Demystifying your Food
Does organic food live up to it's reputation?
Demand for organic food is on the rise globally, promising people healthier and more environmentally-friendly lives. But is buying organic better for you and the environment than conventionally-grown food, or, is this just a marketing term for a luxury item?
Perceptions traditionally associated with the organic movement are changing as the market evolves from small farms with environmental ethos to large corporations and government regulations. Let's take a look at a few areas of contention:
Definitions vary
Less chemicals but some toxicity
Nutrient density
Smaller yields
Big-Ag entering the picture
Corruption
Definitions differ based on whom you talk to...

There are vastly different views on what criteria should be in place for food to be considered 'organic'. Most people define 'organic' as food grown without pesticides or synthetic chemicals. Some schools of thought believe only foods grown in soil can be labeled 'organic' (vs. food grown in closed-loop systems like aquaponics or hydroponics). Others believe that organic growing should go beyond the plant or animal and positively contribute to soil health and the broader ecosystem. (Hence we see a lot of pushback on new organic cultivation practices from the 'established' organic industry as factory farms and 'vertical plant farms' move into the organic space.)

Governments have different rules and definitions for how they classify organic food (and lots of disparities too). The USDA regulates agriculture in the US and defines organic food as an agricultural product not subjected to synthetic chemicals or prohibited substances, but there are over 60 exceptions. A lot of these are things we use in everyday life and would not think twice about, like ethanol alcohol and hydrogen peroxide. However, there are also things on the list like Xylazine, a horse tranquilizer, and copper, which can have detrimental effects on human and microorganism health.

The USDA also has exceptions for certain non-organic ingredients (like gums, gelatin, and food colorings) that can be added to foods labeled as organic (check out section 205.606). Also, foods can be labeled 'made with organic' if they contain just 70% organically-produced materials.

In the EU, guidelines for organic seem much more strict as they go beyond plants and livestock to include land management practices too. They currently do not allow foods grown hydroponically to be labeled organic and have a complete ban on GMOs.
Fewer chemicals on food

In the US, foods are tested yearly by the USDA for chemical residues. An analysis of these tests compared pesticide residues found on organic vs. conventional produce and found there were 0.75 detections of pesticide residue on organic food vs. 3.2 detections found on conventionally-grown foods. This data has limitations because the USDA does not test for all of the pesticides used by organic farmers. Also, washing and cooking food remove chemical residues too.

Organic pesticides can still cause damage to an ecosystem

Environmentally, there is plenty of data showing that conventional pesticides can stay in the soil for years and have adverse effects on pollinators, biodiversity, and soil quality (despite having GRAS status and approval from the EPA.) There is not a lot of data on the long-term effects of synthetic chemicals ingested by humans or their synergistic effects.

That's not to say organic farmers never amend the soil or spray organic pesticides. 'Natural' compounds like manure and compost can sometimes contain heavy metals, hormones, and antibiotics. Some of are even considered slightly toxic by the EPA in high doses.

For example, diatomaceous earth is a powder used by organic farmers that kills annoying bugs like aphids and whitefly. But, once applied to a plant, it also kills beneficial insects and pollinators. So just because something is 'natural' does not guarantee it's safer in all cases. Looking at effects on the wider ecosystem is essential.
Nutrient-wise, studies have shown there are more antioxidants and less harmful metals (like cadmium) found in organic foods than conventional.
Organic yields are a little smaller

Synthetic pesticides in agriculture were adopted, in part, because they resulted in larger yields. Since adoption, global food security has increased. Without conventionally-grown food, most people think we would have more food scarcity and would not be able to feed the growing worldwide populations.

However, recent modeling and analyses showed that organic farming can feed most of the world's population, with the caveat that the population moves away from a meat-centric diet and consumes more vegetables. The majority of farmland in the world is being used for livestock grazing which produces an enormous amount of greenhouse gases. While organic farming produces smaller yields (on average 19% smaller) than conventional growing, theories abound that switching the use of farmland from grazing to organic vegetables would be viable if dietary choices were to change. Couple that with the fact that worldwide we waste about 25% of our food and the yield disparity is not that detrimental.
Big-Ag going organic produces higher greenhouse gases

Julius McGee, a researcher at the University of Oregon, uncovered higher greenhouse gas emissions in organic growing methods compared to conventional farming when large farming corporations are involved because they use heavy machinery coupled with on average lower yields from organics. Participation from Big-Ag in the organic sector will continue to grow because of both demand and the fact that they support the sourcing of ingredients for other players in the food industry too. For example, if Trader Joe's or Frito-Lay wants to create an organic potato chip, the potatoes, as well as, the sunflower seeds, soybeans, and corn must all be grown organically for the final product to be organic.

Beyond environmental concerns, the presence of Big-Ag also threatens smaller organic producers given their economies of scale. However, there are upsides to large corporations joining the organic supply chain for consumers. More supply will help drive down the price of organic food and contribute to a more equitable distribution of organic food.
"The certification system is rife for fraud because certifiers are paid by the corporate clients they monitor. Certifiers then collaborate with, and financially contribute to, lobbying organizations that advance the interests of these same corporate agribusinesses."
Documented corruption with regulators

Now for the juicy part... There is also controversy with the 'certifying agents' who inspect organic farms to ensure they are following the regulations. Third parties who research and investigate agricultural practices, like the Cornucopia Institute, have uncovered corruption amongst various US-based certifying agents, stating that they're "incentivized by profit and corporate influence." They go on to explain,"The certification system is rife for fraud because certifiers are paid by the corporate clients they monitor. Certifiers then collaborate with, and financially contribute to, lobbying organizations that advance the interests of these same corporate agribusinesses."

The Washington Post reported on unsound practices by certifying agents for Aurora Dairy--one of the biggest dairies in the US who provide milk under the Costco and WalMart brands. Cows producing organic milk are supposed to be allowed to graze every day throughout their growing season. However, monitoring of the herds and aerial photographs proved otherwise. When this issue was brought up to the certifying agents, they had no recourse because their inspections were scheduled after the grazing season was over.

The US is not alone in a lack of transparency and corruption. Recent reports coming from a news source in the Netherlands analyzed inspection reports from Skal, the (only) Dutch company allowed to certify food in the Netherlands as organic. Their findings state that almost one in ten farmers did not meet the EU organic standards in 2017-2018, yet the companies are still allowed to sell their products as 'organic.'
Documented corruption with regulators

Now for the juicy part... There is also controversy with the 'certifying agents' who inspect organic farms to ensure they are following the regulations. Third parties who research and investigate agricultural practices, like the Cornucopia Institute, have uncovered corruption amongst various US-based certifying agents, stating that they're "incentivized by profit and corporate influence." They go on to explain,"The certification system is rife for fraud because certifiers are paid by the corporate clients they monitor. Certifiers then collaborate with, and financially contribute to, lobbying organizations that advance the interests of these same corporate agribusinesses."

The Washington Post reported on unsound practices by certifying agents for Aurora Dairy--one of the biggest dairies in the US who provide milk under the Costco and WalMart brands. Cows producing organic milk are supposed to be allowed to graze every day throughout their growing season. However, monitoring of the herds and aerial photographs proved otherwise. When this issue was brought up to the certifying agents, they had no recourse because their inspections were scheduled after the grazing season was over.

The US is not alone in a lack of transparency and corruption. Recent reports coming from a news source in the Netherlands analyzed inspection reports from Skal, the (only) Dutch company allowed to certify food in the Netherlands as organic. Their findings state that almost one in ten farmers did not meet the EU organic standards in 2017-2018, yet the companies are still allowed to sell their products as 'organic.'
So what will you choose to eat?
Many personal factors go into food choice, like cost, availability, and diet. This article's goal is to inform consumers--not detract from all of the positive steps taken by responsible farmers. While it seems like exceptions are sometimes the norm and accountability for the rules can be a grey area, there are plenty of farmers who follow regulations and dedicate their lives to to organic practices. It is just not a perfect system and consumers should be aware of this.

Moreover, switching completely to organic farming will not feed the world's growing population if cultivation practices and eating habits do not change. Luckily, things like vertical farms and lab-grown meat have the potential to contribute. If you're still not sure if organic produce is for you or not, check out your local farm or farmer's market and ask them about their philosophy, organic practices, and what's in season. Happy eating!
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