The case against organic foods and what you may not know about them

A food product is labeled "organic" after it meets some relatively strict standards and governments around the world have set the bar fairly high. In the US, for example, pesticides for produce are quite limited (but not eliminated) and fertilizer must meet certain standards (not all of which are certified organic). For livestock, no growth hormones can be used and no antibiotics administered (there is no scientific data to suggest this matters one way or another to the consumer -I give antibiotics to my 4 year old). I infer that these measures are desirable but can find no data to suggest they help consumers in any way.

The good news for organic farming, though, is that it generally takes less energy to produce organic products and reduces waste produced at these farms. That most certainly has a positive impact on the environment. With limited pesticide use, fragile ecosystems are spared contamination which reduces risk to drinking water and migratory birds. Okay, so far we're on a good roll. Even with appropriate handling, pesticides have always been a plague for farmers. Studies indicate health risks for workers and higher rates of respiratory problems as well as cancers and other health problems. Still on the plus side for organics. It seems organic farming is less damaging in its contained environment.

Now the problems. To surmise the mountains of research I poured over, I find 3 issues with organics that I cannot overlook. Cost, consumer benefit and availability are all issues that need to be overcome before I jump onboard this bandwagon. First, cost. This is simple math. In a time when job loss is at record highs, mortgages are falling out from underneath homeowners, and the economy is in the general toilet, organic marketers are charging significantly higher prices (10-40%) to make you believe your food is better for you if it's organic. What's more, one might be lead to believe that giving your kid an apple from a conventional farm is child abuse, so organic is a must. Cost is high because most of these farms are smaller family operations and even with local and sustainable sources, demand is higher than production keeping costs elevated. My only charge here is that buying organic is great, but in a time of economic instability, I feel like consumers are being bullied into these higher prices.

Next is consumer benefit. None of the studies I looked at found any life prolonging or definite health benefit from eating organic foods. Some organic foods do show higher levels of stuff that is good for you, such as certain antioxidants, but no study implies that the quantities found in non organic produce is inadequate. No medicated animal meat has been shown to be linked with any disease, disorder or shorter lifespan. The data just isn't there. Residual pesticides are higher on non organic produce (up to 77%) but that's why you wash it. Organic produce isn't off the hook though for residual pesticide (up to 25%) and some organically approved pesticides are equally as toxic to wildlife.

Lastly, this issue of availability brings up an under-discussed topic. While organic food consumption is the fastest growing market in the food industry, currently only 1-2% of the worlds food supply is considered organic. Since organic farms produce far less consumables per acre than conventional farms (up to 40% less), some environmentalists actually think it's a bad idea to try to increase organic consumption arguing that there just isn't enough space. To me, that implies that there is actually a negative benefit to run out and buy certain products. I found one paper that said if organic consumption reached 25% worldwide, we would destroy a large amount of the world's rain forests (not sure I'm on board with that hypothesis).

For me, there is eye opening information available to tell me the jury is still out on organics. If that is your lifestyle, I quite respect that but I hope you are aware there is a yin and a yang. Organic foods and the green movement are separate issues in my eye and while I believe in the whole carbon footprint thing and reducing our impact on the world can only be valuable, I'm not ready to spend 10-40% more in the grocery store because a well thought out marketing campaign pushes me to do so.

You decide.

Before you run out and splurge on your "organic" products, there are many things you may want to understand. The marketing campaigns from the companies who provide these foods tell you the benefits, and there are benefits, but fail to share all of the facts from the scientific community.

I must admit, when I began research for this article, I was expecting to paint a more negative picture about the organic movement. I just felt like there had to be criticism since most of our knowledge about organic food production comes by way of the folks who make the most money from its consumption. That's like the fox guarding the henhouse. Instead, however, I find a highly regulated industry with a wealth of scientific data to support organic foods but, unfortunately, an equal amount of problems with it. Therefore, I'll highlight what I've learned and you be the judge.

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