A recent study published by the Food Standards Agency of England claims that organic food is no healthier than conventionally grown food. The 209 page report says in brief (from page 3):
“No evidence of a difference in content of nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products was detected for the majority of nutrients assessed in this review suggesting that organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are broadly comparable in their nutrient content. The differences detected in content of nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are biologically plausible and most likely relate to differences in crop or animal management, and soil quality…”
And it seems reasonable. There is nothing magical about organic food that somehow makes it more nutritious or healthful than conventionally raised food, except the way it may be cultivated.
Simply not spraying plants with chemicals does not increase their nutrient content. But cultivating good, healthy soil rich in minerals and nutrients, and selecting more nutritious varieties of plants can increase their nutrient content, not to mention their taste.
Unfortunately with the entrance of big business into the organic market, we are seeing these quality features (like cultivation of the soil and selection of premium varieties) being sacrificed to the almighty bottom line of profit.
But is it true that organic foods have no health benefits over conventionally grown foods?
In my opinion, no, that is not true. Well raised organic foods have health benefits and other benefits that go far beyond simple nutrient content.
1. No pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, rodenticides and others. Many scientists, doctors, and people in positions of power continue to misguidedly claim there are no health issues related to the use of these chemicals, but that simply isn’t true. If you wish to investigate this further I highly recommend you visit the EWG website or read the book Living Downstream by Sandra Steingraber.
2. Taste. This is not directly health related, but organic food often tastes significantly better than conventional food. This is often a result of choosing tasty varieties. For example, conventional tomato plants have been selected to be fast growing, bountiful (many tomatoes on one plant), large (big tomatoes), disease resistant, and sturdy (meaning tomatoes survive the trip to the market intact). Nowhere in that list of qualities is tasty or nutritious included. Smaller organic farmers often chose tastier, more nutritious varieties and nurture the health of their plants, leading to tastier produce. We could argue that if veggies tasted better people might eat more of them, leading to health benefits.
3. Healthy soil. In conventional farming, soil is often seen as simply the stand that you put the plant in. If the plant needs minerals, you use fertilizer. Organic farmers recognize that the health of the plant is directly related to the health of the soil. Maintaining healthy soil:
a. Reduces environmental impact – healthy soil protects waterways by preventing top soil run off (which also destroys farmland and creates deserts). Also by cultivating healthy soil and avoiding chemicals, run-off is prevented. Run-off is when chemicals drain away from fields into rivers, lakes, and streams, poisoning fish and other wildlife.
b. Protects wildlife – Not only are wildlife protected by preventing run-off, but smaller organic farms tend to be much more diverse and utilize natural protection for crops like hedgerows that provide habitat for wildlife. Birds, bugs, and small animals can thrive around these kinds of farms, allowing us to recover and protect some of our wildlife.
4. Humane treatment of animals – Many people choose not to eat meat because of the horrible way we tend to treat our food animals. If you need more proof, feel free to look up PETA & animal abuse on the internet and they’ll be happy to point you to some truly horrific videos of food animal abuse. But, despite what they say, it doesn’t have to be like this. Food animals can be treated humanely and well, can live good lives, and be killed respectfully. Cows can roam on pasture, and chickens can be free to move about.
5. Fair wages, support of small, family farms – Each year more and more small family farmers (the old backbone of American society) are forced off of their farms due to debt. For a look at this, I recommend the documentary King Corn, which shows that without government subsidies it is impossible for a farmer to make a profit on corn because the price that the market pays is less than what it costs to grow the corn. Selling organic is often a way for these small farmers to make a living. Buying organic, especially from family farmers can provide a fair living wage to real people, and help put the humanity back into farming.
6. Counteract the high cost of cheap – Ellen Shell in her recent book Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture documents the true cost of always striving for the lowest cost. When we go into Wal-Mart of CostCo or any of the variety of discount retailers we often marvel at the low cost of things, but what we fail to see are all of the invisible costs. That cheap shirt may have been made by a child working in poor conditions for a miniscule wage. That factory may be dumping loads of toxic waste into the environment. Shipping that shirt half-way around the world consumes a lot of resources. And that mega-store may have put hundreds of local people out of work: the local store owners and their employees, and the factory workers who used to produce the shirts here in the US. Food is the same – when we buy a quality product and pay a fair wage for it, we improve people’s lives.
When we choose factory farmed conventional food, the price is right, but the hidden costs are the exploitation of poor farm workers, the poisoning of the environment, the inhumane treatment of animals, and the loss of family farmers. When we buy organic food, preferably well made from a small family farmer, we improve the health of our world, as well as our own.
Bottom Line: The nutrient content of conventional food and organic food might be similar but to say then that organic food has no health benefits ignores the many other benefits of organic food.
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