself with local farms and visit locally owned health food stores. Considering most organic and local goods are sold in tandem, buying organic goes beyond the kitchen and can help your community.
Sam Pomichter is a senior majoring in integrative neuroscience.