|Within the food industry,
defining the benefits of organic food is largely left to word of mouth,
media coverage, and the promotional efforts of organic advocates. Major
food and beverage corporations, like Kraft Foods, Heinz, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Cargill, Unilever, General Mills, and Campbell Soup, have rapidly moved to acquire significant stake in both fresh and processed organic products.1 -
Still, the specific sales points of "organics" go largely unmentioned
on product packaging and in mainstream media advertising. Claims of
improved food quality are regularly used in conventional food
marketing, with "low fat", "low sodium", "whole grain", "high fiber",
"vitamin enriched", "no trans-fat" and other commonly advertised
benefits. By contrast, "certified organic" is generally left to stand
on its own as self-explanatory, assisted only by general terms like
"natural". Meanwhile, consumer surveys have consistently identified
food quality as the main reason for purchasing organic food. Higher
nutritional value, no toxic residues from pesticides, and better taste
are often cited, as is the positive impact of organic production on the
Whether organic food actually delivers on these desires and beliefs is
controversial and the subject of scientifically inconclusive debate.
The debate centers on a variety of specific and supposedly demonstrable
characteristics which proponents claim make organic food superior to
the product of conventional farming and processing.
|Food safety - Organic food proponents express concern over the potential negative
effects of various chemical cultivation methods and genetic
modification techniques used in modern conventional agriculture. The
effect of pesticide residues from crop spraying, the presence of
veterinary drugs in meat products, and the entirely unknown impact of
genetically modified varieties and breeds are all encompassed. Organic
food is seen as avoiding relieving these concerns by prohibiting such
practices. At present, there are no definitive scientific conclusions
on any of these matters; individual studies are cited on both sides of
|Chemical contamination - Organic food proponents cite the existence of reduced levels of pesticides and herbicides as a way to reduce the long term risk of chemical consumption. A study published by the National Research Council in 1993 determined that for infants and children, the major source of exposure to pesticides is through diet.3 -
A recent study in 2006 measured the levels of organophosphorus
pesticide exposure in 23 school children before and after replacing
their diet with organic food. In this study it was found that levels of
organophosphorus pesticide exposure dropped dramatically and
immediately when the children switched to an organic diet.4 -
The degree of risk posed by pesticide residues remains uncertain.
Pesticide use in conventional food products is heavily regulated, with
established, research-based maximum residue levels (MRLs) below which
residues are considered safe for human consumption. Also, many
pesticides are not cumulative in the body, and are regularly
eliminated. Notable exceptions include heavy metals such as lead or
mercury which are sometimes found in foodstuffs in countries which have
lax food production standards. The U.S. and most of Europe prohibit the
use of inorganic compounds containing heavy metals in any type of
agriculture including conventional.5 -
One area where organically produced food is demonstrably different
is in the reduction of nitrates, which are commonly used to stimulate
production of conventionally farmed agricultural products. Nitrates
reduce the transmission of oxygen in the bloodstream or may under
certain situations become nitrosamines, which are carcinogens. Organic
foods do not use nitrates as a fertilizer, and so present a reduced
nitrosamines risk, although the use of nitrates and the nitrate content
of the final product in conventional foods is regulated by region.
|Organic methods of fertilization are not necessarily free from risk. Critics claim that using manure to fertilize organic crops might increase the risk of contamination by dangerous microbes like E. coli.
However, organic animal manure, typically that of cattle, is manure
from animals that eat mainly hay and other organic, primarily non-grain
materials. This is seen as a way to reduce the amount of E. Coli
bacteria present, and the feces of organically-raised cattle have only
1% of the E. Coli present
in non-organic manure. Still, when using primarily manure to grow
organic crops, the risk for mycotoxin contamination is significantly
increased. Mycotoxins are the result of molds found in some varieties
of cow feed, and even in very small amounts they can induce liver
cancer if consumed over a long period of time. It is important to note
that conventional farms also use manure as fertilizer but in much
smaller quantities.5 -
It should also be noted that many organic farmers consider using manure
directly as fertilizer to be an unsound practice, and instead the
manure should be composted first.6 - 7 - Rarely, some small organic farms use composted human waste, using a composting toilet system.
|Hormonal contamination - Organic proponents cite evidence that some chemicals used in conventional farming, including pesticides and herbicides, mimic hormones - usually estrogen - when inside a person. They claim that this is significant even at the
minute levels that the average person is exposed to. The US government
states that these chemicals are safe when used correctly, but
proponents claim such tests are only done on healthy adults - and that
children and fetuses might be at risk to even small amounts of these chemicals.
In Australia, the Government sponsored Australian Total Diet Survey measures pesticide residues found in typical Australian diets. The 2004 survey found all estimated dietary exposures to pesticide residues were below 16% of the respective Acceptable daily intakes and therefore all exposures are well within the applicable health standards.
|Transgenic contamination - Certified organic foods are not substantially genetically modified.
The health risks surrounding genetically modified foods remain highly
contentious. In the USA, a small admixture of a GM variety is
compatible with organic certification, as long as it is unintentional.
The USDA regulates the organic production process, and does not verify
the actual composition of the final product. So as long as the farmer
complies with the rules of organic farming, he cannot lose his organic
certificate solely because of random presence of transgenic variety. In
most European countries, certification rules are much stricter.
Basically, any confirmed detection of transgenic plant, seed or feed
can result in a loss of organic status and cosenquent substantial
economic losses for the farmer.
Other issues surrounding GMOs may also concern consumers, such as the ownership of biological intellectual property by corporations, and reduction in crop varieties.
With estimates that pollen of some crops (eg. canola)
can travel more than 5 kilometers per year, we can be certain that the
technology and marketing of organic foods will clash with the
technology and marketing of GMO foods. In many countries, however,
public awareness is limited and the battles seem to take place with a
small elite in the GMO industry and the NGOs that oppose them.
|Nutritional value - Some organic advocates claim that organic food is more nutritious.
It is important to note that the main objective of organic agriculture
is to produce food that does not degrade soil and the surrounding
environment over long periods of time(known as sustainability).
The goal has never been to produce food that is higher in specific
nutrients, but producing more wholesome food in general is often cited
as one reason for farming organically. Increased soil quality, greater
attention to quality, and selection of crop varieties for nutrition and
taste instead of size, appearance, and shipping characteristics are
claimed to be reasons for higher nutrient density of organic foods. In
some cases, this has happened, generally due to conventionally grown
produce being higher in water.
Organically grown potatoes, oranges, and leafy vegetables have more vitamin C than conventionally grown products. Phenolic compounds are also found in significantly higher concentrations in organic foods, and these may provide antioxidant protection against heart disease and cancer.8 -
Still isolated bits of research suggest that conventional agricultural practices are degrading food quality. A study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in 2004, entitled Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999 , compared vegetables analysed in 1950 and in 1999, and found noticeable decreases in six of 13 nutrients examined (the six were: protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and ascorbic acid). Percentage reductions ranged from 6% for protein to 38% of riboflavin, although when evaluated on a per-food or per-nutrient level, usually no distinguishable changes were found. Reductions in calcium, phosphorus, iron and ascorbic acid
were also found. The authors suggested that the differences probably
reflect changes in cultivated varieties between 1950 and 1999, in which
there may have been trade-offs between yield and nutrient content.
However, whether organic foodstuffs have a higher nutrient content
is still debatable. Studies have shown no clear, consistent results,
and those that have suffer from significant experimental design flaws,
according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
(FAO). Further, the FAO found that in some crops, such as wheat, there
appears to be a trade-off: in conventionally farmed wheat the levels of
protein are higher, but the lower levels in organic materials are
offset by gains in alpha-amylase and sugar contents.5 - Also, much is still unclear or unknown in nutrional science.
|Taste - Many claim that organic food tastes better. This is primarily referred to regarding fresh food.
It is possible that organic food taste better simply because it is
fresher. Because organic farms tend to be smaller, they often sell
their products closer to the point of harvest. Thus, organic fruits and
vegetables taste more "farm fresh" than comparable conventional produce.
However, organic foods might also have more flavor because organic
farmers often breed with taste instead of marketability as the primary
factor. Conventional tomatoes, for example, are often bred to be
perfectly red and round, to match the ideal
appearance of a tomato. They are also bred to resist damage in
transport and storage, for a longer shelf-life. This means that taste
is an attribute that has a lower priority. In addition to crop
diversity and selection practices, organic farming
emphasizes soil nutrition, which can positively influence the taste of
the food. Tests by the United Nations FAO demonstrated that some
apples, specifically the "Golden Delicious" variety, have higher
flavonoid counts when grown organically. This suggests that they do
have more flavour.5 -
Some foods, such as bananas, are picked when unripe, then artificially induced to ripen using a chemical (such as propylene or ethylene) while in transit, possibly producing a different taste.9 -
The issue of ethylene use in organic food production is contentious;
opponents claiming that its use only benefits large companies, and
opens the door to weaker organic standards.10 -
|Environmental impact - Every food purchase supports the system that delivers it, and if
large-scale chemical production methods are damaging to the
environment, then purchasing these foods supports this damage. A main
goal of organic farming is minimizing impact to the environment.
|Sustainability - Proponents of organic farming say that "conventional" farming is
unsustainable, because it relies on artificial inputs(synthetic
fertilizers and other chemicals, machinery, etc.) that ultimately
requires energy in the form of fossil fuels, and because the land is degraded through soil erosion, salinization,
and other processes that eventually render the soil infertile. Many
claim that without cheap fossil fuels and government subsidies,
conventional agriculture would not be possible, and that despite
technological advancements, there will eventually be an agricultural
crisis as a result of depleted soil|
|. The cultivation of monocultures,
many acres planted with the same crop year after year, increases
susceptibility to pests and diseases and depletes the soil, while
eliminating most native flora and fauna.
In contrast, organic farming often utilizes intercropping, crop rotation, fallow periods, and integrated pest management to promote biodiversity and preserve the health of the soil while minimizing the risk of diseases. The main goal of organic farming is sustainability, so organic farms seek to minimize dependance on outside resources and be self-sufficient.
|Pollution - Modern agricultural practices often result in large amounts of nitrogen runoff from the heavy use of fertilizer, which pollutes watersheds. In addition to posing a threat to human health and disrupting aquatic ecosystems, this sometimes results in algal blooms which deplete the water of oxygen resulting in fishkills. Pesticide runoff also causes many problems.
|Claims that eating organic food is better for the environment are,
however, frustrated by the fact that most of the organic food sold
today travels the same great distances as conventional food. A UK study
published in 2005 in the Journal of Food Policy found that maximum environmental benefit would result from purchasing food produced within a 12-mile radius.11 - Therefore, buying local food
that is not organic could be environmentally "better" than buying
organic food that has travelled hundreds or thousands of miles. Many
small organic farms, however, sell much or all of their produce locally.
|Efficiency - Studies have show organic farms to be more energy efficient than
their conventional counterparts. One of these studies as done with
apple farms in the state of Washington. In that study, the organic
farms were found to be at least 7% more energy efficient.12 -
And although some critics of organic farms cite evidence that organic
farms produce less yield than conventional farms, they also found a
much more substantial decrease in resources used. Critics of organic
farms cite evidence that organic farms produce less yield than
conventional farms; one prominent 21-year Swiss study found an average
20% lower organic yields over conventional methods. However, that came
with consumption of 50% less fertilizer, and 97% less pesticide.13 -
Another study that supports the claim that organic farms are more
energy efficient was done with apple farms in the state of Washington.
In that study, the organic farms were found to be at least 7% more
energy efficient.12 -
In comparing yields, a US survey published in 2001 analyzed 150
growing seasons of data on various crops and concluded that organic
yields were 95-100% of conventional yields14 -
Because organic farms don't use toxic pesticides and herbicides, there
is more biodiversity in the soil. Besides higher soil quality15 - more life in the soil allows for higher water retention. This helps
increase yields for organic farms in drought years where there is less
rain. During drought years, organic farms have been found to have
yields 20-40% higher than conventional farms.16 -
|Large scale organic farms
|Many advocates of organic farming view large scale, corporate owned
"organic farms" as being against the spirit of organic farming, since
they tend to use unsustainable practices similar to conventional farms.
|Summary - Without exception, the fundamental claims of benefit are contentious
and well-contended by various supporters of conventional agriculture,
regardless of the fact that the food industry establishment also has a
significant stake in organic food. The hot button issue seems to be the
effect of pesticides on people, animals, and the environment. This is
still being debated by experts in toxicology. There are research reports, expert opinions, and anecdotal evidence both supporting and rebutting them. The same holds true for the other claimed advantages.
|History - It should be noted that "conventional" agriculture,
utilizing large amounts of artificial chemical inputs, monocultures,
and intensive farming methods, is a recent phenomenon, dating to the Green Revolution
of the mid-20th century. Indeed, almost the entire history of
agriculture consists of what would be now termed "organic farming".
Rising consumer awareness of "organic" methods began in the 1950s
with the promotion of organic gardenin. In the 1960s and 1970s, one
effect of a growing grassroots concern with environmental issues was
the appearance of more elaborate approaches to organic food, including
food-buying coops and dedicated organic producers. In the 1970s and
1980s, private sector organic certification and development of
regulations at the governmental level began around the world. In the
1990s, formal organic certification began to be legislated in various
countries, and this trend continues to today. During the same period,
the organic food market experienced a sustained surge in growth,
expanding at around 20% a year (exceeding the rest of the food industry
by a factor of at least 10). The first years of the 21st century saw
multinational food corporations taking major stakes in the organic
market, and this has dramatically increased the variety, availability
and falling cost of processed organic food.
|Various alternative organic standards are emerging. They generally
bypass formal certification, which can be expensive and cumbersome, and
provide their own definition of organic food. One such, the Authentic
Food standard, proposed by leading US organic farmer Eliot Coleman, includes criteria that are incompatible with current agribusiness:
|All foods are produced by the growers who sell them.
|Fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs and meat products are
produced within a 50-mile radius of their place of their final sale.
|The seed and storage crops (grains, beans, nuts, potatoes, etc.) are produced within a 300-mile radius of their final sale.
|Only traditional processed foods such as cheese, wine, bread and
lactofermented products may claim, "Made with Authentic ingredients."17 -
|Some are also implementing new approaches to defining and buying food. Community-supported agriculture
(CSA) is one such approach, that cuts out all the middlemen by having
consumers partner with local farmers. CSA members prepurchase "shares"
in a season's harvest, and pick up their weekly portions from
distribution sites. Thus, consumers provide direct financing for farms,
participate in the risks and rewards of annual growing conditions, and
participate with farmers in distribution networks.
CSA is one example of "buying locally," which is often valued by
both the organic food consumer and producer. Generally speaking,
food can be brought to market more quickly than food that has to be
transported long distances, and therefore can be better tasting and to
some degree more nutritious by virtue of its freshness. Additionally,
the act of buying foods that are locally-grown benefits local farmers
and other employers. This local food approach is seen as a direct investment in one's own community and a way to reduce economic dependence.
Organic food is also often linked with the fair trade movement, based on the principle that social and environmental sustainability are inextricably interdependent.
|Facts and statistics
|While organic food accounts for 12% of total food sales worldwide,
the organic food market is growing rapidly, far ahead of the rest of
the food industry, in both developed and developing nations.
|World organic food sales were US $23 billion in 2002.1
|The world organic market has been growing by 20% a year since the
early 1990s, with future growth estimates ranging from 10-50% annually
depending on the country.
|In the - United States - , organic food is federally regulated by the National Organic Program:
|Organic products are now available in nearly 20,000 natural food
stores and 73 % of conventional grocery stores, and account for approximately 1-2 % of total food sales in the U.S." Feb 20032
|Two thirds of organic milk and cream and half of organic cheese and yogurt are sold through conventional supermarkets.3
In the - European Union - , organic food is regulated by the EU-Eco-regulation
| - Germany:
|Baby food is almost exclusively organic, and over 30% of bread baked in Munich is organic.Link
|Existing legislation calls for all school lunches to be organic by 2005.
|The government has created incentives so that within the next few
years, 10 % of its food will comprise locally grown organic foods.
|In - Cuba: -
|After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990,
the government converted the entire country to organic agriculture, and
currently only organic agriculture is permitted by law.
|Johnston, A. E. (1986). Soil organic-matter, effects on soils and crops. Soil Use Management - 2 - : 97-105. -
|Lotter, D. W., Seidel, R. & Liebhardt W. (2003). The performance of organic and conventional
cropping systems in an extreme climate year. American Journal of Alternative Agriculture - 18 - : 146-154. -
|Lu, Chensheng, et. al. (2006). Organic Diets Significantly Lower Children's Dietary Exposure to Organophosphorus esticides. Environmental Health Perspectives - 114 - : 260-263. -
|Maeder et.al. (May 2002). Soil Fertility and Biodiversity in Organic Farming. Science - 296 - : 16941697. -
|Nelson et.al (April 2004). Organic FAQs. Nature - 428 - : 796-798. -
|Pretty, J. N., et. al. (2006). Resource-Conserving Agriculture Increases Yields in Developing Countries4. Environmental Science and Technology - 40 - : 1114-1119. -
|Reganold et.al (April 2001). Sustainability of three apple production systems. Nature - 410 - : 926-930. -
|Stokstad, Erik (May 2002). Organic Farms Reap Many Benefits. Science - 296 - : 1589. -
|Warner, Melanie (Nov. 5, 2005). "What organic should mean". New Straits Times , p. L8L9.
|Warner, Melanie. "What Is Organic? Powerful Players Want a Say". New York Times : Nov. 1, 2005.
- - ^ - "Corporate Industry Structure: 2005", by Phil Howard, Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, University of California, Santa Cruz.
- - ^ - "Millions turn to organic food" (BBC News, 8-Feb-2000), "2003 BC Organic Food Survey: Key Findings" (Synovate Research, 2003), "One Year after USDA Organic Standards are Enacted More Americans are Consuming Organic Food" (Whole Foods Market, 14-Oct-2003), "Consumer Knowledge and Perceptions About Organic Food" (Journal of Extension, Aug-2005
- - ^ - National Research Council. Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children. National Academies Press; 1993. ISBN: 0309048753.
- ^ - a -
| - b -
| - c -
| - d - Food Safety and Quality as Affected by Organic Farming, Twenty Second FAO Regional Conference for Europe, 24-28 Jul-2000.
- - ^ - manure facts from the Organic Trade Association
- - ^ - 'Holistic management at the Northland Sheep Dairy' describes the disadvantages of using uncomposted manure under the second section 'Pros and Cons of Milking Sheep'
- - ^ - Asami, Danny K. "Comparison
of the Total Phenolic and Ascorbic Acid Content of Freeze-Dried and
Air-Dried Marionberry, Strawberry, and Corn Grown Using Conventional,
Organic, and Sustainable Agricultural Practices". Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (American Chemical Society), 51 (5), 1237 -1241, 2003. 10.1021/jf020635c S0021-8561(02)00635-0.
- - ^ - "Banana Wars", by Joanna Blythman (The Observer, 13-Mar-2005) and "Bananas and Plantains", Honduran Agricultural Research Foundation (FHIA).
- - ^ - "The organic label just won't stick if feds keep this up", by Julie Deardorff ( Chicago Tribune , 9-Dec-2005) and "Dole urges organics board to approve ethylene use", by Joan Murphy ( The Produce News , 22-Nov-2005).
- - ^ - "Local food 'greener than organic'", BBC News, 2-Mar-2005.
- ^ - a -
| - b - Reganold et.al (April 2001). "Sustainability of three apple production systems". Nature 410: 926-930
- - ^ - Maeder et.al. (May 2002). "Soil Fertility and Biodiversity in Organic Farming". Science 296: 16941697.
- - ^ - Welsh, Rick. "Economics of Organic Grain and Soybean Production in the Midwestern United States". Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture, 1999.
- - ^ - Johnston, A. E. (1986). "Soil organic-matter, effects on soils and crops". Soil Use Management 2: 97-105.
- - ^ - Lotter, D.
W., Seidel, R. and Liebhardt W. (2003). "The performance of organic
and conventional cropping systems in an extreme climate year". American
Journal of Alternative Agriculture 18: 146-154.
- - ^ - "Authentic Food - Authentic Farming", by Eliot Coleman, Mother Earth News .
|Environmental Magazine (2005). Green Living , Penguin Group (USA). ISBN 0452285747. -
|Gussow, Joan Dye (2002). This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader , Chelsea Green Publishing. ISBN 1931498245. -
|Nancarrow, Loren; Taylor, Janet Hogan (2000). Dead Daisies Make Me Crazy: Garden Solutions without Chemical Pollution , Ten Speed Press. ISBN 1580081568. -
|Phillips, Michael (1998). The Apple Grower: A Guide for the Organic Orchardist , Chelsea Green Publishing. ISBN 1890132047. -
|Rubin, Carole (2003). How to Get Your Lawn and Garden Off Drugs: A Basic Guide to Pesticide-Free Gardening in North America , Harbour Publishing Company. ISBN 1550173200. -
|On Conventional vs Organic Farming
|Guthman, Julie (2004). Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California , University of California Press. ISBN 0520240952. -
|Hamilton, Denis; Crossley, Stephen (editors) (2004). Pesticide residues in food and drinking water , J. Wiley. ISBN 0471489913. -
|Hond, Frank et.al. (2003). Pesticides: problems, improvements, alternatives , Blackwell Science. ISBN 0632056592. -
|Watson, David H. (editor) (2004). Pesticide, veterinary and other residues in food , Woodhead Publishing. ISBN 1855737345. -
|Wargo, John (1998). Our Children's Toxic Legacy: How Science and Law Fail to Protect Us from Pesticides , Yale University Press. ISBN 0300074468. -
|Professor Williams, Christine - , Nutritional quality of organic food: shades of grey or shades of green? Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 2002; 61: 19-24
|Big Picture TV Free video clip on the history of the organic food movement
|Brief Introduction to Organics
| Organic Food News
|Extensive Press Release on Pesticides from the Ontario College of Family Physicians
| First World Congress on Organic Food from National Food Safety and Toxicology Center
|Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association - A description of why organic foods and farming may be superior.
|Organic Volunteers - Non profit to coordinate internships on organic farms.
|Mounting Evidence that Organic Food is Healthier
|Pesticide and Food from Nutrition.gov
|Pesticides in Food from the Northeast Organic Farming Association
|The costly fraud that is organic food (Guardian article by Dick Taverne, 6/5/2004
|Organic Foods Store Locator Find Organic Foods stores in your area.