Are Organic Foods Better?
Every time we walk into a grocery store, we notice that foods are separated into two groups – organic foods and conventional foods (non-organic foods). Organic foods are generally more expensive. According to a report, organic fruits and vegetables are about 60% higher in price than conventional foods while organic meats can be more than 100% higher in price. Here comes the question: Is it true that the more expensive foods are, the better their quality?
To answer this question, we first need to know what organic foods are and how they are grown differently from conventional foods. The standards for organic food vary from country to country. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic crops need to be grown without irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers and prohibited pesticides. And they cannot be genetically modified organisms. As for organic livestock, the USDA organic seal verifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors. It seems that organic foods are more natural, but this may not necessarily ensure the quality and safety of the foods.
Based on a review of some existing literature I have not been able to find any publication that indicated organic foods were better in nutrients than conventional food. In fact, one study showed that conventional crops contained more nitrogen than organic crops.1 Nitrogen is an important component of proteins. But that research study did not directly correlate the level of nitrogen with protein content. However, it is not difficult to imagine that the natural environment might not be able to provide sufficient supplies for crops compared to the conventional agriculture where we add all kinds of chemical fertilizers to balance the inorganic uptake of crops.
However, the safety of foods can be easily controlled by manipulating the amount of pesticides and antibiotics that are added. One study showed that conventional foods usually carry more pesticide residues and heavy metal contamination than organic foods.2 The author claimed “The evidence does not suggest marked health benefits from consuming organic versus conventional foods, although organic produce may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and organic chicken and pork may reduce exposure to antibiotic resistant bacteria”. However, the paper also argued that organic foods have a higher possibility for bacterial contamination because of the use of animal manures even though the data were not statistically significant.
Then what are the pros and cons for people to consume organic foods? Even though people may have been misled about the nutrients that organic foods contain, it may be true that organic foods are generally safer than conventional foods, and some people, furthermore, might consume organic foods to express wealth and a fashionable lifestyle. As for the disadvantages, organic foods are apparently more expensive and they might carry defects that make them less visually appealing. Further, organic foods are usually limited by availability and variability because of the smaller market.
Beyond benefits to the individual, growing organic foods may be beneficial to society. Since farmers use fewer pesticides, antibiotics and chemical fertilizers, organic agriculture is more environmentally friendly. And livestock are raised in a more animal-friendly manner. Instead of conventional large-scale agriculture, organic markets can support the local economy by providing more opportunities for local farmers. However, organic agriculture has drawbacks. Since organic farming requires more manpower and financial inputs in terms of care, it is less efficient than conventional farming.
It can potentially slow down technological progress and it is not sustainable for increasing populations.
In a word, organic foods are attractive to people who are looking for a higher quality product and for countries that do not have a food crisis. As for developing countries that are facing the conflict of growing populations and limited arable land, organic foods might be more feasible only in the future.
1 Dangour A.D. Am. J. Clin. Nutri. 2009, 90, 680-685
2 Spangler C.S. Annals of Internal Medicine 2012, 157, 348-366.