FEATURE - In our modern American lives, we have great diversity in our diets and a huge variety of foods to choose from at the grocery store. One of those choices is between organically and synthetically grown foods, especially now that organic food is so widely available that you can buy it at almost any grocery store.
A century ago, all food was organic. However, farming began to change around the time of World War I, when German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch discovered how to make synthetic nitrate fertilizer. Before their work, the only way to fertilize crops was through crop rotation and natural fertilizers, and getting enough fertilizer had been a big problem for farmers in the early 20th century.
Farmers soon learned that combining synthetic fertilizer with pesticides and modern farm machinery produced much higher crop yields than ever before. You’ve probably heard of the Green Revolution, which refers to the work of plant breeder Norman Borlaug, who in 1945 took the results of a 20-year wheat breeding program, along with synthetic fertilizer and other modern farm implements, to Mexico. His program turned the country from a wheat importer to an exporter.
He then repeated the success in India in the ‘60s and China in the ‘80s. His work is widely credited with allowing food production to keep pace with worldwide population growth. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
Modern agriculture has been good at feeding the world, but many people say that organically grown food is healthier than synthetically fertilized food. It’s certainly more expensive. Like many people, I want to be healthy, but I also care about my grocery bill. It’s important to know the differences between organic and synthetic food, and if there are health benefits that make it worth the increased cost.
To be certified organic, food cannot be grown with synthetic fertilizer, pesticide or herbicide. It can’t be irradiated (exposed to radiation) or genetically engineered, and animals must be raised without antibiotics or growth hormones. Of these unnatural inputs, the main concerns for human health are pesticides and herbicides, because they can remain on our food from the field to the dinner table.
A 2008 report from The Organic Center says that grains are one of the foods with the lowest pesticide levels (comparable to those in meat and milk, which are negligible). Since there is no evidence that organic food differs from conventional food in carbohydrate, protein or fat composition in any meaningful way, there seems to be little reason to spend extra money on organic grains.
Fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, often have higher levels of pesticide residues. The question is whether the levels are safe. It took 50 years from the time pesticides became prevalent for laws to be enacted about pesticides and food safety. In 1996, the Congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act, which required the EPA to evaluate nearly 10,000 pesticides for health effects and ban those found to be unsafe.
If you have to peel something to eat it, like citrus or bananas, buying organic is probably not worth it. Washing and scrubbing fruits and vegetables and removing the outer leaves of leafy vegetables will reduce pesticide exposure.
The Environmental Working Group has published a list of the “Dirty Dozen,” the 12 fresh foods with the highest pesticide residues, which include: Peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, imported grapes, spinach, lettuce and potatoes. Health-concerned and budget-conscious shoppers could stick to buying these organic, knowing that their pesticide exposure from other foods is quite small.
However, groups like The Organic Center argue that the only truly safe amount of pesticide is none at all. Since none of us have time to become pesticide experts, we have to depend on our common sense.
Written by Emily Updegraff for St. George Health and Wellness magazine and St. George News.
Updegraff teaches biology at Northwestern University. She studied plant genetics in her doctoral work and now enjoys reading and writing about food. A native of St. George, she lives with her husband and two children in the Chicago area.
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