Organic crops are said to be those grown without ‘harsh chemicals’ and therefore, allegedly, better for your health and well-being. But are they really better? What sorts of chemicals are still permitted in organic farming, and is there any benefit to organic crops at all? These are the sorts of questions I will set out to answer from this point on.
I should also make a note that this information will be relevant to Australia, as this is my home country. I will post links at the end where you can find relevant information for the US, the UK and Canadian organic farming.
What is Organic?
Organic products are typically those which have been produced with few or no synthetically-derived chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides etc). It is important to discern between ‘organic’ and ‘certified organic’. The term organic is currently not regulated in Australia, meaning anyone can sell a product and claim it is organic, even if only 1 ingredient in it is organic. In other countries, the term organic is more regulated. Those wishing to export organic products need to inform themselves of the relevant terms and regulations of the country they are exporting to.
Certified Organic means the product has been grown in conditions that meet the Australian criteria for organic, and the farmer or retailer etc., has paid to have the certified logo on their packaging. Once a farmer/business has acquired the Australian Certified Organic (ACO) labeling, they are not permitted to label goods as ‘organic’ as all goods they produce/sell will be assumed to be ACO to avoid confusing and misleading the consumers.
The Legalities and Economics
In Australia, farmers must become organic certified in order to grow and sell their crops as organic. The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) listed seven (7) private organisations who can provide such certification (the AQIS is now absorbed into the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources). The main umbrella organization is the Organic Federation of Australia (OFA) which was established in 1998. Another main regulator of organic farming is NASAA.
However, speaking from international terms, the processes and even definition of organic can vary greatly. This means that, when Australia imports produce labelled as ‘organic’ it may not be to the same standards as is required in Australia. I should also point out that:
Under WTO (World Trade Organisation)-rules, countries cannot refuse the import of produce on the basis of rules to which domestic production is not subject [source].
This means that consumers need to know the origins of the product to know how organic it actually is (by the Australian definition at least). However, food imported into Australia must meet the food standards code. In 2014, around 13% of organic products in Australia were imported (see p.9). This is becoming more popular, as the demand for organic increases, and the push to lower costs at the supermarket, imports are the cheaper option thanks to the currency exchange rates (see p.9). However, some organic products work out cheaper if they are sourced locally, which was encouraged by the supermarkets as the demand to stock organic products increased (see p.9).
In terms of industry data, as of 2014, the Australian organic industry was worth a total of 1.72 billion with average annual increases of 15% (see p.3 of report), while the conventional industry in 2012 was worth $166.3 billion (using the same categories as organic) [source: p.5].
Organic Vs Non-Organic (Conventional) farming
You may have heard people comparing the stats between organic and non-organic farming. However, these stats are not reliable and often hard to find, as most conventional farmers and organizations do not record such information as land use, production, costs, sales etc, and therefore cannot be accurately compared against organic figures.
If more farmers decide to go through the processes to become organic producers, this can affect the costs of the supplies which, in return, will affect the price of the end crop on supermarket shelves. If a farmer wishes to convert from conventional to organic farming, it can take a minimum of 12 months, and up to 3 years for this process. This is to allow time for any previously used fertilizers and pesticides to reduce in the soil and for the farmer to prove to the ACO they know how to farm organically. Even if the land has never been farmed before, it will still take 12 months to go through processing and associated auditing and paper work.
This means that the farmer is losing money during this period and must somehow survive financially.
The ACO also has a complete list of permitted inputs for organic farming. If one has a quick glance over the first few, you will notice a few compounds found on the periodic table, for example, sulfur. Sulfur is abundant in the earth and has uses in many products from fertilizer to battery acid.
Sulphuric acid, the major derivative of sulphur, is the most important inorganic chemical used in commerce, being widely used in the chemical and fertiliser industries [source].
Now sulfur (or sulphur) is important in the diet, but like all compounds in excess, or if ingested in the wrong way, it can cause problems. The US-based ATSDR states that inhaled sulfur dioxide (sulfur when it hits the air) can cause problems with breathing via lungs and the nasal passage. It can also be converted to sulfuric acid in the air-a corrosive substance in batteries. While no conclusive studies have shown sulfur to be carcinogenic, and you’d need to be in a position to inhale the compound in the first place, respiratory problems are less than ideal, especially if you have pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma, lung cancer, bronchitis, Emphysema etc.
Another is boron, also found on the periodic table. While it has many positive uses, it also has negative impacts on health and well-being in large doses. This serves to reinforce that, just because a product is permitted in organic farming, it does not mean it is safe.
Health Benefits Recorded: The Scientific Evidence
When one goes to Google Scholar and searches for ‘organic health benefits’, several articles pop up, nearly all of which talk about ‘perceived benefits’ and not ‘proven benefits’. Furthermore, even though humans have been using so-called harsh chemicals on crops for generations now, our average life expectancy is increasing. If the chemicals were truly as toxic as some people claim, logic would follow that life expectancy would remain steady or perhaps even decrease. At the very least, there’d be an obvious increase in diseases related to the chemicals in pesticides etc., would there not?
The 2014 Australian Organic Market Report does not conclusively state any benefits, rather they state:
Perceived benefits of organic are consistently associated with what organic food does not contain and is not produced with [source: p.39].
This suggests admittance that there is no real health benefits or at least no known health benefits, and it is simply ‘mind over matter’. Because otherwise they could have written ‘proven health benefits’ or ‘recorded health benefits’.
One report titled “Organic foods contain higher levels of certain nutrients, lower levels of pesticides, and may provide health benefits for the consumer” by Walter J. Crinnion in the Alternative Medicine Review speaks about variables which affect the nutrient value of crops. These variables make it very difficult to accurately determine whether organic crops are better or not. Variables include soil quality, length of time the farm has been used as organic (if previously used as conventional), the types and extent of ground cover, time/season of year, location, conditions varying farm-to-farm and so on. While this report makes the claim that some organic foods show higher levels of certain minerals, the study even admitted that nutrient value varies based on a wide variety of external factors, and assessing this is difficult, so the author makes us question the grounds on which the study was done.
If 2 crops of corn were planted in the same soil at the same place, same time of year etc., and one was raised organically, and the other raised conventionally, would there be a difference in nutrient value? How do we know for certain that the differing nutrient value is specifically related to the types of chemicals used on the organic vs conventional crop, and not related to the genes of the plant, mineral deposits in the soil, or insect activity? The answer is we don’t know. This is why it is very difficult, if not impossible, to accurately state that organic foods have health benefits. Furthermore, to accurately test that hypothesis in the long-term, it would require a study which would be very unethical and even then would not have conclusive results. Sure, you could dictate exactly what people ate for years on end as part of your experiment, but if they became ill, how could you accurately state it was due to chemicals they consumed on crops, rather than external factors such as chemicals they came into contact with in the environment, the air, or by other means? It’s a tricky area. The studies would be biased.
A 2007 study concluded there is just not enough information to conclusively state benefits one way or the other, and thanks to the biased nature under which studies would occur, results would be flawed anyhow.
Fast forward to 2012, and a Stanford University meta-analysis concluded there are little to no significant benefits to organic foods when compared to conventional foods.
Now to 2016, when studies are still finding that there are few to no significant benefits to eating organic foods.
However, a 2015 study in Germany compared the health choices of people at 500 randomly selected locations: those who consumed organic vs those who did not. The study concluded that those that eat organic have a generally healthier lifestyle i.e. they don’t smoke and are more physically active. This could be due to the fact that consumers perceive organic food to be the first step to a healthier lifestyle, and therefore make better life choices as well.
In the US at UC Berkeley, a study concluded:
99.99 percent (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves…..[furthermore]…..natural and synthetic chemicals are equally likely to be positive in animal cancer tests. [source]
To add to this, as well as many natural compounds being equally as bad for you, if not worse than synthetic counterparts, it can be very expensive to acquire natural compounds. Instead, synthetic variants can be manufactured much cheaper in labs and can have the same effects as the natural compound they were trying to create in the first place. For example: fermented fruit creates alcohol. As does artificially processing fruits and sugars. Also, those compounds labeled as ‘synthetically-derived’ can also contain natural ingredients.
Some may be aware there is an entire field of chemistry devoted to organic studies, known simply as organic chemistry. Chemists who study in this field will tell you first hand that organic chemicals are often risky, flammable, and difficult to work with-much like regular chemistry in fact.
Of course there are studies linking chemical exposure to health conditions, but these are chemicals that people have been exposed to during their jobs e.g. agriculture, mining etc., and not chemicals they have ingested from eating conventionally-farmed crops and meats.
Then of course there are those articles that make very BOLD statements that organic foods ARE better for you despite lacking evidence. These articles are misleading to consumers. Examples of these are: article 1 (of the only 2 references they provided under ‘Is organic more nutritious…’, 1 of the links does not work and the other links to a short paragraph about a study allegedly carried out by the French government claiming that organic contained ‘fewer pesticides’…..Hmmm…..Considering organic crops use pesticides as well and they have been found to be equally as bad as conventional pesticides, this 2009 study seems misinformed), article 2 (which talks about ‘obvious perks’ to eating organic despite not making any links to literature to confirm these ‘obvious perks’), article 3 (an American website that calls itself ‘organic facts’, which starts off right by admitting that there is little proof that organic is better, even stating “Scientific research has also not been able to conclusively prove that organic food is healthier than conventional food“, then proceeds to state that organic food is processed ‘without using any chemicals‘. Oh dear. Organic is very much so processed with chemicals just as conventional crops are. The difference is merely the type of chemical. Furthermore, this source states that: ” In general, organic food consumers, manufacturers, and farmers strongly believe that organic food has the following benefits [see source] compared to conventional food.” –As if the beliefs of non-scientific people somehow confirm whether the product is beneficial or not?).
Is it Just a Clever Marketing Scam or the Real Deal?
When you see the words ‘all natural ingredients’ on a product, most of us think that equates to improved health or that the product is somehow better for us because it is ‘all natural’. Stop and think how many natural products are toxic, poisonous or otherwise bad for us: from snake venom, to poison ivy, to apple seeds (cyanide) and carbon dioxide (CO2) [source].
Now organic farming prohibits the use of synthetic compounds, but they obviously allow natural alternatives. However, as I just pointed out, natural does NOT mean it’s good for you (or even the environment for that matter). In fact, organic pesticides pose the same risks as conventional pesticides. This Scientific American article even states that a pesticide is a pesticide. It is literally designed to kill insects. So how can it be any good for you to consume in the long-term? What about the effects on other non-target species such as bees and native insects?
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and Genetically Engineered (GE) products are another hot topic. The general consensus is these are not permitted in certified organic, but it can be very difficult to prove a product is GMO one way or the other. Therefore, companies add ‘non-GMO/GE’ to their labels at their own risk. If products are found to be containing GMO, they will run into serious legal battles. But again, it is hard to prove. Furthermore, if one looks at what a GMO actually is, one will find that a large portion of crops we eat every day are, in fact, GMOs such as carrots, bananas and corn to name a few.
Organic foods (& often non-food products) are very expensive compared to their conventional counterparts, often 100% more expensive! Organic products often have a reduced shelf life as well (also see here and here for more). Meaning that unless you use your organic produce as fast as you buy it (or freeze it suitably or make jam etc), you will have a lot of waste. Some organic foods are the exception such as organic milk which is said to last as long as non-organic milk. Food wastage is one of the biggest problems on the planet today, so we should be doing everything we can to reduce waste. Alternatively, you will need to visit the shops more often to purchase your organic produce, meaning more petrol and resultant emissions into the atmosphere (that is, if you don’t live within walking distance of the shops like most people don’t).
In some industries, the term ‘organic’ may be used to attract customers who may perceive that organic is synonymous with health or some sort of benefit (not to be confused with ‘certified organic’). This is an example of a clever marketing tactic by those companies (if not a little devious). For example, if a lipstick claims ‘organic’ on the label, it may just be that the lipstick contains carbon…which is one of the ‘building blocks’ of all living things. So it’s not so much organic as it is misleading. It’s a bit like when you see (& I have seen) a can of tuna or salmon at the shops and the label reads ‘contains fish’- as if that needed to be clarified on a tin of fish!
Once you realize that literally everything you eat, drink, breathe and touch is a chemical, you begin to realize that chemical is not synonymous with ‘poison’ or carcinogen. Add in the increased cost of organic products, the more difficult and costly production process, the reduced shelf life contributing to more waste and the lacking health benefits….is it worth it? If people perceive organic to be healthier, and therefore make better health choices e.g. more exercise, quit smoking etc., then all the better for man kind. However, I believe it is important to have all the facts to make these sorts of decisions, especially when organic food will add a significant amount to your weekly food bill. It is important to source your information from legitimate sources such as peer-reviewed literature and government websites. If a website claims that organic food is definitely better, you can probably click on to the next website, because the scientific evidence just doesn’t back up that view, and they are simply misleading their viewers.
After all is said and done, it is up to you, as the consumer, to choose what you eat. Having read this, I hope you are now more informed as to whether organic is the right choice for you.
Canada Organic: https://www.cog.ca/