Friday, September 30, 2011

Organic vs. Conventional Foods: Which is Better?

There is quite a debate currently raging over organic verses conventional foods.  Conventional agriculture has the momentum of the last decades and corporate dollars.  But the organic movement is not to be underestimated with their up and coming grassroots power of past decade.  Unfortunately, there is an awful lot of hype and misinformation out there currently.  One side says there is absolutely nothing wrong with crops grown with chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.  While the other side says organic is the only way to go for both environmental and health reason.  Well, to be honest, both of these extremes are wrong and lack a balanced perspective.  Both organic and conventionally grown food have their advantages and disadvantages.  And a more rational look at these different methods will make us a little more well balanced.  So, organic food being the latest and greatest thing, lets take a look at some of its advantages, disadvantages, and misconceptions 

Organic Grown Food
1. Organic crops lack potentially harmful pesticide and herbicide residues.  While there is not a proven connection between pesticide and herbicide residues and illnesses such as cancer there is some connection.  Research very lacking in this area.  My guess is the connection is rather small.
2. Nutrient levels such as vitamins and minerals are almost always higher in organic grown fruits and vegetables of pretty much every type.  There are 60 years of solid scientific research to back this up, no questions asked.  In some cases organic has way more nutrition and in other cases similar nutrition.  Overall however, organic food is slightly more nutritious. 
3. Taste is often better.  Yes, this is my experience and not scientifically based.
4. Lack of chemicals is better for the environment, again lots of scientific basis for this.
5. Generally lack preservatives that contain heavy metals and dangerous chemicals such as arsenic.  Yes, the waxy coating that many fruits and vegetables have on them typically contain heavy metals and other chemicals that serve as preservatives in shipping and marketing.
6. Can be more productive when grown on a smaller scale.
7. Generally encourages farmers to take care of their land and therefore the ecosystem.
1. Generally less food is grown overall on a large scale.
2. More manpower is required to grow crops without pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.
3. More expensive.  This is partially because of the greater manpower required for growing and the lower productivity.  Mark-up mostly is a premium simply because it is organic.
4. Natural organic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are not always better for health and the environment.  If they are applied in the wrong way they can be harmful.  Generally though, organic is less harmful though.
5. May rot faster due to lack of preservatives.
1. Organic grown requires less fossil fuels.  This is not necessarily true and depends completely on the organic growing process as well as how far the food was shipped.  If you are wanting to eat food that require the least amount of fossil fuels to get to your plate, but food that is grown as close as possible to you.

So in the above, I have tried to be as unbiased as possible and let you know where my own biases are.  Most of the above is not even debated as controversial, but is rather accepted as fact.  In my opinion, it is better to eat organic food for health reasons, to avoid chemicals which potentially can cause diseases but especially for added nutritional value.  In addition, I absolutely despise that dangerous metals and chemicals are applied to foods as preservatives.  I also prefer to eat organic for environmental and economic reason being organic generally is better for the environment and I also like helping out the generally smaller scale organic farmers.  And lastly, if you know how to pick out good quality fruits and veggies, the taste is almost always better.

Is it necessary to eat entirely organic?
Absolutely not.  Chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are necessary on a limited basis in the agricultural system.  Without these our ability to produce food would be severely limited.  I currently believe that organic production should increase, conventional production should decrease, and they need to meet somewhere in the middle.  Our bodies and the environment are able to handle responsible amounts of these chemicals so there is no reason to completely ban them from you home or the country.  What these responsible levels of chemicals are, I don't know.

Is the conventional food supply safe?
Of course, the next question is: how safe is the conventional food supply?  Again, this is my opinion, I think the conventional food supply is relatively safe.  While chemicals are dangerous and harmful to the environment, the residues on foods are monitored and are reasonable.  Another reason why eating completely organic is not necessary.  While vitamins and nutrients are higher in organic foods, conventional foods still have good levels of these.

So I guess, eat organic when you can and if you can't don't worry about it.  Far better would be to grow your own food in your own back yard and to make sure you are eating all your servings of fruits and vegetables every day.  A backyard organic garden has huge benefits both to the environment and personal health that far outweigh worrying about organic vs. conventional.  And making sure you eat all your daily servings of fruits and vegetables is far more important than eating only one serving of organic veggies.
Overall, the debate between organic and conventional food is important but it needs to be balanced and prioritized.

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