What is organic food? A recent organic foods study out of Stanford University elicited news headlines like this:
Organic Food No More Nutritious Than Non-Organic, Study Questions How Much Better Organic Food Is, and Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce. Those headlines alone may make you wonder, "Is organic really worth it?"
While the study could sway some people to bypass the organics aisle during their next supermarket trip, critics of the study say it fails to address the huge public health perks associated with organic food. "The study highlighted the lack of nutritional differences between organic and conventional foods. We think this is a misleading framework for evaluating the benefits of organic foods," explains Sonya Lunder, senior research analyst at Environmental Working Group, a consumer watchdog group focused on protecting human and environmental health. "The nutritional component is not the reason most consumers choose organic."
See all of the nasty stuff you avoid when you choose organic...
The facts: While not a main point of the Stanford study, researchers did conclude that organic food contained significantly lower levels of pesticide residues, something previous research suggests could help protect kids from autism and ADHD, among other ills. United States Department of Agriculture testing routinely finds pesticide residues considered unsafe for children on conventionally grown--not organic--produce samples, including apples, peaches, plums, pears, grapes, blueberries, strawberries, and raisins. "Parents don't want their children to serve as human guinea pigs for chemical corporations," says Charlotte Vallaeys, director of farm and food policy for The Cornucopia Institute, an organic watchdog group.
The organic advantage: Eating organic coincides with a massive drop in disease-causing pesticides in your body. "The enormous benefit of eating organic produce is that it reduces pesticide exposure by 90 percent. This has been proven in studies conducted at Harvard, the University of Washington, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," explains pediatrician Phil Landrigan, MD, professor and chair of Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. "Reduction of exposure to pesticides reduces risk of neurological injury and certain cancers. I advise my patients to choose organic whenever possible."
The facts: Antibiotic-resistant superbugs kill more than 90,000 people a year, with MRSA alone killing more people in American than AIDS. The overuse of antibiotics in farming helps spur the growth of these hard-to-kill and sometimes-fatal infections. Tests of supermarket meats routinely find superbug germs, meaning that improperly cooking the meat or failing to wipe off your countertop correctly could put you in a life-threatening situation.
The organic advantage: Antibiotic-resistant superbug germs are far less likely to be found on organic meat because organic bans the use of antibiotics. You're more than 30 percent less likely to come in contact with superbugs in the meat supply when you choose organic.
The facts: More than 17,000 pesticide products are on the market, yet the Environmental Protection Agency has required testing for less than 1 percent of the chemicals currently used in commerce. Even tiny amounts of America's most popular weed killer glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, can damage DNA and kill cells, and have been linked to infertility and certain cancers. Farmers spray so much glyphosate that it's taken up into the air and returns to the soil in chemical-laced rain, according to U.S. Geological Service research.
The organic advantage: Organic bans the use of chemical pesticides, keeping them not just out of your food, but also your community's water, air, and rain.
The facts: It's perfectly legal for nonorganic farmers to douse human sewage sludge taken from municipal water treatment plants to fertilize nonorganic fields. The sludge could contain whatever morgues, residences, and industrial parks decide to put down the drain. Scientists have detected shampoo chemicals in nonorganic tomatoes and hypothesize that sewage sludge is partly to blame.
The organic advantage: Organic certification bans the use of sewage sludge. Organic fertilizing methods rely more on regulated compost or cover crops--plants grown during the off season and tilled or crimped back onto the soil.
The facts: Scientists have never studied the long-term health effects of eating genetically engineered material, but that hasn't stopped nonorganic farmers from planting GMO crops since the 1990s. Most GMOs are manipulated to withstand high doses of chemical pesticides--some of which wind up inside of the food we eat. Currently, up to 90 percent of nonorganic processed foods contain GMO material.
The organic advantage: Preliminary research suggests GMOs could be causing digestive disease, accelerated aging, obesity, and a rise in food allergies. Organic explicitly bans the use of GMOs.
The facts: About 80 percent of all antibiotics used in this country go to feed conventional livestock because it not only prevents disease, but helps fatten the animals up faster. North Carolina livestock alone ingest more antibiotics annually than the entire U.S. human population. USDA researchers routinely detect antibiotics in meat, and new science suggests that could be making humans gain weight, too.
The organic advantage: Organic bans the use of antibiotics. It also bans the use of feeding animal byproducts to livestock, and requires that farm animals eat food grown without pesticides and GMO seeds.
The facts: Conventional processed foods are little packaged science experiments, and your family members are guinea pigs. We could be paying a big price for flashy foods--certain food dyes are linked to brain cell damage and ADHD.
The organic advantage: Instead of using chemicals derived from petrochemicals, organic manufacturers often turn to natural colorants like beet juice.
The facts: The worst drought to hit America in a half decade is decimating U.S. crops, particularly corn, causing unstable food prices. Although chemically dependent GMO crops are advertised as being drought tolerant, researchers have found that adding chemicals to the soil actually makes it harder for plants to get through extended dry periods unscathed.
The organic advantage: Long-term experiments at the Rodale Institute, an organic research farm in Pennsylvania, found that, during normal weather, organic and conventional farming produce about the same amount of food. But when weather starts to act up, organic wins out, producing 30 percent more in years of drought. That's because organic soil is alive with beneficial bacteria, and the soil acts like a sponge to hold water in reserve during drought. (The healthy soil also helps prevent flooding.)
Unlike many food labels, organic is a strong certification that means a lot. If you see an organic label that means the food has been grown without the use of GMOs, pesticides, and many of the nasty practices previously listed. Animals are also required to have more space and access to the outdoors. While there's no such thing as food with no risk, organic farmers--unlike conventional farmers--are subject to annual and surprise inspections to make sure they are following the strict rules of the National Organic Program. To learn more about the benefits of organic, check out:
• 7 Crazy Things Pesticides Are Doing to Your Body
• How You Can Stand Up to GMOs
• The 15 Most Pointless Foods
• 10 Suspect Causes of Autism
• Why We All Need an Organic Manifesto