Thursday, September 18, 2008

Organic vs Conventional Foods?

- Excerpts taken from Harvard Health
Many of us wonder whether it's "worth" buying organic foods, specifically fruits and vegetables. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) agents certify which produce can be called organic, defined as foods grown without the use of most conventional pesticides, petroleum- or sewage-based fertilizers, genetic engineering, or radiation. Organic farmers use manure-based fertilizers. For meats, eggs, and dairy products to be called organic, the farmers cannot give the animals antibiotics or growth hormones and livestock must eat organic feed that doesn't contain parts of other slaughtered animals, and the livestock must be allowed outdoors.

That means that conventional foods tend to use one or all of these methods to get better production values out of crops and livestock. Keep in mind, however, that even organic produce isn't completely free of synthetic pesticide residues because these chemicals can persist in the soil for decades so approval means foods are at least 95% organic. Organic produce for one has fewer pesticide residues than conventional farming, which makes it better for the environment but not necessarily healthier for you. The USDA "makes no claims that organic food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced foods." Harvard nutrition experts say there is no solid evidence that organic foods in general are healthier for humans, but do say that organically raised meat may prevent the spread of diseases such as mad cow disease.

Perhaps the most common concern about conventionally grown foods is the fear of ingesting pesticides on produce and what effect this might have on health. At this point the bottom line is that the health benefits from eating fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks from ingesting the pesticides on them. You can however wash (water and light detergent) and peel your conventional fruits and veggies to remove some but not all of the residue. Peeling alone eliminates all of the residues in bananas, carrots, corn and potatoes, so organic for those vegetables in particular seems unnecessary. Until more conclusive evidence emerges, the decision to buy organic comes down to a personal choice but one that should be informed of the situation.

My point of view is that the human body is an amazing filter and adaptive system that can handle small amounts of nearly anything you give it. It seems that when we are exposed to small amounts of bad things, like germs, vaccines even stress, our mind and body learn how to fight them without being overwhelmed and reacting harshly. Pesticides and large animal farms have been around for many many years with lots of science and regulation but no link has been found so at current levels we are in all likelihood safe. That said why repeatedly expose yourself to non-natural substances, there is peace of mind that comes from knowing there isn't even a small percentage chance that the foods you are eating contain chemicals that are harming you. Hence why there is such a growing market for organics, for peace of mind, but I there is no reason for alarm.

I personally think the environmental impacts of organic vs conventional farming, which are also up for debate, are a bigger deciding factor. While pesticides run off and contaminate soil and water supplies the effects of which are not totally know, use of chemicals and genetic engineering is also allowing for farmers to get much more production on the same piece of land, so you could make the argument that conventional farming preserves more natural open land with less energy consumption while still providing for our rapidly growing population. Of course advocates for organic farming have a report from The Rodale Institute’s long-term Farming Systems Trial™ which shows that after a transitional period of about four years, crops grown under organic systems yield as well as, those grown conventionally. I would love to believe this but why would a massive industry build up around agrobusiness if there was no need?

I am for organics but I don't make a point of buying them myself. If there was infinite land and a stable population I would be much stronger in organics favor but given our population explosion and the need to conserve what natural environments we still have left, I believe there is a place for pesticides, genetics and conventional methods in our society. If those technologies are developed, tested and used responsibly is the more important question in my mind. In the end both will exist and hopefully each camp can influence the other to help move the entire food industry forward.

1 comment:

Tegan said...

Hey Gavin - thought you might be interested in this report "Putting Meat on The Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America"

It was very eye opening to me.....