I really appreciate the increased presence I have seen of organic food options over the last several years in grocery stores across the country. I think it is a GOOD thing. It means people are becoming more aware about what’s going on their plates and in their bodies. It also means that enough people are voting with their dollars that big corporations and big industries are taking note and accommodating. That’s a big win in a lot of respects! But there are problems with organic to consider, too.
But what’s the real story on organic? Is organic better? Is it healthier? Does it really mean no pesticides and GMOs? Is it better for the environment? Is it worth the price? Is organic the best we can do?
The answer to these questions is – “Maybe, but not necessarily”.
Benefits of Organic
Sticking with organic when it comes to your food choices has some proven benefits. Produce has been proven to have lower levels of pesticide residue, due in large part to stricter regulations on permissible pesticides. Grains have lower levels of the heavy metal cadmium. Organic produce has approximately 50% higher levels of some antioxidants than conventional produce. Most detrimental synthetic chemicals, like glyphosate, are prohibited from use in organic enterprises in favour of less toxic options. Diets high in pesticide residue as found on conventional produce has been linked to increased rates of infertility, especially in men, and cognitive development issues, such as ADHD, in children. (1, 2, 3, 4)
Animal products contain double the amount of omega-3 fatty acids, likely due to the healthier diet and lifestyle of organically raised animals. The systemic use of prophylactic antibiotics in conventional livestock agriculture has long been a problem and is a significant contributor to the growing issue of antibiotic resistance. Their use allows for animals to be kept in higher-stress environments without getting sick like they would otherwise. Organic certification forbids the use of antibiotics on animals, so these animals are kept in a more biologically appropriate environment as a result. The use of synthetic growth hormones commonly used on conventionally-raised animals is also prohibited with organic certification. (4, 5, 6)
New research is released all the time demonstrating the advantages of consuming organic foods, though more still needs to be done. While certified organic foods have demonstrated benefits, there are also some serious drawbacks to consider.
Many people cringe at the cost of an organic product when compared to its conventional counterpart. I know I do not infrequently. While consumers are highly conscious of the price tag at the store, there are several reasons for this higher price. The supply of certified organic foods is limited while facing an ever-growing demand. Basic economics. Production costs for organic foods also tends to be higher. More manual labour, more expensive methods of pest management, etc. Processing and transportation are more expensive for organic foods because they are often processed and transported in smaller batches and must be kept separate from conventional products. These costs magnify when you factor in the distance some certified organic foods travel to reach our stores and kitchens here in North America. Higher costs help cover increased expenses associated with more holistic management practices by farmers. Animals benefit from higher welfare standards and land can rest and build health and fertility. While farmers may need to hire more help and use more labour-intensive management methods (which cost more), they reduce their risk of exposure to toxins, making for healthier farmers.
A significant consideration in evaluating the financial cost of purchasing organic food is adjusting our expectations of what food should cost. Conventional products are not raised in a sustainable manner for humanity or the environment, and their production methods result in unfairly depressed food prices. Rather than asking, “Why does organic cost so much?”, we should be asking, “Why does conventional cost so little?”. Large-scale agriculture has left our most fertile lands decimated due to the monocropping practices and synthetic pesticide and fertilizer usage required for this system of agriculture to function. These same practices allow for the production of cheaper food at the expense of our local economies and the environment. Bear in mind that many of the same pharmaceutical companies that have been found guilty of fraud also own most of the agriculture chemical companies conventional farming relies on. (7)
Unfortunately, what started as a grassroots movement is now seen as a new market for large corporations. As the popularity of organic food continues to soar, more large corporations are trying to get in on it, leading certified organic products available in the store to be synonymous with large scale agriculture and large food processing corporations, albeit “organic”. This is not what organic certification was intended to be. Organic monocropping and intensive land management can still be just as damaging to ecosystems and the environment as conventional practices.
Exposure to Pesticides and GMOs
Contrary to popular opinion, organic food production does allow for the use of pesticides. Some are synthetic pesticides, though the majority are of natural origin. Conversely, not all natural toxins are allowed to be used as organic pesticides (such as arsenic or strychnine). A full list of both synthetic and nonsynthetic pesticides permitted in USDA certified organic food production can be found here. The decision about what is permissible and what is not is made by board that includes organic growers, handlers, retailers, environmentalists, scientists, USDA-accredited certifying agents, and consumer advocates. Just because a pesticide is natural does not necessarily make it less toxic than a synthetic chemical. Whether natural or synthetic, all pesticides are designed to kill something, otherwise they would not be used. The pesticides used in organic farming are not necessarily safer than synthetic pesticides used in conventional farming.
Case in point – copper. Copper-based pesticides (commonly copper sulfate) are quite popular in organic agriculture for their effectiveness, but they are also quite toxic. Copper also happens to be effective at impairing fertility (like with copper IUDs) and copper toxicity is a growing problem. Bio-unavailable copper is usually stored in the liver primarily and the brain to a lesser degree. I’ve heard from many people with HTMA results with surprisingly high levels of coper despite not having apparent risk factors (birth control, copper water pipes, etc.). Organic pesticides could be to blame. (8)
Many people also choose organic to avoid consumption of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Most jurisdictions in North America do not have legislation requiring food containing GMO ingredients to be labelled as such. In fact, bio-tech and food processing corporations vehemently and very actively lobby against any such initiatives when they are presented to politicians. There is much debate about the safety of GMO foods. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to scientifically study this issue. GMO foods are patented, which means the tech companies that created them control how they can, and cannot, be used and studied. Research has found that a wide variety of health symptoms improve by avoiding GMO foods, though further independent research desperately needs to be done. (9)
There have also been concerned raised about unintended genetic edits that happen as collateral damage. Just this month, scientists discovered their terrible mistake when they realized that cattle genetically engineered to be polled (hornless) also included gene editing that made them resistant to bacteria. Amid the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, we have science compounding the issue at a genetic level. It took two years for this issue to be discovered. With the limited study and research on the long-term effects of GMO foods, what other mistakes or unintended edits haven’t been caught? (10)
Unfortunately, certified organic food has its own battles with genetic purity. While organic certification is intended to be free of GMO contamination, it cannot guarantee 100% success in that department. Cross pollination from insects and environmental factors like wind are not so easily controlled and can add GMO material to an otherwise organic crop. In the case of feed crops like alfalfa, that GMO contamination can extend to the animals that consume the contaminated feed. While certainly not perfect, organic practices and tight restrictions on GMO matters certainly reduces the risk of exposure to GMOs.
Due to accessibility and costs, it is becoming increasingly common to source organic foods from other countries. In fact, organic foods travel further than their conventional counterparts to reach consumers. In Europe, there has been a push to bar organic products shipped by air from organic certification because of the environmental toll this mode of transportation takes. This concept of air freight undermines what the organic movement originally set out to accomplish. Historically, Australia and New Zealand have been popular choices for organic dairy products over suppliers from the U.S. and Canada, making the food mileage for these produces substantially more. (11, 12)
The ability to fly food in from thousands of miles away has allowed supermarkets to consistently stock their shelves with a wider variety of organic produce all year round. This both helps and hurts local economies where the food is grown, but it certainly helps boost grocery store profits. The top five producers of organic food are India, Uganda, Mexico, Philippines, and Tanzania. The regions with the greatest square mileage of organic land are Oceania (Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia, Australia, and New Zealand), Europe, and Latin America. Countries like the Falkland Islands, Liechtenstein, and Austria have very high percentages of certified organic lands, totalling 18% or more of their total land mass. These are all lands that are very far away from North America where the highest consumption of organic foods is found. (13)
That isn’t to say that increased food mileage is always a bad thing. It can cost a lot less to grow a pepper in Mexico and ship it to Canada than it would to grow that same pepper in a resource-intense manner in Canada. The point is to evaluate how far your food must travel and what better options might be available closer to you.
Effects on Local Communities
On the topic of food mileage, altering economies through the globalization of organic production can have significant impacts on the communities where these foods are grown, both positive and negative. A 2016 study found that American counties identified as “organic hotspots” had increased income levels and lower poverty rates than other counties. But the picture becomes a little murky when we look at developing nations. (14)
Quinoa, most of which is organic, has been repeatedly touted for its nutritional value and benefits. North American consumption of the pseudograin is at an all-time high. Unfortunately, that means bad things for the producers in its native South America. Since quinoa hit the limelight here, it more than tripled in price over just five years for locals in Bolivia and Peru where it is grown and has been a dietary staple for centuries. Over that same five years, Bolivia’s quinoa consumption fell by a whopping 34% and faces significant food security threats as a result. (15)
Mexico, home of the avocado, has seen similar issues with the increased global appetite for avocados to the point that the country has considered importing avocados to meet demand on a crop that has been priced out of many locals’ reach. Domestic consumption of avocados has fallen over 15% as demands for exports soars. Avocado demand has also prompted a rash of illegal deforestation as formerly impoverished areas grow wealthy due to the boom. This has led to increased cartel activity and threatens the winter home of the Monarch butterfly, as well as irreversibly damaging local ecosystems and water tables. (16, 17)
Junk Food is Still Junk Food
“Going organic” is a common first step for those looking to clean up their diets. Unfortunately, food is still junk food, even if it has an organic label on it. You can find an organic version of almost every processed food out there, from toaster pastries frozen dinners. Many people with inflammatory health issues truly believe it couldn’t be the diet because they eat “all organic”. I’m not saying this to criticize them, they are doing the best they know. But organic doesn’t make it healthful. Dairy, wheat, soy, and sugar can all be organic, but it doesn’t make those cookies a good food choice. Research has found that organic labeling on junk foods causes people to indulge more readily and justify lapses in other healthy living efforts. (18)
So is organic the best we can do?
While organic certification is certainly an encouraging step in the right direction, there is clearly more to consider and aspire to. Regenerative agriculture is an important and growing niche with a great deal of promise. It seeks to regenerate and enhance entire ecosystems for the benefit of all members of that ecosystem through holistic management that respects and mimics nature as closely as possible. It rejects pesticides and artificial fertilization and focuses on biodiversity and soil integrity as the basis for this approach. Regenerative agriculture is very effective at sequestering carbon in the ground where it belongs, making it an important climate change tool. Regenerative agriculture is what organic was meant to be.
Many areas have a strong network of ethical, sustainable, and regenerative producers. You just have to know where to find them. Buying what you can locally, sustainably, and regeneratively can help take your diet beyond organic for the betterment of your health and the health of the environment around you. I came to understand and appreciate regenerative agriculture through my own healing journey. The more I learned about my own healing, the more I understood about how my health ties closely to the health and wellbeing of the foods I consumed. The health of the foods I consumed results from the manner and environment in which they were raised.
Buying organic is better than conventional, but buying your foods from regenerative local producers is often better than buying organic and avoids many of the issues. You are contributing directly to your local economy and helping these farmers better steward their land and provide for their families while doing so. You connect with where your food comes from and how it gets from field or pasture to table. That’s not to say that a regenerative farmer can’t also be organic, but many are not. To find the gems in your location, visit local farmers’ markets to see who’s there, connect with local food-focused groups on Facebook, and reach out to your local Weston A. Price Foundation chapter. Buying local doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive and can do good things for you and the world around you.