The real meaning of ‘organic’; is it worth the cost?

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.

To help you buy safe and smart, check out the following resources from the Mayo Clinic, Food Safety News and Eating Well.

Emily Updegraff
Emily Updegraff

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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Copyright St. George News, Inc. and St. George Health and Wellness magazine, 2013, all rights reserved.


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  • Noel Huelsenbeck December 10, 2013 at 11:16 am

    Hi Emily –
    Great article. I really like the citing of the folks involved in the creation of the synthetic fertilizers. One thing to note though. You say:

    “If you have to peel something to eat it, like citrus or bananas, buying organic is probably not worth it. ”

    While this statement is true in regards to ingesting pesticides please consider all of the other factors related to organic production. For instance in the areas where bananas are grown workers, their families and wildlife are all negatively effected. I’ve traveled to these banana plantations and the results of pesticide poisoning on local populations is heart breaking. By choosing organic you can actually save children from pesticide exposure in foreign countries.

    Domestically we have similar issues with the citrus. The pesticides are sprayed using crop dusters which drift for miles into agricultural towns effecting children, as well as the lakes, rivers and streams that provide our drinking water, and it also kills the wildflowers adjacent to the fields which destroys bee colonies, butterflies and many other creatures. Water in Long Island NY was recently found to have 117 pesticides!! Isn’t that crazy?

    So please consider all of the impacts of synthetic chemical farming. Lastly consider that cotton is the crop that accounts for the most clothing, nearly half of all clothing is cotton and cotton is the #1 user of synthetic pesticides, herbicides and defoliants. Consider buying organic cotton clothing for your family too.

  • Old Time Farm Boy December 10, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    What a load of horse crap! Go ahead and by “organic” if you want to throw money away. Just like buying all those “low fat” or “low calorie” or “low cholesterol” or all the rest of this stuff that is marketed as being “better for you.” It isn’t better for anyone, other than the folks who are making money off of it.
    In other words, IT IS ALL A BIG SCAM! But hey, if you have the money to waste, and it makes you feel better, then by all means, go for it.
    I’ll keep buying the lowest price decent quality food I can find, and I’ll buy as much at Walmart as I can, when their prices are lower than the grocery stores, which is almost always. Those of us who have been around for a whole lot of decades, cannot afford to throw our money away on “ultra liberal feel good crap” that can be purchased much cheaper. For those of you who can, go for it!
    As for the bit about saving the children in the agriculture towns, I just had to bust out laughing when I read that. I was raised in the San Joaquin Valley in California, and lived most of my adult life there, and in the Imperial Valley, also in California. Two of the largest vegetable and fruit gardens in the world.
    Yes, there are some agrochemicals that are not something you want to have sprayed directly on you, but they are very few. And as far as eating the fruits and vegetables, all you have to do is use a little common sense when preparing them. Wash them before you eat them! It’s as simple as that.
    People are so clueless, but it doesn’t stop them from spouting off about stuff they know nothing about.

  • Lorin Lillywhite December 10, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    I am currently a nutrition professor at Dixie State and a Health Inspector for the Southwest Utah Health Department, and I have to say I agree with this article. I believe it was very well written. I wish however, that the article could have told more about the sustainability aspects of certified organic farming. While the “farm boy” above may think this is a waste of money, the run off pollution of traditional farming techniques is causing major problems in many areas across the country. Bottom line, try to eat as healthy as you can afford; if you can afford it, try to support those farmers that are working to preserve our ability to farm in the future. Yes, organics is a big business, so is conventional farming. Which one are you going to support?

    • Old Time Farm Boy December 10, 2013 at 2:10 pm

      Well I can tell you that I sure won’t believe anyone who posts under the name of “Lorin Lillywhite” and gives their profession as “I am currently a nutrition professor at Dixie State and a Health Inspector for the Southwest Utah Health Department,” How freaking dumb do you think the readers here are?

  • Glenn Victor December 10, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    It takes 3 years for a farmers field to have the potential of growing organically. To clarify, it takes 3 years for chemical fertilizers to rid themselves of the soil. Organic fertilizer improves the fertility of the soil in the long run. Crops will taste better. Yields will be greater. Another issue with chemical fertilizers is the water run-off.
    Excess water ends up in the rivers and streams thus ruining the aquatic life and tainting the drinking water.

    What do you want America? see

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