In my opinion this should be one of the questions that you ask yourself every time you go to the grocery store. It probably wasn’t a question that your great-grandmother had to ask, but times have changed and so has our food. So now we must ask ourselves, why organic?
To answer this question lets start off by talking a little bit about conventional agriculture.
Conventional agriculture is not farming. It is an unsustainable food production industry in which the best interests of consumers and the Earth as a whole are overlooked in the pursuit of profit.
While it may efficient at exploiting certain crops for mass production, conventional agriculture is a major contributor to land degradation, biodiversity loss, and air and water pollution due to the immense amount of synthetic pesticides and herbicides that are used to maintain such massive monocultures. (Click on “monocultures” to learn more)
Each year alone 3 million tons of pesticides are used on conventional farms worldwide and upwards of 130 million tons of synthetic fertilizers. This greatly contributes to water contamination and eutrophication. Eutrophication is the process by which an unnatural amount of nitrogen from synthetic fertilizers runs off into water ways where it causes massive algal blooms that suffocate the water of oxygen and nutrients causing what are referred to as “dead zones“. Dead zones are responsible for a tremendous amount of biodiversity loss in the ocean (for more information click on “dead zones” to take you to a more in depth page!)
These synthetic chemicals are not only damaging to the environment, they can also be very harmful to human health and well being.
It has been estimated by the United Nations that there are about 2 million poisonings and 10,000 deaths every year from pesticides. In 2008 alone pesticides were the ninth most common substance that was reported to poison control, and almost half of these reported pesticide poisonings were for children! Scary!!
Now lets take a moment to talk about how pesticide exposure and poisoning are actually assessed and classified.
There is acute toxicity and chronic toxicity.
Acute toxicity is characterized by immediate or a fast onset of symptoms due to the exposure of a toxic chemical (usually in large amounts) that can result in permanent damage or even death. This kind of toxicity is less common in the United States, but in developing nations such as India and Costa Rica it is actually quite common. This is directly due to the intense agriculture done in these countries in order to keep up with the demand of high consumption industrial nations such as the U.S. (usually giant monoculture crops of soy, cotton, corn and tropical fruits such as bananas and pineapples), and in turn these people are exposed to much more chemicals at much higher doses.
Chronic toxicity is what is much more common in the U.S. and Europe. Chronic toxicity is characterized by frequent low dose exposures that accumulate over time and do not show symptoms until the toxicity has gotten severe. We see this form of pesticide toxicity much more frequently in the U.S. because the majority of the population live in urban and suburban areas and do not have direct exposure to the chemicals when they are being sprayed on the field. However, there is still large scale pesticide use in the U.S. and even without living near a farm there can still be low dose exposure from consuming the fruits and vegetables that were sprayed, and over time these small incidences can accumulate and cause chronic toxicity.
So now that we have clarified the differences between acute and chronic toxicity lets talk about how the toxicity of a substance is classified in the first place.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are responsible for analyzing these chemicals and determining a “tolerance level” for foods that we get in the grocery store as well as animal feed. These tolerance levels are established based off of the LD50 (Lethal Dose 50) for each individual compound. The Lethal Dose 50 is a test used where a subject group (typically mice or rabbits) are exposed to a toxic chemical and then observed until the amount of that chemical administered causes 50% of the population to die. The amount of toxin that caused 50% of the population to die is referred as the LD50 for that chemical. The EPA uses the LD50 as a tolerance reference in order to determine the maximum amount of certain chemicals that may legally remain on food items.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is then responsible for the enforcement of these tolerances. This is done by periodically monitoring certain food items and testing them for pesticide content. In a 2003 FDA monitoring program that tested 7,234 samples of conventional produce, 49% of fruit, 29% of vegetables, and 26% of grain products had detectable amounts of pesticide residue but were still technically “legally allowable”.
This is just to show how many pesticides can be on your and your child’s food even though it is considered “tolerable”. But where do these chemicals go when eat them? Studies have shown that pesticides tend to accumulate in the fatty tissues and reproductive organs of mammals where they can stay for a very, very long time.
That being said, an organic diet free of synthetic pesticides can potentially rid your body of these toxins and prevent them from building up and causing toxicity!
In fact, a study done on elementary school students in Seattle, Washington found that the children eating conventional foods had detectable levels of pesticides in their bodies, but when switched to an organic diet the pesticide levels immediately dropped. The study observed 23 elementary school students ranging from 3-11 years old, all of which had detectable levels of organophosphates (a harmful group of pesticides) in their urine. The children were given a controlled organic diet for 5 days and then returned to their conventional diet for another 5 days. Immediately after switching to organic the pesticide levels were reduced and continued to drop until the conventional diet was reintroduced and the pesticide levels went right back up again. This is just one of many studies that show how our food choices can be directly associated with our pesticides exposure. (Click on the word “study” in order to read the article for yourself.)
Synthetic pesticide use is one of the most dangerous aspects of conventional farming and it is something that we as consumers must all be aware of! And since there are dozens of different types of pesticides out there here are some of the common harmful ones that you want to avoid at all costs: Organophosphates, Pyrethroids, Neonicotinoids, Organochlorines, and Carbamate. (Click on any of the above pesticides to get more info!)
Now that we have talked on and on about why you shouldn’t settle for conventionally grown food, lets talk on a lighter note about why you should go organic!
Here are my top reasons why you should go organic:
Organic is better for your health
Organically grown produce has little to no pesticide residue, so by simply buying organic produce you can drastically reduce your exposure to chemical toxins. Organic foods may still have small amounts of chemical residue though, mainly due to contamination from nearby conventional farms, as well as having trace amounts of organic pesticides. Organic pesticides are not synthetic and are derived from natural sources, such as plants and bacteria. Although these organic pesticides are still pesticides, they tend to be much less harmful to human health and the environment because they are readily broken down, whereas synthetic pesticides are known to persist in the environment as well as in people and animals too! To understand the differences between synthetic and organic pesticides it might help to think of a paper bag vs. a plastic bag. They are both bags, but the paper one is made of natural materials and the plastic one is made of synthetic, man-made materials. So if you were to take both bags, pour some water on them and leave them outside for a few weeks you will notice that the paper bag has been completely decomposed where the plastic bag hasn’t broken down at all and practically looks the same as it did weeks ago! This is exactly what happens with pesticides, the organic ones eventually breakdown but the synthetic ones persist.
According to Jane Goodall’s book, “Harvest for Hope”, when chimps were given a chance between organic bananas and conventional bananas 9 out of 10 times they would choose the organic produce! And when only given conventional bananas the chimps would peel the fruit before eating it, whereas with organic bananas they just eat the whole thing, skin and all! If that isn’t eye-opening to the reality of pesticide residue than I don’t know what is!
Organic is better for the environment
Organic farming is much more sustainable than conventional farming. Organic farms engage in a variety of sustainable practices such as crop rotation, no till farming, biological pest control, as well as diversifying crops and incorporating hedge rows. (Click on any of those terms for more info!) Most of these practices are actually very old, traditional ways of farming that are now being embraced by organic farmers in order to move away from industrial agricultural and restore farming to the way that it should be. Every dollar that you spend on organic produce is a dollar that is supporting the well being of our planet for all future generations to come.
Organic is better for the people
In general, organic farms are small family-owned farms, so when you buy organic you are supporting local farmers in your community. This is not always true of course because there are big companies out there switching to organic due to the demand from the public, and these farms, while still being better for your health and for the environment, may not necessarily be small and local. However, if you do your shopping at the local farmers market or local co-op, the chances that the organic produce you buy is going to be supporting local farmers is much higher. Another aspect of concern is the well being and health of farm workers themselves. Overall the standard of living for workers on organic farms is much greater than conventional farm workers. As I already mentioned, conventional farm workers have much more exposure to toxic chemicals, but they also tend to have a worse standard of life. Sadly, it is quite common for conventional farm workers to commit suicide due to the stressful environment, and this is often done using the toxic synthetic pesticides themselves. This fact is quite disturbing, but it is just one more extremely important reason to support organic farms. (Click here for more info!)
Organic is better for the animals
One of the biggest concerns with industrial agriculture is the horrific treatment of farm animals. Chickens are crammed inside egg houses by the thousands without ever getting the chance to peck around in a field. Cows are denied open pastures and are instead confined to filthy areas where they have to live in their own feces. And pigs are kept in cages so small that they cannot even lay down. Along with this cruel and usual treatment, all of the animals are fed unnatural diets and are constantly pumped full of chemical concoctions consisting of growth hormones and antibiotics. And these are just a few of the awful ways that modern farm animals are treated. One option to prevent your money from supporting the companies that treat their animals like this is to go vegetarian or vegan, but for those who still want to have meat every now and then there are still more humane options! One of which is to only buy organic animal products. According to USDA organic standards, if a animal product is organic it means that the animal was fed a natural diet that is 100% organic, they were not treated with antibiotics or hormones, and they are allowed access to the outdoors year-round! That means that when you buy organic you are ensured that the animal was provided with a more natural living situation, where chickens can actually peck and cows can actually graze!
Overall organic farming incorporates a more holistic approach to food production that is better for your health and the health of the world. Organic farming alone will not save the planet, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.
C. Lu, K. Toepel, R. Irish, R. Fenske, D. Barr, and R. Bravo. “Organic Diets Significantly Lower Children’s Dietary Exposure to Organophosphorus Pesticides.” Environmental Health Perspectives (2006): Web.
D. Rigby, and D. Caceres. “Organic farming and the sustainability of agricultural systems.” Agricultural Systems (2001): Web.
Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations (http://www.fao.org/organicag/oa-faq/oa-faq6/en/)
J. Roberts, and C. Karr. “Pesticide Exposure in Children.” American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health (2013): Web.
J. Bertolote, A. Fleischmann, M. Eddleston, and D. Gunnell. “Deaths from pesticide poisoning: a global response.” The British Journal of Psychiatry (2007): Web.
L. Horrigan, R. Lawrence, and P. Walker. “How Sustainable Agriculture Can Address the Environmental and Human Health Harms of Industrial Agriculture.” Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland, USA (2002): Web.
USDA organic fact sheet (https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Organic%20Livestock%20Requirements.pdf)