Although organic food production has been around since the 1940s, I first heard of organics about 30 years ago. At that time there was one “health food” store in Orlando where I lived and no “local movement” yet, so most of their produce was shipped in from California, which at the time was the epicenter of organic farming. This health food store only sold organic produce, but because of shipping issues and lack of turnover, their produce often didn’t look great and it was expensive, VERY expensive.
Today organic food is everywhere — and in everything. You can find organic products at 7-11. Even though their popularity has grown and organic farms have exploded all over the country, organic produce is still expensive. The big question: is it really worth it to pay more for organic food?
In a store like Whole Foods or HEB, the produce is typically divided into two categories, organically or conventionally grown. Let’s look at what this means. Wikipedia provides this easy-to-read definition of “organic”:
Organic foods are produced using methods of organic farming – with limited modern synthetic inputs such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Organic foods are also not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives. Beginning October 21, 2002, producers and handlers had to be certified by a USDA – Accredited Certifying Agent to sell, label, or represent their products a 100% organic, organic, or made with organic ingredients.” (Wikipedia, Organic Food) It is a very heavily regulated industry.
From the definition of “organics” above, the definition of “conventional food” can be inferred: It is food grown with methods conventionally used in modern farming, i.e. synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers; it could also include irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives.
Farmer’s markets throw in another category that’s worth knowing, “conventional food grown using organic methods.” Farms that have not gone through the processes to become “certified organic,” or have not met the requirement of “land free of synthetics for three years,” will sell food that is “sort of” organic, but not certifiable. Since this is just as unregulated as conventional farming, it’s good to ask the farmer what’s keeping them from certifying. They are usually happy to explain.
Knowing these choices, we get back to the question: Is it worth the extra money to buy organic produce? Like all things food related, this is a highly debated question, with a lot of passion on both sides.
The first thing you should do is look at your overall diet. Do you eat a lot of vegetables and fruits, or do you eat more convenience, processed, or junk food? Before you worry about conventional vs. organic, just eat more fresh food and don’t worry how it’s grown. The consequences of eating fast food or the “box/bag of food-like substances” far outweighs the debate over conventional vs. organic. It is more expensive to eat fresh food, and it takes more time, but we pay the costs of convenience foods one way or another – ill health, or weight gain, to name two.
This is where I’ll skip the science-y stuff. Just know that there are studies galore that say “there is no evidence that organic food is in any way superior to conventionally grown food” and many studies that show conclusively that organic food is better.” We’ll skip the scientific debates.
The Wikipedia definition I used earlier gives us a good idea of what organic food is not (exposed to synthetic inputs), but let’s look at organic produce from a different angle to answer our question of “is it worth the cost?”
The discovery was made a long time ago that to produce food using conventional methods there are very few components necessary for a plant to grow. If you put nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK) in soil, a plant will “thrive.” But I believe this, not only that you are what you eat, but you are what your food eats.
This concept can be confusing. In his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Michael Pollan explained it like this:
NPK works. If you give plants these three elements, they will grow. From this success it is a short step to drawing the conclusion that the entire mystery of soil fertility had been solved. It fostered the wholesale reimagining of soil (and with it agriculture) from a living system to a kind of machine: Apply inputs of NPK at this end and you will get yields of corn on the other end. Since treating the soil as a machine seemed to work well enough, at least in the short term, there no longer seemed any need to worry about such quaint things as earthworms and humus.
Humus is the stuff in a handful of soil that gives it its blackish cast and characteristic smell. It’s hard to say exactly what humus is because it is so many things. Humus is what’s left of organic matter after it has been broken down by the billions of big and small organisms that inhabit a spoonful of earth – the bacteria, phages, fungi, and earthworms responsible for decomposition. But humus is not a final product of decomposition so much as a stage, since a whole other group of organisms slowly breaks humus down into the chemical elements plants need to grow, elements including, but not limited to, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. This process is as much biological as chemical, involving the symbiosis of plants and the mycorrhizal fungi that live in and among their roots; the fungi offer soluble nutrients to the roots, receiving a drop of sucrose in return. Another critical symbiotic relationship links plants to the bacteria in a humus-rich soil that fix atmospheric nitrogen, putting it into a form the plants can use. But providing a buffet of nutrients to plants is not the only thing humus does. It also acts like a giant glue that binds the minute mineral particles in soil together into airy crumbs and holds water in suspension so that the rainfall remains available to plant roots instead of instantly seeping away.
To reduce this vast biological complexity to NPK represents the scientific method at its reductionist worst. Complex qualities are reduced to simple quantities; biology gives way to chemistry.
(Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Penguin Books, 2006)
As Mr. Pollan explains, the conventional vs. organic debate isn’t just about the herbicides and pesticides that are applied topically. We also need to consider the fertilizers used in conventional farming. This fertilizer is the nutrition of the plant you will ultimately eat. The over-simplification of nourishing our food plants is just as much, if not more, a part of the problem with conventional food, as is exposure to the topical chemicals — in itself a big deal for me.
So consider these factors about organic farming:
- Because of the lack of synthetic chemicals, there is a huge biodiversity in the soil/compost used to feed the plant that becomes our food.
- When we don’t use synthetic pesticides and herbicides, plants have to fight more of their own battles. They evolve under the “survival of the fittest” ethos, and thus, we eat plants with more vitality built in.
- And finally, there is the exposure to chemicals. We can wash our food (and we should), we can peel it – i.e. banana, mango — but you can’t get around the fact that there will still be chemical residue grown into conventional food. Organic food may not be perfect; there can be cross contamination from nearby conventional farms, for example. I prefer “clean” food, but I’ll take a little “drift” over “direct application” any day.
I am willing to pay the higher price tag for organic food in order to have food that nourishes my body with a higher level and more diverse nutritional value.
Do you remember your mom telling you to eat your vegetables because you need the antioxidants and phytonutrients? Uh, NO! Since the discovery of vitamins, we have continued to find new, important components in our food. We may never find every piece of the puzzle that can show us the complete picture of what food has to offer, so, when I can, I try to eat organic food of all colors, seasons, and flavors in order to get the most complete nutrition package possible.