Given that you have the time and the internet access to be checking out this lovely website, dear reader, it’s a safe bet that you don’t have to think too hard about the food you eat. Grocery shopping is a simple chore. You just wander in to the local supermarket and load up. Even if you don’t like fruits and veggies, you’ve heard of a friend of a friend whose teeth fell out because she got scurvy, so you decide to snag a few apples to make sure you’re getting enough vitamin C.
In the produce section, you spot the shiny Macintosh apples you prefer, but you see that there are two prices listed for Macs, one of which is one dollar per pound more expensive. The apples look identical, except that the expensive apples have stickers that say “organically grown.” Which apples do you choose – and why?
More consumers than ever before are opting to pay the premium for organically grown food. There are statistics floating around to quantify the rate of increase , but the most convincing evidence that consumer demand for organic products is surging is that Wal-Mart recently introduced organic products.
Why do consumers choose organic produce?
If you were to accost someone buying fruit at Wal-Mart and demand to know why she had chosen the certified organic stuff, you would probably get one of three answers:
a) “Organically grown produce has more nutritional value.”
b) “Organically grown produce has less pesticide residue so it’s healthier to eat.”
c) “Organic farming is better for the environment.”
These answers are either wrong or only partly true, which shows that a large part of demand for organic products depends on consumer confusion. This article aims to clear up some of that confusion by summarizing the origins of organic farming and reviewing some of the research that has explored the three assertions commonly given as reasons for choosing organic products.
Where did “organic farming” come from?
Organic farming developed as a reaction to the industrialization and intensification of agriculture that occurred during the 20th century. During that period, technological advancements allowed farmers to drastically increase their yields from the same total area of land. Some of these technologies included the industrial synthesis of pesticides and fertilizers. In retrospect, we have a better idea of the true cost of those inputs: entrophication and bioaccumulation of pesticides are just two examples. The term “conventional agriculture” refers to farming that relies on a constant input of synthetic chemicals and energy to continue production.
Some farmers became concerned that the huge inputs required to maintain high yields could not be continued indefinitely. Organic farming methods were developed to drastically reduce dependence on outside inputs by instead relying on ecologically sound ways to retain nutrients and ward off pests. As an example, instead of applying synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, organic farmers plant legumes around and alternating with their other crops. Legumes harbour bacteria in their roots capable of taking nitrogen from the atmosphere and turning it into a form that plants can use. Instead of using fossil fuels to make and ship nitrates from the factory to the farm, the “fertilizer” is grown right on the field.
“Organic farming” started off as an ideology, with the goal of making agriculture truly sustainable, ie. able to feed humanity in perpetuity off the same area of land.
What does “organically grown” mean today?
There was a push in the 1980s and 1990s to develop standards for what was “organic” and what wasn’t, with the goal of making it easier for the consumer to identify wise choices in the marketplace. A bunch of organizations resulted worldwide, and they all came up with different rules and different logos, which was even more confusing for consumers.
In Canada today, there are a number of accreditation agencies, some of which have voluntarily agreed to a set of minimum requirements for products to qualify as “organic,” issued by the Canadian government. In the U.S., which exports organic produce to Canada, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sets regulations and certifies organic farms. So, “certified organic” means different things in different parts of the world.
The most common regulations prohibit the use of synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and genetically modified organisms, and require outdoors pasture for animals. The regulations permit some natural pesticides and do not consider the scale of operations or the use of fossil-fueled machinery for farming, processing or transporting crops.
So there is a spectrum of organic farms. At one end are the small family farms that grow lots of different crops in careful rotations and sell their small yields at nearby farmer’s markets. At the other end are the giant industrial organic farms that ship natural fertilizers and pesticides across the country to grow monocultures of lettuce, and then ship the resulting lettuce all over the continent, but do not technically break any organic farming regulations. The regulations deal with the methods of organic farming that were developed as a means to sustainable agriculture, but the regulations themselves do not require sustainability.
Do organically grown crops have higher nutritional content?
Lots of studies have looked in to this, and the overall conclusion seems to be that there is no nutritional difference between organic and conventional produce. Unfortunately the studies are either improperly controlled or not directly relevant to consumer options.
To get a straight answer, you need to grow the same variety both ways – but in real life, organic and conventional farmers grow different varieties. Organic growers tend to pick varieties that are pest resistant, while conventional farmers tend to use varieties bred for yield or storage lifetime. In short, it’s probably impossible to make generalizations about the relative nutritional value of organically grown food compared to conventionally grown food that would actually reflect the options available to most consumers. Nevertheless, the studies that grow a single variety both ways suggest that there is no difference in nutritional content. There is no firm scientific basis to consumer demand based on supposed superior nutritional content.
Do organically grown crops have lower pesticide residues?
The answer probably depends on the pesticide and the fruit or vegetable in question. In general, organic produce has lower residue levels, but conventional produce residue levels still fall below the maximum levels deemed safe (and monitored) by federal agencies. Some pesticides are simply found in soils everywhere because they were widely used and take a long time to break down; these pesticides are found (at low levels) in pretty much all fruits and veggies, no matter how they were grown.
But is pesticide residue on food actually harmful to humans? The answer here seems to be no, based on government agencies’ testing. However, some consumers consider that any way to minimize exposure is worthwhile and therefore prefer organic produce. That’s a pretty precautionary stance to take, but it’s not totally unreasonable. However, it’s worth remembering that the legitimate ideological reason for the prohibition against synthetic pesticides is due to concern about their ecological consequences.
Fears about health effects of pesticide residue on produce seem to be unfounded, so lower residue levels on organic produce is not a strong argument in favour of choosing organic produce.
Is organic farming better for the environment?
A huge amount of research has tried to answer this question, but the studies provide contradictory results, depending on the particular crop, the duration of the study and the particular interpretation of “organic” agriculture the researchers followed. It is important to bear in mind the spectrum of organic farms and huge variation between the approach used by small family farms, compared with industrial-scale organic production.
Likewise, it’s difficult to quantify what is “better” for the environment because of the tradeoffs involved in every decision. For instance, is it better to cultivate more land at a lower yield without using synthetic fertilizers if that means clearing more forest, or would it be better to preserve the forest but use synthetic fertilizer on land that is already cleared and risk nitrate runoff into local waterways? The same trade-offs come up for the use of natural versus synthetic pesticides. The body of scientific knowledge does not, at present, provide clear answers to these kinds of questions, even in specific circumstances.
One study is particularly noteworthy because of its duration; researchers compared organic and conventional potato and cereal culture in central Europe over 21 years. Their organic model used on-farm manure from cows fed nitrogen-fixing legume crops as fertilizer, and truly minimized their reliance on inputs from outside the farm. They found that organic agriculture provided a 20% lower yield than conventional methods, but used 50% as much energy and nearly no pesticides. In addition the organic fields had better soil fertility and more biodiversity. The scientists concluded that organic farms of the kind they studied were a realistic alternative to conventional farming systems and preferable to conventional farming because of their reduced ecological impact.
Other studies found the converse, in slightly different cultivation situations. Moreover, it’s not hard to believe that organic agriculture on a scale that can supply Wal-Mart might not be in keeping with the original goal of sustainability. Increased consumer demand has encouraged the practice of “input substitution,” where conventional industrial farms simply switch to dependency on fertilizers and pesticides that are permitted by organic regulations. Shipping “organic” manure thousands of kilometers to use as fertilizer is not sustainable, but it does meet the regulations and lets these farmers charge a premium for their produce.
So, organic farming can be better for the environment, but is not necessarily better; it depends on the particulars of the farming methods. Consumers who advocate buying organic food because it is better for the environment may be right some of the time, but what they really ought to be asking is if the food was grown sustainably – and currently there is no sticker or certification to identify such food. The “organic” designation does not actually tell the consumer whether the food was grown sustainably or not.
So which apples should you buy, the organic or the conventionally grown ones?
The best option is the most sustainable option, taking into consideration the way the food was grown and where it was grown. The best apples you could buy would be from a local orchard that follows the original intention of organic agriculture, whether certified or not. You can probably find such apples at a farmers’ market, and maybe even talk to the person who grew them about his or her approach to farming.
In a grocery store, the most sustainable option is probably the one that was grown closest to home, in order to minimize the fossil fuels consumed during transportation from the orchard to the storefront. If there are locally grown conventional and organic apples to choose from, then the organic ones might be worth the higher price, and you can even try to find out if they are actually grown more sustainably. If you don’t want to think too hard, go with the local option.
This is complicated; please remind me why I should care?
The industrialization of agriculture during the 20th century let farmers increase their yields dramatically so that they were able to feed the growing global population without increasing the surface area of the planet under cultivation. Unfortunately, their high-yield methods have left us with problems such as pesticide pollution and eutrophication.
The scary part is that the global population continues to grow and agricultural production must increase to feed all those new hungry mouths, but we don’t yet know how to increase production sustainably.
Organic farming is often touted as the solution, but there are reasons to doubt its potential to save us from ourselves. It doesn’t appear that organic methods can double the yields from our fields; in fact, organic yields often decrease slightly compared with conventional methods. There isn’t enough high quality arable land on Earth to permit a doubling of the area under cultivation to match a doubled population. So how are we going to feed ourselves, without exacerbating the problems of nitrogen runoff and pesticide pollution, without destroying huge swathes of natural habitat and threatening biodiversity, among other issues? That’s a big question, one worth caring about. The “organic” designation doesn’t really provide answers; it should provoke questions.
Eutrophication: over-enrichment of a water body with nutrients such as nitrates, resulting in overgrowth of organisms including algae and depletion of oxygen by decay processes.
Bioaccumulation: the concentration of toxins in organisms higher up the food chain.
Food and Agriculutre Organization of the United Nations news release, “FAO Director-General appeals for second Green Revolution: Vast effort needed to feed billions and safeguard environment.” September 13, 2006. http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2006/1000392/index.html
Canadian Organic Growers website www.cog.ca
Reganold et al. Sustainability of three apple production systems. Nature 410: 926-930 (2001)
Tilman et al. Agricultural sustainability and intensive production practices. Nature 418: 671-677 (2002)
Trewavas, A. Urban myths of organic farming. Nature 410: 409-410 (2001)
Williams, C.M. Nutritional quality of organic food: shades of grey or shades of green? Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 61:19-24 (2002)
Woese et al. A comparison of organically and conventionally grown foods – results of a review of the relevant literature. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 74:281-293 (1997)