There’s a lot of buzz on organic food, but what is it really? Why is it healthier? How does it help the environment? Is there a real difference in the quality and the taste? After all, organic food can be as much as 50% more expensive and more difficult to find. Smart consumers need to know why some people tout it as the better choice, and not just jump on the ‘organic bandwagon.’ Here are some important facts on organic food to help you weigh the pros and cons and decide what’s best for you and your family.
1. What is organic food?
In a nutshell, organic food is produced without using synthetic chemicals. In the last century, people have turned to pesticides and fertilizers to boost harvest, and fed livestock with special feeds, vitamins or growth hormones, and antibiotics. Most recently, nanotechnology has also been used to ‘increase yield’ by altering soil, plants or animals on a molecular level.
These chemicals have raised numerous concerns, particular in its effect on health and the environment. Fertilizers can get into the water supply; pesticides can cling to the vegetables and be ingested. Organic food, on the other hand, is supposed to have been made the ‘natural’ way, with no artificial chemicals or use of nanotechnology Livestock must feed on pastureland, and plants grown with traditional fertilizers like compost.
Technically, organic food should not have any artificial food additives, and are processed with a minimum of artificial methods and materials (this includes ripening fruits with chemicals, or applying food irradiation).
2. Are there any laws that govern organic food production?
For a food to be labeled organic, it must set the standards set by international organizations on how it is grown and manufactured, and how those processes affect the environment and protect biodiversity.
Some countries also have special laws and boards. The United States, for example, passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) 1990. The United Kingdom also has a Soil Association that checks if a product uses nano-technology. Canada, Japan, and members of the European Union also require food producers to submit food for testing before any item can be labeled ‘organic’ and sold within their borders. The United States Department of Agriculture also regularly checks farms that sell food with a USDA Organic label to guarantee continuous compliance. In April 2010, the country also passed a law mandating ‘spot checks’ of products for even minute traces of banned chemicals.
However, these organizations also have different definitions of what type of pesticides and chemicals can be used. They also vary in the maximum amount of chemicals for food preservation. For example, the United States, Canada and Australia allow 5% of non-organic ingredients. Vigilant consumers may want to look into the standards followed within their country.
3. Where can I get organic food?
Usually organic food tends to be produced by smaller, family-run businesses (like corner butchers or local farmers who sell produce in weekend markets). These would probably not have access to the large machines and chemicals used by multi-national firms. (Hence the simplest motto: ‘Know your farmer, know your food.’) However, in response to the increased interest in organic food, larger companies have also created organic foods which are sold internationally. Look for ‘certified organic’ on the label.
4. How does organic food help the environment?
Organic food is produced without artificial pesticides, which can destroy soil, and seep into the water supply, hurting both the aquatic wildlife and the animals (and humans!) who drink from it. In fact, there was one case of thousands of migratory birds dying from
monocrotophos insecticide poisoning in wintering grounds in Argentina.
Natural farming methods require produce less toxic waste and many use recycle packaging. However. there is some debate on whether these actually save on energy. While organic farms don’t use chemically-manufactured nitrogen, the natural methods for fertilizing and weeding do need more petroleum. Many organic products are also sold in recyclable packaging materials.
However, since organic farming produces as much as 50% lower yield or harvest, more land is required to produce the same amount of food. So, critics say that if people did depend on organic farms for total food consumption, the agricultural industry would have to destroy several rainforests and eco systems just to keep up with the demand. Supporters of organic farming have retorted that the yield can still be improved, if the farmers (including those in less developed countries) have greater access to irrigation technology or other natural ways of boosting production. In fact, some researchers have found that modern organic farms create nearly twice the amount of harvest than traditional farms in poor communities around the world. Plus, the soil in organic farms tends to have greater water retention, which makes them more sustainable than artificially enhanced soil that is eventually rendered useless because of the damage done by the chemicals.
5. Why is organic food healthier?
Farmers who are regularly exposed to pesticides have complained of headaches and migraines, nausea and vomiting, dizzy spells, skin irritation, eye problems, and abdominal pain. Studies on residents of farming communities also seem to indicate a higher risk for cancer, miscarriages and birth defects, and neurological conditions.
Pesticides can also cling to the food, and can be particularly hazardous to infants, children and pregnant women. Though the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does ban dangerous chemical compounds, it takes years for any product to be delisted—especially with lobbying from agricultural industries. The EPA also waits for evidence to be irrefutable, which can take years of repeated studies. Health risks are also difficult to isolate, and pesticide companies have a battalion of lawyers and scientists who can look for legal loopholes or counter-studies.
So, while it’s difficult to say if organic food is ‘healthier’ it does pose less health risks, if one is to consider the unknown dangers of ingesting pesticides.
In terms of nutritional benefits, one five-year study showed that organic food tends to have higher levels of vitamins, anti-oxidants, and omega-3 and CLA (brain-building nutrients). The majority of research, however, show no significant difference.