Why should I be aware of this?
Demand for organic food is growing for the last decade. There has been a 30 percent growth in the organic food market over the last 5-6 years because of strong public opinion that organic food is healthier than conventional food.
There have been more than a hundred studies about the benefits of organic over non- organic food. But all have so far been inconclusive. As a result official food agencies around the world are unanimous in claiming that there is no evidence of a nutritional difference. Even the FDA and the USDA clearly mention that non organic food is as healthy as organic food.
Though more research needs to be done, in a 2001 review of 41 studies, organic crops were all shown to have higher levels of Vitamin C, magnesium and phosphorus. Further studies in 2006 and 2007 have found higher levels of Vitamin C in organic fruit and 68 per cent higher levels of omega-3 in organic whole milk than non-organic whole milk. In October 2007, results of the EU-funded Quality Low Input Food Study indicated that organic fruit and vegetables contain 40 per cent more antioxidants than non-organic.
Organic food and health
The belief in the superiority of organic food over conventional food is primarily based on a recent research conducted on organic milk at the Danish Institute of Agricultural Research, University of Aberdeen, and the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research. The findings showed that organic milk has more antioxidants, omega 3, CLA, and vitamins than non organic milk. The findings stated that organic milk is healthier than non organic milk as organic cows are pasture grazed and, therefore, give better quality milk.
These findings have increased the hopes that there would be a gradual shift from the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in numerous products to the more sustainable organic farming practices.
Concerns about pesticides
Consumers are greatly concerned that residual levels of pesticides in food are affecting all, especially kids, as they, unlike adults, have less ability to detoxify pesticides. It is accepted that pesticides in food can do the following:
- Cause low birth weight and birth defects;
- Interfere with child development and cognitive ability;
- Cause neurological problems;
- Disrupt hormone function;
- Cause a variety of cancers, including leukemia, kidney cancer, brain cancer, and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Organic food and environment
Environmental friendliness or benefits for the environment are a key concept of organic farming. As harmful chemicals are not used in organic farming, there is minimal soil, air and water pollution; thus ensuring a safe world for future generations to live in.
However, a team of student researchers in the Department of Rural Economy at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, showed transportation to great distances produces so much greenhouse gas emissions that it mitigates the environmental benefits of growing the food organically. The researchers found little difference in the food miles between conventionally produced and organic food items.
In another report the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), while admitting that the environmental effects of organic agriculture are lower than for the equivalent conventionally-grown food, felt it was not true for all foods "and appears seldom to be true for all classes of environmental effects." The study did not find enough evidence to substantiate that organic agriculture has less environmental effect than conventional agriculture.
The report, titled "The Environmental Impact of Food Production and Consumption", concludes that locally-sourced products are not necessarily more energy efficient than globally sourced products. The report also felt that reduced use of fertilizers required more, not less, land for agriculture, increased pressure on natural forests and ecosystems.
All about organic food
According to a study by the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society, (in its Feb. 26 print edition), fruits and vegetables grown organically are found to have significantly higher levels of cancer-fighting antioxidants than conventionally grown foods. Studies were done on corn, strawberries and marionberries.
The study suggested that while fertilizers in conventional food items boost the levels of anti-cancer compounds, pesticides and herbicides actually thwart the production of phenolics chemicals that act as a plant's natural defense and are beneficial to our health.
Proponents of conventional food, however, claim that the levels of pesticides in food are of no threat to human health. But these safety levels are set for individual pesticides, but many samples of fresh produce carry multiple pesticide residues. This synergetic effect results in reproductive, immune and nervous system effects. This would not have happened in the case of individual compounds acting alone.
Israeli researchers have linked symptoms such as headaches, tremor, lack of energy, depression, anxiety, poor memory, dermatitis, convulsions, nausea, indigestion and diarrhea with dietary intakes of pesticides. Belgian research has found that women diagnosed with breast cancer are six to nine times more likely to have the pesticides DDT or hexachlorobenzene in their bloodstreams compared to women who did not have breast cancer. Hawaiian researchers following 8,000 people for 34 years have found that increasing consumption of conventional fruit and juice (and the pesticide residues they carry) raises the risk of Parkinson's disease.
Dr. Vyvyan Howard, toxico-pathologist at the University of Liverpool, UK, comments on the trend towards organic food on the part of health-minded consumers:
"People are applying the precautionary principle to their own lives by purchasing food that has not been produced by industrial methods. From the simple stance of hazard avoidance, organically produced food is the best option that we have."
The British Medical Association appears to agree: "Until we have a more complete understanding of pesticide toxicity, the benefit of the doubt should be awarded to protecting the environment, the worker, and the consumer — this precautionary approach is necessary because the data on risk to human health from exposure to pesticides are incomplete."
Decline the mineral levels
Official food composition tables, including data compiled by the US Department of Agriculture, have been showing a substantial decline the mineral levels in fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy in conventional foods since the 1940s. This problem is compounded by earlier (pre-ripened) picking, longer storage, and more processing of crops.
Studies have shown that artificial fertilization of conventional crops produces lush growth by swelling the produce with more water. On a pound-for-pound basis, organic food has more "dry matter" (i.e. food). Partly because of this (and for other reasons too), there are higher levels of nutrients in organic produce. There are also evidences of higher phytonutrients, many of which are antioxidants involved in the plant's own defense system, in organic produce because in the absence of regular applications of chemical pesticides, organic crops rely more on their own defenses.
A recent review of the subject estimated that organic produce will tend to contain 10-50% higher phytonutrients than conventional produce. Phytonutrients are certain organic components of plants, and these components are thought to promote human health. Fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and teas are rich sources of phytonutrients.
Organic tomatoes have higher levels of lycopene - Lycopenes give tomatoes their red color. Tomatoes are one of the best sources for lycopene.
Higher polyphenols in organic potatoes - Research indicates that polyphenols may have antioxidant characteristics with potential health benefits. They may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
There are higher flavonols in organic apples - Eating flavonol-rich foods like apples may help reduce the risk of pancreas cancer
Higher resveratrol in organic red wine – Resveratrol in red wine has been shown to be beneficial to health by lowering cholesterol and preventing cell oxidation, an important process in the prevention of cancer.
As it uses organic means of production, there is a strong belief that organic food tastes better than conventional food. Use of chemicals makes a number of produce draw more water out of the soil and become diluted in the process. This gives the end product a watered down taste. Scientists have been successful in developing organic farming techniques which increase the antioxidant contents of food. These compounds are generated by plants to protect themselves from pests and diseases. Stress events on plants such as insects or weeds can trigger the plant’s defense mechanisms. They respond by creating a range of phenolics, flavonoids, volatile compounds and other antioxidants. When we eat these aromatic compounds they give a heightened reception of flavor.
Soil Association, UK’s organic body, in a survey in 2005 found consumers prefer organic food because it tastes better as non-use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers help keep toxins out of air, water and soil. Ninety-five percent of the respondents said they buy organic food as much to avoid pesticides and food additives as for the taste factor. Fruit and vegetable scored particularly high on taste, with 72 percent of the respondents claiming that they taste better than non-organic fruits.
There is limited empirical evidence on the safety and relative risks of organic produce. Organically produced food has not been proved to be more or less safe than conventionally produced food. Organic certification does not require the grower to use production practices that eliminate, reduce or control the presence of pathogenic microorganisms, although some organic standards address microbiological food safety issues indirectly.
In the UK microbiological sampling of organic produce found only minor contamination using indicator organisms E. coli (in 0.5% of samples) and Aeromonas spp. (in 34% of samples). No comparative study was carried out on conventional produce, and hence, no conclusion could be reached.
A similar study in the US found same quantity of E. coli and salmonella spp.in both organic and conventional food.
Organic Meat Organic farming reminds one of the good old days of traditional farming before the advent of animal factories. The growing fear of food-borne illnesses, Mad Cow disease, E.coli, salmonella, improper food handling, pesticides, antibiotics and hormones, and the threat of a contaminated water supply and other environmental disasters from gross over-concentration of animals in the meat industry, have forced consumers to look for new healthier options to feed their families.
Short of avoiding meat altogether, many people are discovering another facet of the world of organics: meats, poultry, dairy and eggs. As animals are grown organically they are naturally robust and hardly fall sick.
Certified organic meats are carefully scrutinized and tested for food safety and for strict compliance to the regulations at every step of the process.
Some of their guidelines are:
- No pesticides, antibiotics or hormones.
- 100% certified organic feed and pasture, which means no genetically modified foods seeds or feeds or and is raised without herbicides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers.
- No nitrates, nitrites or preservatives.
- Animals are never fed animal by-products
- Freedom of movement for animals, with full access to the outdoors. Humane treatment of animals (defined by the Humane Society of the United States.)
- Farm and farm records are inspected every year by a third party to ensure the standards are being enforced.
Why does organic food cost more?
Though some organic food is priced same as conventional food, they are often 25 %, 50% or even twice as expensive.
- Agro-chemical agriculture is heavily subsidized by the governments while organic farming receives no subsidy. Farming subsidies are reported to be costing the UK taxpayer about £3 billion pounds every year.
- Agro-chemicals are designed to make food cheaper to produce as they were not developed with nutrition, taste or the ecology in mind. The objective always was mass production.
- The yields of organic food are on average between 10 and 20% lower than in conventional agriculture and, with some crops (potatoes, for example), it may be as much as 40% lower.
- Production costs are higher in organic farming. For example, organic farmers don't use herbicides so they have to weed some crops, such as onions and carrots, by hand. This requires more people to be employed. Such a labor intensive method contributes to a more expensive product.
- Animal welfare standards for organic food are very high. More land and more labor are needed to meet those standards.
- Cows are grass-fed, so they need more land than grain-fed cows penned in a lot. The chickens eat organic grains and run free.
- Cost of organic food certification is also very high. It is expensive to send someone to a farm and spend all day checking records.
- Organic seeds are also very expensive.
Growth in the demand for organic food has also pushed up buying from local markets. A benefit of buying from local farmers is less fuel burned getting the goods to shoppers. It's considered more sustainable economically, socially and environmentally.
Farmers markets give consumers a chance to talk with farmers -- helping them learn about food production, identifying farmers selling organic items but without the certification and giving people a better understanding of why organic costs more.
According to a Morgan Stanley study, organic food can be up to 63 percent more expensive. But if local, seasonal food is bought directly from the producer, the premium can be lower.
Can people afford it?
More than the ability to afford is the question of attitude and the need to educate consumers.
In Australia and the UK official household spending statistics show that the average family spends five times more on junk food, take-away (carry-out food), alcohol, and tobacco than on fruits and vegetables, and five times more on recreation than on fruits and vegetables.
Switching to Organic Food
Over the years organic food has progressed from dry, boxed cereals or turkey bacon to include various types of food, including wine — or even caviar. A large number of parents are shifting to organic food to keep their children’s diets free of food grown with pesticides, hormones, antibiotics or Genetic Engineering.
Fast Growing Organic Products
Fresh fruit and vegetables -- 40 percent of the market, 8.4 % annual growth.
- Health Benefits of Organic Food
- Report Confirms More Health Benefits of Organic food
- Organic foods taste better, claims new poll
- What is organic food?
- A Summary of the Safety and Nutritional Value of Organic Food
- Report concludes that organic food production does not benefit the environment.
- Farming - Organic: Consumer information
- INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON ORGANIC AGRICULTURE AND FOOD SECURITY
- Organic Supply Chain