The Case for Organics

If you haven’t joined the organic movement yet, now may be the time.

The last time I was at my grandmother’s house, she was proud to point out the organic veggies she had just picked up at her local store. She’s 79 years old, and though she grew up on a farm and has diligently maintained her own garden ever since I can remember, organic has never been part of her vocabulary… until now. It wasn’t long ago that “organic” was a word confined to the aisles of health food stores, spoken only by health nuts, but it has since busted out of that box, and in a big way. In 2009, 73 percent of U.S. families reported buying organic products at least occasionally and 31 percent of families say that they are actually buying more organic foods compared to a year ago.[1]

The organic food sector has seen a growth rate of about 20 percent each year since 2001,[2] but even with this steady growth, much confusion remains when it comes to organic foods. What makes a food organic? Are organic foods really more nutritious? Are they worth the extra cost? Let’s take a look.

The organic promise

Organic agriculture is based on a system of farming that maintains and replenishes soil fertility, prohibits the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and promotes biodiversity. Certified organic means that the farmer or producer has undergone a regular inspection of farm, facilities, ingredients and practices by an independent third party certifier, accredited by the USDA National Organic Program. Synthetic pesticides, animal drugs (hormones and antibiotics), sewage sludge, genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), irradiation and chemical fertilizers are prohibited in organic growing and production. And all organic food and beverages sold in the United States, no matter where they were grown, must meet or exceed U.S. organic regulations.[3]

Are organic foods really better for you?

If you’ve ever wondered if there are real health benefits to eating organic foods, consider this: a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study involving 9,282 people between the ages of 6 and 59 showed that 94 percent of the subjects had organophosphorus (OP) metabolites in their bodies.[4] OP pesticides are among the most widely used pesticides in the U.S.[5] The CDC study found that Mexican Americans, women and children carry the heaviest “body burdens” of OPs.[6]

Similar studies have shown that, like adults, most children have measurable levels of OPs in their bodies[7] and it was recently discovered that children younger than seven lack sufficient levels of the enzyme that is responsible for detoxifying pesticides.[8] This means that pesticide residues remain in children’s bodies for a longer period of time than originally thought.

Studies are continuously linking pesticide exposure to serious diseases and health issues including cancer, asthma, compromised immunity, neurological disorders, reproductive damage and birth defects.[9] [10] In just the past two years, studies have linked pesticide exposure to Parkinson’s disease,[11] [12] [13] [14] an increase in suicidal thoughts,[15] an increased risk of a blood disorder that can lead to cancer of the plasma cells[16] and an increased risk of testicular cancer.[17]

Dietary intake of OP pesticides is a major source of exposure, especially for children. One study of 110 urban and suburban children found measurable levels of pesticide residues in the urine of all children sampled, except for one child, whose parents reported buying exclusively organic produce.[18] Researchers concluded that one of the simplest ways to reduce pesticide exposure is to choose organic foods.

Are organic foods more nutritious?

We all know we’re supposed to eat our fruits and vegetables, but do we really know why? There are the vitamins and minerals, of course, but then there are those phytonutrients we’ve all heard of—resveratrol, lutein, lycopene, zeaxanthin and EGCG, to name just a few. They are the health-promoting antioxidants, phenols and flavonoids that research shows protect us from cancer, cardiovascular disease and premature aging. Plants produce these compounds in response to outside stressors, like pests and disease, but when they are synthetically protected, the plants no longer have the need to produce these protective phytonutrients. In short, pesticides render plants lazy.

Because they are left to deal with outside stressors on their own, organic plants tend to produce fruit and vegetables that are far richer in protective phytonutrients compared to their conventional counterparts. Studies are increasingly proving that organically-grown fruits and vegetables contain significantly higher levels of many phytonutrients compared to conventionally-grown produce.[19] [20] [21] [22] For example:

  • Organic blueberries have significantly higher levels of phenols, anthocyanins and antioxidant activity compared to conventional blueberries.[23]
  • Organic tomatoes contain an average of 79 and 97 percent more of two beneficial flavonoids compared to conventional tomatoes.[24]
  • Organic kiwis have a significantly higher polyphenol content, resulting in higher antioxidant activity, compared to conventional kiwis.[25]

In addition to containing more phytonutrients, organic fruits and vegetables also tend to have higher levels of vitamins and minerals. Reviewing 41 published studies comparing the nutritional value of organically-grown and conventionally-grown fruits, vegetables and grains, one researcher found that there were significantly more of several nutrients in organic crops, including: 27% more vitamin C; 21% more iron; 29% more magnesium; and 13.6% more phosphorus.[26]

Environmental impact

It is estimated that more than 1 billion pounds of pesticides are used in the U.S. each year, and as shown by the pervasiveness of DDT in the environment years after it was banned, many of these pesticides remain in the environment long after application, sometimes for generations.[27] The massive amounts of pesticides and fertilizers used on conventional crops and the hormones and antibiotics used in conventionally-raised animals eventually end up in soil and water systems, and ultimately, humans and other living things.

The chemicals used in conventional farming are polluting streams and watersheds,[28] disrupting delicate soil ecosystems, creating dead zones in the ocean,[29] [30] [31] and killing hundreds of thousands of birds, amphibians, butterflies, bats, bees and other creatures each year.[32] [33] [34]

On the other hand, organic farming promotes and protects the health of the environment by promoting biodiversity[35] and building and replenishing soil ecology.[36] [37] And important research is emerging showing that organic farming can help combat global warming by sequestering large amounts of greenhouse gasses. The Rodale Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes organic and sustainable farming around the world, has shown that organic farming practices can remove about 7,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from the air each year, sequestering it in one acre of farmland.[38] The organization estimates that if all 434 million acres of U.S. cropland were converted to organic, it would be the equivalent of eliminating 217 million cars.[39]

So are organics worth the extra cost? In 2008, Americans spent less than 10 percent of their income on food, compared to 20 percent in 1950. And that number continues to fall.[40] It’s time to consider the real cost of the food we eat—when you think about the negative health and environmental effects of conventional farming, paying a few more cents for those organic apples doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. I think my grandmother would agree.

Additional Resources

USDA Organic Standards and Labeling          

The national standards for organic foods establish consistent regulations throughout the United States. Therefore, consumers have the benefit of knowing exactly what the standards are, and that they are consistent from state to state. To receive national organic certification, foods must meet the following requirements:

  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – meaning manipulating genes across species – are forbidden.
  • Irradiation and the use of processed sewage sludge as fertilizer are prohibited.
  • Organic livestock must have access to pasture, organically-grown feed, and be treated humanely. Antibiotics and growth hormones are not permitted, and sick animals are treated, but removed from the herd.
  • Synthetic pesticides and herbicides may not be used. Organic farmers instead rely on a collection of natural methods of farming, including cover crops, crop rotation, beneficial insects, companion planting, and the use of compost, to create the quality fertile soil that results in healthy, nutrient-dense plants.

All foods bearing the organic label must be certified to United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards, with oversight by the National Organic Program (NOP), a division of the Agricultural Marketing Service of the USDA. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must also be certified.

Clear Labeling

Along with the national organic standards, USDA developed strict labeling rules to help consumers know the exact organic content of the food they purchase. The USDA Certified Organic seal (shown below) may be voluntarily placed on organic food. Requirements for the labels and seal are as follows:

  • 100% Organic: These foods must contain only organically produced ingredients, excluding water and salt. The USDA seal can be used on these packages. For example, the word “organic” and the seal may appear on such single-ingredient packages like meat, cartons of milk or eggs, and cheese.
  • Organic: These foods must consist of at least 95% organically- produced ingredients, excluding water and salt. The USDA seal can be used on these packages.
  • Made with organic ingredients: Processed products that contain at least 70% organic ingredients can use this phrase and list up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups on the principal display panel. The USDA seal cannot be used on these packages, but the percentage of organic content and the certifier’s seal or mark may be used. The nonorganic ingredients (30% or less) may not be genetically engineered or include other prohibited methods such as irradiation or fertilization with sewage sludge. Products made with less than 70% organic ingredients can only identify organic ingredients in the ingredient statement and cannot use the USDA organic seal or a certifier’s seal or mark.

References

[1] “2009 U.S. Families’ Organic Attitudes & Beliefs Study,” A joint project of Organic Trade Association and Kiwi magazine, June 2009.

[2] “2009 U.S. Families’ Organic Attitudes & Beliefs Study,” A joint project of Organic Trade Association and Kiwi magazine, June 2009.

[3] http://www.ota.com/organic/benefits/fruits.html

[4] Barr D., et al “Concentrations of Dialkyl Phosphate Metabolites of Organophosphorus Pesticides in the U.S. Population,” Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 112, 2004

[5] Barr D., et al “Concentrations of Dialkyl Phosphate Metabolites of Organophosphorus Pesticides in the U.S. Population,” Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 112, 2004

[6] http://www.panna.org/docsTrespass/ChemTresMain(screen).pdf

[7] Curl C., et al “Organophosphorus Pesticide Exposure of Urban and Suburban Preschool Children with Organic and Conventional Diets,” Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 111, No. 3, March 2003.

[8] Huen at al. Developmental Changes in PON1 Enzyme Activity in Young Children and Effects of PON1 Polymorphisms, Environmental Health Perspectives. 2009 June. doi: 10.1289/ehp.0900870

[9] http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/167726-overview

[10] http://www.panna.org/docsTrespass/ChemTresMain(screen).pdf

[11] Caroline M. Tanner; G. Webster Ross; Sarah A. Jewell; Robert A. Hauser; Joseph Jankovic; Stewart A. Factor; Susan Bressman; Amanda Deligtisch; Connie Marras; Kelly E. Lyons; Grace S. Bhudhikanok; Diana F. Roucoux; Cheryl Meng; Robert D. Abbott; J. William Langston. “Occupation and Risk of Parkinsonism: A Multicenter Case-Control Study.” Arch Neurol, 2009; 66 (9): 1106-1113

[12] Harvard School of Public Health. “Pesticides Exposure Associated With Parkinson’s Disease.” ScienceDaily 26 June 2006. 4 February 2010 <http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2006/06/060626091842.htm>

[13] BioMed Central/BMC Neurology. “Link Between Pesticides And Parkinson’s Strengthened With Family Study.” ScienceDaily 29 March 2008. 4 February 2010 <http://www.sciencedaily.com­/releases/2008/03/080328070136.htm>

[14] Sadie Costello, Myles Cockburn, Jeff Bronstein, Xinbo Zhang, and Beate Ritz. “Parkinson’s Disease and Residential Exposure to Maneb and Paraquat From Agricultural Applications in the Central Valley of California.” American Journal of Epidemiology, 2009; 169 (8): 919 DOI: 10.1093/aje/kwp006

[15] Stewart et al. “Pesticide exposure and suicidal ideation in rural communities in Zhejiang Province, China.” Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 2009; 87 (10): 745 DOI: 10.2471/BLT.08.054122

[16] American Society of Hematology. “Individuals Who Apply Pesticides Are Found To Have Double The Risk Of Blood Disorder.” ScienceDaily 17 June 2009. 4 February 2010 <http://www.sciencedaily.com­/releases/2009/06/090612163533.htm>

[17] Journal of the National Cancer Institute. “Pesticide Metabolites Associated With Increased Risk Of Testicular Cancers, Study Shows.” ScienceDaily 30 April 2008. 4 February 2010 <http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2008/04/080429170604.htm>

[18] C. Lu, D.E. Knutson, J. Fisker-Andersen, and R.A. Fenske, “Biological Monitoring Survey of Organophosphorus Pesticide Exposure among Preschool Children in the Seattle Metropolitan area,” Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 109, No. 3, March 2001, pp. 299-303

[19] Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Vol. 51, No. 19, 2003, pp. 5671-5676

[20] “Comparison of the Total Phenolic and Ascorbic Content of Freeze-Dried and Air-Dried Marionberry, Strawberry, and Corn Grown Using Conventional, Organic, and Sustainable Agricultural Practices,” D.K. Asami, Y.-J. Hong, D.M. Barrett, and A.E. Mitchell, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 51(5):1,237-1,241 (2003)

[21] Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. August 2002

[22] “Are organically grown apples tastier and healthier? A comparative field study using conventional and alternative methods to measure fruit quality,” F.P. Weibel, R.Bickel, S. Leuthold, and T. Alföldi), Acta Hort. 517: 417-427 (2000)

[23] Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Vol. 56, pages 5,788-5794 (2008), published online on July 1, 2008

[24] Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, posted online June 23, 2007

[25] Online edition of the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture: March 27, 2007

[26] “Nutritional Quality of Organic Versus Conventional Fruits, Vegetables, and Grains,” by Virginia Worthington, published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Vol. 7, No. 2, 2001 (pp. 161-173)

[27] http://www.ota.com/organic/benefits/fruits.html

[28] U.S. Geological Survey, “Pesticides in the Nation’s Streams and Ground Water, 1992-2001,” http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/2005/1291/

[29] “Toxic Fertility,” by Danielle Nierenberg, WorldWatch, March/April 2001, pages 30-38

[30] Testimony of the Honorable Eileen Claussen, president and chair of the board, Strategies for the Global Environment, and member, Pew Oceans Commission, before the Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans, House Committee on Resources, May 24, 2001

[31] Marine Pollution in the United States: Significant Accomplishments, Future Challenges,” review led by Dr. Donald Boesch from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Pew Oceans Commission, 2001

[32] Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, Vol. 25 (1), 2006

[33] Behavioral Brain Research (online July 7, 2006)

[34] “The Economic Impacts of Pollinator Declines: an Approach to Assessing the Consequences, “published in the online journal Conservation Ecology 5(1):8 (2001), www.consecol.org/vol5/iss1/art8

[35] “The Biodiversity Benefits of Organic Farming,” The Soil Association, May 2000

[36] “No Shortcuts in Checking Soil Health,” Agricultural Research, July 2007 http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/jul07/soil0707.htm?pf=1

[37] http://www.ota.com/organic/benefits/global.html

[38] Tim J. LaSalle and Paul Hepperly, “Regenerative Organic Farming: A Solution to Global Warming,” Rodale Institute, 2008

[39] Tim J. LaSalle and Paul Hepperly, “Regenerative Organic Farming: A Solution to Global Warming,” Rodale Institute, 2008

[40] http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/CPIFoodAndExpenditures/Data/table7.htm

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