Organic food products are nothing new. Ironically, the modern concept of organic food arose as a backlash against the use of synthetic products in farming during the 20th century. Before then, and indeed throughout human history, agricultural practices were organic by default.
In the 1970s organic foods began to reach a wider audience but rapid growth in recent years means that sales now stand at $47.9bn per year in the USA alone. This is double the annual figure from just a decade ago. However, organic foods still only account for around 4% of total food sales today.
Although we’re all familiar with organic products, many of us are still left wondering whether they’re truly worth the higher price tag. In this article, we’ll take a look at what is driving people to choose organic and whether these products are really healthier and more environmentally friendly than the alternatives.
Organic Foods and Health
Ethical and environmental concerns are big factors in many people’s decision to purchase organic food products. However, it is the perceived health benefits of these foods that represent the biggest factor overall (1).
The USDA sets standards for organic meat and dairy production across America. Critically, in order to be certified organic, farm animals must not be exposed to growth hormones or the routine use of antibiotics.
Antibiotics are extremely prevalent in livestock farming. In fact, around 70% of all antibiotics used in the United States are sold for use in animals. This is a cause for alarm among experts and the CDC points out that antibiotic overuse in food-producing animals can result in resistant infections in humans.
However, the picture gets significantly muddier when investigated further. Firstly, animals that aren’t routinely exposed to antibiotics can also harbor resistant bacteria. One study discovered that organic chickens were more likely to contain certain kinds of harmful bacteria than non-organic chickens. Nevertheless, the bacteria in organic chickens were somewhat less antibiotic-resistant (2).
Meanwhile, a further study of organic and non-organic chicken found only a marginal difference between the two in the frequency of resistant E. coli (3).
A common concern among consumers is the potential harm of residual antibiotics in the meat and dairy products they consume. However, the USDA has stringent regulations that prevent contaminated food products from entering the food chain whether they are organic or not.
This is achieved through rigorous testing procedures. In addition, enforced wash-out periods mean that food-producing animals are given time to eliminate antibiotics from their system before entering the food chain.
Estrogen and testosterone are among the most commonly used growth hormones in animals. They are used to help add bulk to livestock more quickly. In turn, this leads to faster growth and higher yields of meat. In addition, growth hormones can increase milk production in dairy cows.
The FDA mandates that meat products do not exceed a safe level of steroid hormones. All approved steroid products have a “zero-day withdrawal,” meaning that food products from treated animals are safe to consume even after steroid use.
A different kind of hormone known as rBST (recombinant bovine somatotropin) is used in the dairy industry. It has stirred sufficient controversy to be banned by numerous governments around the world. The European Union (EU) and Canada are among the countries in which rBST is banned but its use is still allowed in the United States.
However, dairy farms are increasingly phasing out the use of rBST in the face of consumer preferences and new methods of raising milk production. Today, most non-organic milk is already sourced from cows free of rBST.
Indeed, the evidence does suggest that rBST contributes to health problems in dairy cattle. Although this presents obvious ethical concerns, the FDA, NIH, and WHO have all stated that dairy products from rBST-treated cows are safe for human consumption.
Pesticide residues on crops can make their way into the food chain. This is a source of concern for some consumers and is a factor helping to drive demand for organic fruits and vegetables in particular.
The “Dirty Dozen” is a widely-publicized annual list compiled by EWG. It contains the fruits and vegetables with the highest concentrations of pesticide residues according to lab testing.
However, some have criticized the reports for sensationalizing the health risks of the small number of pesticides present in these foods. The American Cancer Society states that it remains “unknown” whether or not organic foods carry a lower risk of cancer.
Indeed, researchers have shown that organic crops typically have lower amounts of the toxic metal cadmium and are less likely to be contaminated with pesticide residues than their non-organic counterparts (4). The study also indicates that organic crops have higher average antioxidant concentrations.
Concerns are further fueled by the presence of particular pesticides like DCPA (Dacthal) on kale samples. This chemical is banned in the EU and is regarded as a “possible carcinogen” by the EPA. However, it is not known whether low dietary exposure to the chemical does indeed cause cancer in humans.
It is worth noting that USDA data shows that over 99% of agricultural samples tested have pesticide residues below the limits instituted by the EPA. These limits are set by the agency to minimize potential risks to consumers and the environment.
However, the vast majority of non-organic crops still fall below the upper acceptable level of pesticide residue set by the EPA.
Organic farms typically use animal manure as fertilizer and improper practices appear to increase the risk of bacterial contamination in fresh produce. However, larger organic farms must abide by FDA regulations in their use of manure as fertilizer.
Furthermore, an analysis of various studies into pathogens present in organic and conventional crops found a mixed picture. While some studies have indicated an increased risk of contamination in organic crops, others find no link at all (6).
Complicating matters further is evidence pointing to greater levels of “good” bacteria in organic produce.
A study of chicken and pork products found E. coli contamination at similar levels in both non-organic and organic meat. However, antibiotic-resistant bacteria appeared more frequently in non-organic meat (7).
Organic Foods, Ethics, and the Environment
Health-related factors are just one of the reasons why consumers choose to buy organic. Another reason for many is the belief that organic farming practices are more ethical and environmentally-friendly than conventional methods.
The USDA requires organic farms to abide by rules governing access to pasture. For instance, dairy cattle must meet minimum requirements for time spent grazing pasture. An additional benefit of a grass-fed diet is higher levels of healthy omega-3 fatty acids in organic meat and dairy products.
Furthermore, regulations prevent the use of antibiotics and growth hormones in organic farm animals.
Conventional farms utilize fertilizers that may damage fragile ecosystems and undermine water quality. For instance, run-off from nitrogen fertilizers can threaten aquatic life and make tap water unsafe.
Although the EPA makes concerted efforts to minimize risks, it is clear that artificial fertilizers have the potential to damage the natural environment.
The concept of “food miles” has entered the public consciousness in recent years. In theory, locally produced food will be more environmentally-friendly than produce freighted in from distant locations.
However, organic produce sold in stores may still be sourced from far afield. Local farmer’s markets are therefore an increasingly popular choice for consumers.
Research into organic food and carbon footprint is not conclusive. In fact, organic farms often use more land than conventional farms and consuming an organic diet doesn’t necessarily reduce a person’s carbon footprint.
What It All Means
It’s hardly surprising that people want conclusive answers when it comes to something as important as the food they consume on a daily basis. Issues surrounding organic food have a tendency to polarize people and misinformation can often be passed off as fact.
The news cycle also has a way of churning out conflicting reports and this can leave consumers confused and struggling to know whose opinion to trust.
In truth, it takes a nuanced approach to begin to understand organic foods and their role in our diets. While scaremongering is clearly unhelpful, many people will continue to buy organic for a variety of valid reasons.
For many of these people, the decision to go organic is a way to err on the side of caution. Whether or not this approach is justified still remains to be seen.