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Organic vs. Conventional Foods: Does it Matter?

Many people these days are interested in cleaning up their lifestyle, and, in doing so, will come across organic vs. inorganic products. Which is healthier? Does it even matter? What are the advantages and disadvantages of eating organic? We are going to answer these questions for you today!


In this article we will cover:



What is the difference between organic and non-organic farming practices?


Let's start with some background.

  • Organic - (of food or farming methods) produced or involving production without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial agents:

  • Non-organic - (especially of food or farming methods) not involving or relating to production by organic methods:


Pretty self-explanatory. The ambiguity and intrigue come when you see words like "chemical fertilizers", "pesticides", and "artificial agents:". What are those, and why are they needed and/or used to grow food?


These substances will help us define what inorganic farming is.


Inorganic farming

Inorganic farming utilizes man-made substances and non-organic methods in order to produce food.


Chemical Fertilizers
Produce is mass produced. There is a need for consistency and reliability when grown this way. Chemical fertilizers are factory made nutrients made from raw chemicals that are designed to mimic the nutrients that a specific crop needs. These are used in conventional farming to increase crop yield and keep food on grocery store shelves. 

The main ingredients in these fertilizers are nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. These elements are necessary for plant growth, but can be harmful in high quantities. Because produce demand is always high, farmers need to pump chemical fertilizers into plants frequently and in large amounts so that they grow faster. As a result, these plants may contain high levels of these chemicals while remaining less nutritious than their organically grown counterparts. When we eat these foods, we are also consuming these chemicals, which can pose health concerns in some people. (1) Some examples of health problems that can develop from consuming these chemicals include:

  • Alzheimer's disease

  • Diabetes

  • Cancer (specifically gastric, brain, and prostate)

  • non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma

  • Leukemia

Pesticides
Inorganic pesticides are chemicals designed to eliminate pests. These pesticides are mined from the earth and do not contain elements that have carbon in their chemical structure. Because of this, these inorganic pesticides are often high in metals, which have been proven to be carcinogenic. (2)

On a side note, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for monitoring and setting guidelines on acceptable chemical and pesticide residues and tolerances that remain on food products. In order for food to be labeled as safe for human consumption, it must fall at or below tolerance levels that indicate safety. In other words, the FDA does not require all produce to be completely free from chemical and pesticidal residues; rather, it requires it to be within a tolerable range, so it is true that we consume these toxins, albeit in very small amounts, regularly when eating conventional foods. (3)


Artificial Agents
"Artificial agents" is the broad term that includes all of the other ingredients that make up conventional farming practices. In short, most of the artificial agents involved in conventional farming fall under the fertilizer and pesticide production categories, since these substances are man-made.

Simply put, inorganic farming practices use the above methods to grow and control the production of food.


Organic Farming

Organic farming utilizes organic substances and methods in order to produce food.


Organic farming relies on a system of crop rotation for disease and pest control, the utilization of cover crops for soil health, green and animal manures for fertilization, the utilization of integrated weed and pest management, which, partially and in short, involves incorporating the aforementioned practices to control weeds and pests, and livestock management, which provides guidelines for raising organic livestock. Used in conjunction, these practices make up organic farming. (4)


What are the advantages and disadvantages of eating organic?


Advantages:

  • No exposure to health threatening diseases or side effects from indirect consumption of inorganic fertilizers, chemicals, heavy metals, or pesticides

  • Support of local farmers

  • Food tastes better

  • Food actually fully supports your health, meat is high in healthy fats, produce has full nutritional value

  • Avoid consumption of added hormones and antibiotics

Disadvantages:

  • Usually higher in cost

  • Not all produce is available year-round

  • Sometimes have a shorter shelf-life

Why is eating organic so expensive?


You may be wondering why eating organic is so expensive if there are no man-made chemicals and pesticides being used.


  1. Demand is lower for organic food than conventional food, which, as a result, drives up the price of organic food.

  2. More labour is required in the growing, harvesting, and packaging of organic food, therefore production cost is higher.

  3. Yield also plays a role in organic food cost. There is less reliability in the growing of organic food than there is with growing conventional food.

  4. Because organic food is often processed and distributed in lesser quantities than conventional food, cost increases to account for transportation and segregation.

  5. All of these factors lead to organic food distribution being inefficient because of its relatively small scale as compared to conventional food distribution, which is widely accepted. This also drives up cost. (5)



Does eating inorganic food affect your health?


Many sources will tell you that eating inorganic does not affect your health because it cannot be proven that the inorganic residues that remain on food harm your health. Take it from Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital,

"The verdict is still out about pesticides and fertilizers as far as the long-term impact on health. There are so many other variables in the environment. It's hard to say it's the pesticide on the peach that was the primary cause of a health-related issue," (6)

While this may be true, as previously discussed, we know that the components that make up fertilizers and pesticides used in inorganic farming have been linked to certain health conditions.


Why buy organic food?


There are many reasons why people choose to buy organic, and that is based on their belief system. Many buy organic because they believe it is the best option for their health. Others believe in supporting local farmers as well as the entire philosophy of organically grown food. Organic food is more expensive, and everyone likes to save money, so whatever the reason people buy organic, it is a personal choice that they believe in that drives that decision.


The cold, hard truth.


The cold, hard truth is, you can never realistically say that the organic food you buy is 100% organic. Chemical and pesticidal runoff and residue can exist in any water system and penetrate organic farm crops. Unless the organic food you are consuming is from a completely controlled environment, it is impossible to say for certain that it is 100% organic.


The Dirty Dozen and Clean 15


The Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 are lists of fruits and vegetables that have the highest levels of pesticide residues. These lists are determined yearly by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) after analyzing the most recent USDA data on pesticide residues that remained on the 46 most popular fruits and vegetables after washing and peeling. Fruits and vegetables with the highest level of pesticide residues make up the Dirty Dozen, and those with the lowest amount of pesticide residues make up the Clean 15. (7) The purpose of these lists is to inform buyers of the fruits and vegetables they can buy conventionally vs. those they should buy organic, if they wish to reduce their consumption of pesticide residues. Here are 2023s lists:


Dirty Dozen

Clean 15

  1. Strawberries

  1. Avocados

2. Spinach

2. Sweet corn*

3. Kale, collard and mustard greens

3. Pineapple

4. Nectarines

4. Onions

5. Apples

5. Papaya*

6. Grapes

6. Sweet peas (frozen)

7. Bell and hot peppers

7. Asparagus

8. Cherries

8. Honeydew melon

9. Peaches

9. Kiwi

10. Pears

10. Cabbage

11. Celery

11. Mushrooms

12. Tomatoes

12. Cantaloupe

13. Mangos

14. Watermelon

15. Sweet Potatoes


Both lists extend beyond 12 and 15 items. If you wish to see how all of the fruits and vegetables they tested stack up against each other, click here. (The top 12 items make up the Dirty Dozen, while the last 15 items make up the Clean 15.)

  • (If you want to check if something is organic, look for the USDA Certified Organic seal on the packaging.)



Alternatives to buying organic.

Perhaps you want to reduce your exposure to the dangerous effects of pesticides, but the price tag is too high. Here are some things you can do to reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals while buying conventional foods.

  • Learn how to grow and preserve your own food.

  • Buy meat labeled "grass fed and finished", or at least "grass finished" to ensure you are getting the best quality products you can. (Side note: not all products labeled "grass fed and finished" mean they are organic, however, these products come from animals that are not fed conventional grains, antibiotics, or hormones. If something is labeled "grass fed and finished", it is safe to assume that it came from a good source because these animals were raised eating only grass without supplementation from grains.

  • Buy from farmers' markets.

  • Remove the outer layers of produce, such as the outer layers of heads of lettuce. This will reduce pesticide residue by some.

  • Clean produce thoroughly with clean, cold water.

  • Buy conventional Clean 15 foods, and organic Dirty Dozen foods.


Summary

My goal here is to make you aware of the information around organic and conventional farming practices so that you can make informed decisions about the foods you consume. We should all be aware of the chemicals and practices involved in growing our food so that we are aware of the health impact it could have on our bodies.


The evidence is clear that conventionally grown food contains certain levels of pesticide residues and chemicals, which, although they lie within a safe tolerance level, can cause health related issues in some people. To avoid any uncertainty, buying organic is your safest bet. If buying organic is out of your price range, buy conventional foods from the Clean 15 list, and organic foods listen on the Dirty Dozen list.


Of course, there is always the option of growing your own food as well!


I wish that you found this article helpful! Let me know in the comments what your thoughts are about buying organic food, and whether this article changed your mind about anything!


Resources:

1.Drug Water

2. Science Direct

3.FDA: Pesticides

4. eos Data Analytics

5. Food and Agriculture Organization

6. Harvard Health

7. Mind Body Green

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