Organic is a HUGE industry at the moment but is it better? There are a lot of opinions out there and unfortunately, most (if not all) are biased one way or another. Let’s try to break it down scientifically. At the bottom of the page, I’ve included an awesome podcast episode from Science Vs. I highly recommend you listen to it.
What is conventional farming?
A conventional farm (sometimes called a GMO farm) uses seeds that have been genetically modified to grow plants that may have a faster growth rate, higher yields (produce more), are pest and disease resistant and/or possess sweeter fruits. They may also use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. These crops may be grown for consumption or they may be grown for a specific use. An example of a crop being grown for a specific use is low-linolenic soybeans. These soybeans may be grown for a company that is looking to make oil from the soybeans but do not want it to require hydrogenation. Hydrogenation is a chemical process that turns liquid oil into partially solid oil.
What is organic farming?
Organic farming does not use seeds that have been genetically modified, synthetic (human-made) pesticides, or synthetic fertilizers. They often use crop rotations to improve and maintain soil quality, natural pesticides and other organic methods to help their crops grow. Organic pastoral farmers cannot use antibiotics or hormones, and the animals must be fed an organic feed.
What does it mean for a product to be certified organic?
If something is certified organic in the U.S., it means that the product has been grown, harvested (picked), and processed according to organic standards that are verified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). To become certified, farmers must submit documents to the National Organic Program (NOP). The NOP then checks if the crops meet organic standards. This check is done annually.
Conventional Farming vs. Organic Farming
Many people have very strong opinions on which method of farming is better. Some say that organic farming is better because it is healthier, tastes better, farmers do not use pesticides, and it is better for the planet. Others disagree but what do the facts tell us? Let’s look at each individually.
- Are organics healthier? A study in the UK conducted a peer review (a review of many different studies already done) from articles published from 1958 until 2008. In the review, they compared the nutrient levels in organic and conventional crops and found no difference in the content of 15 different nutrients. Alternatively, a different peer review study done by the British Journal of Nutrition in 2014, found that “organic crops contained higher antioxidant levels than their non-organic counterparts” (Cost of Organic Food, 2015) which would be beneficial to the person eating it.
- Do they taste better? This one is tough as there’s a lot of bias out there and people are so easily influenced by their own preconceived ideas. If you were to look at a study done by the Organic industry, they would say yes, organics do taste better. If you were to look at a study done by the Conventional industry, they would say no. A study done at the University of Uppsala in Sweden found that there was no difference in a blind test. Meaning that if the people responding didn’t know what they were getting (organic or conventional); they didn’t pick one method over the other. However, if you lied to them and said that the food was organic, they were much more likely to say that it was better even though it was actually conventionally grown.
- Do organic farmers use pesticides on their crops? Yes they do. These pesticides are just certified as organic as they are derived from natural sources. Some of these pesticides have even been shown to have the same side effects as synthetic pesticides.
- Is organic farming better for the planet? Organic farming is better for the planet on a smaller scale as rotating crops keeps the soil healthier. However, large organic farms are not as effective as large conventional farms at growing crops. That means that to grow the same amount of food, you need more land, which is bad for the planet.
Organic farming also comes with a price, literally. In a study done in 2015 by Consumer Reports, they found that after comparing the price of organic and conventional foods, organics cost and average of 47% more.
This is not to say that conventional farming is perfect. Conventional farming often results in the soil being malnourished and the over spraying of pesticides can lead to resistance in the pests, creating ‘super bugs’ that can’t easily be killed. The resistance in pests could lead to the development and usage of a stronger pesticide, which could cause side effects in the animals and people that consume the product.
As promised, here’s the Podcast I mentioned. You’re going to love it.