Is Organic Produce Better?

September 13, 2012 | By | Comments (7)
Farmer's Market

Fresh cauliflower and broccoli at the Farmer’s Market in Old Towne Alexandria, VA; Photo by Steve Bender

Some things seem so logical, we just assume they’re true. For example: “Organic fruits and vegetables are healthier for you.” Are they really? It depends.

In Grumpy’s enlightened opinion, the overall healthiness of organic produce involves three distinct issues — nutrition, safety, and environmental impact. So let’s examine the most important question related to each issue.

“Is Organically Grown Produce More Nutritious Than That Grown With Chemicals?”
(I’m gonna get a lot of hate mail for saying this, but the honest answer is…) No. There is absolutely no evidence that a healthy plant grown organically contains more vitamins and other nutrients than a healthy plant grown using synthetic fertilizer and pesticides. A plant genetically programmed to develop a certain level of Vitamin C and calcium isn’t going to raise its game just because you replace Miracle-Gro Tomato Food with George Carlin’s Hippy-Dippy Kelp Meal. Some new vegetable varieties have noticeably higher levels of healthy antioxidants, such as lycopene (‘Health Kick’ tomato) and anthocyanins (‘Indigo Rose’ tomato), but this is a result of breeding, not how they were fed.

“Is Organic Produce Safer for You?”
Absolutely. True organically grown fruits and vegetables do not carry significant traces of synthetic insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, and other pesticides routinely applied to the vast majority of produce grown in this country — as well as to that imported from other countries where pesticide regulation is weak or non-existent. Of course, you should always wash fruits and vegetables to remove any chemical residues before eating, but pesticides can penetrate some with thin skins, such as peaches and strawberries, lessening washing’s benefits. According to the Environmental Working Group, the top six crops most contaminated with synthetic pesticides in 2012 are (in order) apples, celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, strawberries, and imported nectarines. Click here for EWG’s complete list of the “dirty dozen” and “the clean 15.”

To be fair, some naturally occurring, “organic” pesticides (nicotine, rotenone, pyrethrin) can kill you or wildlife just as fast or faster than synthetic, chemical ones. But they don’t persist in the environment very long. Nonetheless, Grumpy recommends you wash all produce before eating it, organic or not.

Is Growing Produce Organically Better for the Environment?
Yes. Growing organically means paying more attention to the health of the soil. If you don’t, you won’t succeed — it’s as simple as that. Organic farming is more sustainable than giant, corporate farming, because it emphasizes such beneficent practices as returning manure and other organic matter to the soil; reducing run-off and water pollution; integrated pest management (IPM); no-till agriculture; and preservation of local, heirloom varieties. Organic produce costs more, because organic farms tend to be smaller and more labor-intensive and must follow stricter guidelines. But as food-eaters weigh the pro’s and con’s, more and more are happy to pony up the extra change.

COMMENTS

  1. Steve Bender

    Scott,
    Totally agree with you.

    September 21, 2012 at 2:18 pm
  2. Grumpy Gardener

    Fiona,
    The article you cite is a very good one and one that I would urge anyone who is inteersted about this topic to read.

    September 21, 2012 at 2:18 pm
  3. Scott

    Grumpy,

    I think most write-ups on organic vs. conventional produce tend to be one-sided, so it was nice to see your balanced approach. Some of the claims made by the organic side lack solid scientific evidence to support them, so it often comes off sounding like quackery. However, the conventional side also suffers from argument from ignorance: just because something has yet to be established scientifically does not mean that it won’t be someday. I think given the choice, none of us wants to consume pesticide residues (regardless of whether they are harmful or not). I also think supporting you local farmers (organic or not) is a good thing to do. Organic and conventional farming are not mutually exclusive: certainly there is room for both to coexist. Like most intense debates, I wish each side were less dismissive of the other’s arguments.

    September 17, 2012 at 10:37 am
  4. Fiona Gilsenan

    For those who are interested in the sciency bit, here’s a well-sourced blog post by Christine Wilcox (from 2011) about the toxicity of organic vs inorganic pesticides. (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/science-sushi/2011/08/15/organic_myths_revisited/). And there’s this:

    “Oh, and I forgot to mention: organic alternatives are applied in higher concentrations and more frequently because they’re less effective at controlling the species they’re meant to kill.”

    Since 1991, the USDA has been testing food going through the conventional food chain for more than 500 different pesticide residue, so it’s actually possible to find out how much Benoxacor you might find in your daily oatmeal. Yum!

    I’m actually glad that more people are bringing scientific scrutiny to the issue of organic vs inorganic farming & gardening; it’s too often treated like a religion. Why should garden writers get away with making broad statements not backed up by facts? Grumpy, get off the beach and get thee to PubMed!

    September 14, 2012 at 1:48 pm
  5. Steve Bender

    Doug & Scott,
    Please keep in mind that this was just a broad overview. I don’t have room to write a book here. Yes, many big farms claim organic status. And yes, as I said, just because a pesticide is natural doesn’t mean it isn’t as toxic or more toxic than a synthetic one. The argument that conventional farming feeds more people has merit, but that doesn’t mean practices can’t be altered so that farms are both productive and kind to the environment. A lot of other people think so too, which is why local farmer’s markets have become so wildly popular. People like to meet the farmers they buy from. They can find out how something they want was grown and support the local economy at the same time.

    September 14, 2012 at 8:31 am
  6. Scott

    Just a few nit-picky points to add to Doug’s well-reasoned post above: First, you should mention the caveat that organic farming, while better for the environment, is much less efficient than conventional farming — meaning it feeds far fewer people per acre. So, in an absolute sense, it is not sustainable because if all farming were organic, we wouldn’t be able to feed the world’s population.

    Second, there is no peer-reviewed scientific evidence (of which I am aware) that synthetic pesticide residues (in the quantities to which consumers are typically exposed) are harmful. While they certainly can’t be good for you, if you wash your fruits and vegetables diligently, there isn’t enough of a health danger to justify spending significantly more money on an organic apple that contains organic pesticide residues that are not guaranteed to be safer than synthetic.

    Finally, organic produce is not “absolutely” (meaning: without exception) safer than conventional. As Doug mentions, there are some nasty organic pesticides and fungicides such as copper sulfate which are more harmful to the environment (and ostensibly, humans) than synthetics. The perception among many buyers of organic produce is that no pesticides are used whatsoever, which is completely false.

    September 13, 2012 at 10:23 am
  7. Doug Grimes

    Grump, organic does not JUST mean grown by a bunch of small scale growers living in cabins in the deep woods, off the grid, hauling their produce by mule or 53 Chevy station wagon two miles to the local market The vast majority of “real” organic grown in the USA is becoming as corporate as conventional farming. Let’s face it when it became an industry with billions of dollars at stake with farms stretching to hundreds and thousands of acres, it became too big a dollar opportunity to resist. This narrative promoted by some in the organic camp is simply not correct. Pesticides, organic or synthetic, can do environmental and health harm if not used according to label instructions. In some cases synthetics have a lower EIQ than organics. There is not currently enough science to fully substantiate such claims other than some emotional or aspirational desire to think it must be true no matter what. Truth is if it is ever found to be true the corporates will switch over so fast it will make your head swim.

    Rather than just criticizing and disagreeing with your entire post -I don’t- a good suggestion is for consumers to try to connect with, and get to know, local, trustworthy growers and buy fresh, in season, produce as much as possible. Farmers of all stripes deserve our full support, not just Hippy Herb living in Podunk, USA. After all they feed us and it’s good common sense to make sure they thrive.

    September 13, 2012 at 9:24 am

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