Metafact Review: Organic Food
Is Organic Food Worth it?
A trip to the grocery store is overwhelming for the best of us. Thousands of food products competing to get your attention in a limited time. 'Organic' has become one of those labels that help differentiate food products from the crowd. We tend to associate natural, healthy perceptions with the 'organic' label and judging by consumer trends, it's working.
Today, about four in ten Americans eat some sort of organic food regularly while some 15% of all fruit & vegetables sold today in the United States is ‘Organic' - a proportion that has doubled in ten years.
Organic produce is more expensive but many of us don't mind paying a premium for an 'organic' apple, if you get significant health & environmental benefits in return. Polling suggests 75% of organic food consumers believe it's healthier than conventional food. Is this perception true? Is organic food healthier? Better for the environment? Is the price premium worth it?
We asked independent global experts in organic agriculture, plant biology and food chemistry to share the facts about Organic Food. From the evidence on whether organic foods is healthier, to whether they are safer and better for the environment, our subscribers found this review to be one of the most surprising over the past few years. Here’s what we found…
Takeaways from Experts
Both organic and conventional pesticide residues on foods are very safe
Organic food is not ‘pesticide-free’ and you should be wary as many natural products used don’t have safe oversight
Organic food has not been proven to lead to measurable health benefits
No evidence that organic food tastes better, other than the perception via labelling
It's highly unlikely that Organic farming could feed the world on current consumption patterns
There is no clear health or environmental benefit from switching to organic food. In fact, for climate change, organic food is likely worse
$200,000,000,000: Global sales of organic food in 2022
76,400,000: hectares of organic farmland globally
35,700,000: hectares of organic farmland In Australia alone
1.6%: Proportion of farmland categorized as ‘Organic’
8.8%: Proportion of organic farmland in Australia
14.6%: Organic fruit & vegetable sold in US, as a proportion of total market
75%: Proportion of people who purchased organic food who believe its better for one’s health than other produce
54%: Americans aged 18-29 say a product labeled organic would be more appealing
DDT and the alternative farming movement
In 1943, English botanist Sir Albert Howard took his own practical learnings on farms in India to write “An Agricultural Testament”. The book lays out the core principles of an alternative 'organic' farming system that relies on utilising and recycling available waste material to maintain healthy soil and nutrient content for plant growth.
In the 1960s, the post-war boom was in full swing. The growing population meant the need to produce more food, lots of it. To do that, farmers were encouraged to buy more land, more machines, more fertilizer, and more pesticides to produce everything they could from each square mile of land.
Meanwhile, the alternative organic farming movement was stagnant. But in 1962, the Silent Spring was published, a seminal book by Conservationist Rachel Carson on the environmental impact of pesticides like DDT. Although DDT was subsequently banned in the 1970s, the organic farming movement was galvanised. By 1973, Oregon state passed laws regulating ‘Organic’ farming to only allow use of pesticides and fertilizers of ‘organic origin’. States and countries followed and farmers all around the world now need accreditation to be awarded the coveted 'organic' seal.
Are pesticide residues on fruit & vegetables harmful?
The effect of toxic pesticides like DDT played an important and justifiable role in creating the organic farming movement. With governments stepping in to ban DDT and other pesticides, what about today? With the use of hundreds of synthetic pesticides approved for use in conventional farms, are we being exposed to harmful levels of pesticides in conventionally grown foods?
“Extremely Unlikely” says Dr Dirk Lachenmeier, food chemist and toxicologist in Germany. “Conventional fruits & vegetables are not harmful if they comply with the limits that are considered as being safe using risk assessments, e.g. from EFSA and other bodies. Our monitoring shows that limits are very rarely exceeded and even then, there are safety factors (typically 100) between the food limit and health effects to offer a wide margin of consumer protection” he writes.
Yet it’s important to recognise that natural 'organic' chemicals can be equal or even more toxic than conventional synthetic chemicals. “Organic consumers may be exposed to organic pesticides such as Copper sulfate, the insecticide Spinosad or some antibiotics such as streptinomycin” says Professor JM Mulet, a plant biologist from Spain. What's important is that both conventional and organic pesticide residue levels are not harmful, as “the levels of pesticides in the food of western countries is several orders of magnitude below the recommended levels” he says.
Does organic farming use pesticides?
Pesticides are used to protect crops against insects, weeds, fungi and other pests. Most people tend to believe that organic produce is pesticide-free, or even ‘chemical-free’. That is entirely false according to the experts we asked.
In the United States, the Organic Materials Research Institute (OMRI) is the place to register a chemical or pesticide for organic use. Dr Linda Chalker-Scott, a horticulturist from Washington State University shares the current list of chemicals and products here. “It’s a long list.. Many of these products have no tested efficacy; many of those that have been tested are worthless; and many are more dangerous than synthetic [pesticides]. They just happen to be naturally occurring and therefore registered for organic use” she writes noting many listed are ‘snake oil products’.
Although experts agree that pesticide residues will be lower from organic food than conventional foods, just because something is natural does not make it environmentally better or safer than the synthetic pesticides. “For example, copper salts are used as fungicides in organic farming” writes Professor Michael Palmgren, a plant biologist from the University of Copenhagen. “Copper is a heavy metal that does not disappear from soils when introduced and in the long term it drastically affects soil microbes and worms. This is not good for the environment and therefore organic farming is not always sustainable, which is a problem”.
"This is also true also when talking about fertilizers: nitrogen (in the form of ammonium and nitrate) in manure (allowed in organic farming) and synthetic fertilizers (not allowed) are chemically identical….Application of excess nitrogen in the form of manure might lead to unsustainable pollution and, depending on the way it is administered, may pollute more than synthetic fertilizers” he writes.
Is organic food healthier?
Most Americans (~55%) believe organic produce is better for one’s health than conventionally grown produce. Is there science to back this up? Is an ‘organic’ tomato healthier?
Some differences in the composition of foods have been observed. “Organic fruits and vegetables have been shown to have antioxidant concentrations about 25% higher than fruits and vegetables that are conventionally grown” writes Dr Cynthia Curl from Boise State University. But this does not automatically imply better health writes plant biologist Professor Michael Palmgen from the University of Copenhagen. In fact, organic food may create 'toxic secondary metabolites' as the plant tries to defend itself under organic conditions.
Organic milk usually does have a slightly higher amount of the healthy Omega 3 fatty acids writes Professor Ian Givens from Reading University, although ‘the changes are too small to have an effect [on health]’ he says. Organic milk he notes, has a health risk for certain people as it's lower in key nutrients like iodine which is 'a concern for pregnant women’ and those with marginal/sub-optimal iodine status.
Some studies have shown that organic food consumers are healthier than conventional food consumers. "But these results are explained because organic food consumers are usually more health-concerned that conventional food consumers and have better diets, or are mainly vegetarian, which lowers the risk of obesity and type II diabetes", writes Professor JM Mulet.
“While some data suggest that organic food may, in some ways, be considered more "nutritious"....these differences in nutritional content have not been shown to be directly associated with any measures of improved health” writes Dr Cynthia Curl. “It is difficult to draw a firm conclusion as to whether these differences are sufficient to result in any clinically-relevant health benefits. One can achieve a healthy diet rich in antioxidants and low in omega-6 fatty acids from either conventional or organic sources”.
Although it seems there is little evidence to support organic food is healthier than conventional food - horticulturalist Dr Chalker-Scott writes that greenhouse-grown foods are 'less nutritious' than those grown outdoors. Plants grown outdoors receive the full light spectrum from the sun, triggering 'numerous plant products with perceived or actual health benefits'. So for optimal health, best to choose outdoor grown fruits & vegetables.
Does Organic Food taste better?
Half of Americans who purchased organic food say it tastes better. Is there science behind this?
Dr Roberto Lo Scalzo is a food chemist at the Council for Agricultural Research in Italy. He published a study in Food Chemistry, that investigated whether Italian tomatoes tasted better from organic crops. The only difference they found was that organic tomatoes had ‘slightly more sugar and acidity’ than conventional tomatoes. Citing previous work, Dr Lo Scalzo writes “the global claim that organic food tastes better is not valid”.
Although there is no scientific evidence for organic food to have better flavor, there is alot of psychological evidence showing that we perceive goods to taste better when paying more for them. In 2013, Swedish researchers designed a study to test whether consumers perceive organic to taste better. They gave 44 people two cups of arabica brewed coffee. One labeled ‘Organic/Eco-Friendly’ and the other no label. Unbeknownst to the participants, the two cups contained coffee from the exact same brew and brand. Yet the researchers found a taste preference towards the eco-friendly labelled coffee - even though they were exactly the same as the non-labelled version.
“Taste is in the tongue of the beholder: people will be convinced that organic food tastes better because they believe it does” writes Dr Chalker-Scott from Washington State University. “The taste differences that are most dramatic are those between greenhouse grown produce and outdoors produce. The latter have better flavor regardless if they are conventional or organic” she says.
Is Organic Food safe to eat?
As the levels of pesticide residue on conventional food is very safe (see above), is there a health benefit from consuming organic food? "Consumption of an organic diet significantly lowers exposure to several classes of synthetic pesticides...However, available evidence is insufficient to determine whether these reductions are associated with improved health" writes Dr Cynthia Curl from Boise State University.
Pesticide use does however pose a real danger to farm workers. "In the US alone, an estimated 10,000 - 20,000 farm workers are acutely poisoned by synthetic pesticides each year, and organic food production clearly reduces the use of these synthetic pesticides and thus the opportunities for these adverse events" writes Dr Curl. Other experts note the dangers are still present in organic farms as "some organic farmers use highly toxic pesticides such as sulfur that can cause environmental harm and negatively affect worker health" writes Dr David Crowder from Washington State University.
Organic farming relies on manure (animal faeces) instead of nitrogen fertilizers for conventional farming. So organic farming can increase the risk of food contamination by enteric pathogenic microorganisms (E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria) and consequently pose health risks. But evidence for wide-spread contamination from organic food is uncertain based on a recent review. However experts were clear on the risks posed by organic food.
"There have been many food security concerns related to organic food, like the E. coli outbreak in France and Germany in 2011, due to the fact that organic farming uses manure, whose pathogenic microbiological content is more difficult to control than for synthetic fertilizers" writes Professor JM Mulet from Spain.
"Organic food is not at all safer" writes Dr Linda Chalker-Scott from Washington State University. "Witness the numerous cases of food poisoning from organic restaurants or from organic produce. Food safety practices are important regardless if the food is organically or conventionally grown" she says.
Is Organic Food better for the environment?
Of all the claimed benefits of organic food, we assumed that organic food would have clear environmental benefits. In fact, we were wrong. On a global scale, organic food would have a serious negative impact on the environment. It's a complex issue, so here's what we know.
A recent major review suggests organic farming uses less energy, emits comparable greenhouse gas emissions, but has higher land use and greater nutrient pollution of waterways compared to conventional farms. Organic farming is likely to have other local environmental benefits including better soil quality, lower pesticide residues and local bio-diversity.
Although current evidence suggests organic fertilizers seem to pollute nearby waterways more than conventional farms, experts worry the most about land clearing as organic farming expands. Organic farming is ~20% less productive than conventional farming methods so "one would need a larger area for farming than is used currently" writes Professor Michael Palmgren from University of Copenhagen. "If that implies that we will have to cultivate more of the nature that we have left, that would certainly not be good for the environment" he says. If expanding organic farming leads to greater land use this would lead to ‘habitat fragmentation’ notes Professor Guy Kirk from Cranfield University, lowering biodiversity around the world.
So it mostly comes down to whether organic farming can expand without increasing the existing land footprint of agriculture. “Yes", switching to the world to organic would benefit the environment, writes Dr Adrian Muller from Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Switzerland "if a large increase in area used can be avoided".
Is Organic food better for climate change?
What would happen to greenhouse gas emissions if agricultural production in England & Wales switched to 100% organic farming? Professor Guy Kirk from Cranfield University recently published a study answering this, showing that in fact, carbon emissions would increase by about 21% in comparison to existing conventional farming methods.
We asked Professor Kirk if switching to organic farming would cut greenhouse emissions. “No” he writes, “there are undoubted local environmental benefits...bu this needs to be set against the requirement for greater production elsewhere” which leads to more land use carbon emissions. Since organic farming is less productive, it would mean that more imports would be required to maintain food supplies in England. By converting natural or semi-natural land to farms overseas would result in substantial increases in carbon emissions and sequestration from soils.
Could Organic Food feed the world?
As the world moves towards a population of 10billion in the middle of this century, a key question is whether organic farming methods could supply enough food. “The estimates of the carrying capacity of Organic Agriculture are 3–4 billion" writes Professor David Connor from the University of Melbourne, "Clearly well below the current world population or that anticipated in 2050 (9.8 billion)”.
“Due to considerably lower average crop yields” writes Professor Kenneth Cassman from University of Nebraska, “if there was a massive expansion of [organic] crop production area, it might be possible. But expansion of [organic] production area would have massive negative environmental impacts”.
Other experts disagree. "Organic farming could feed a world of 7.8 billion (current numbers)" writes Professor Jules Pretty from the University of Essex. Professor Pretty cites better organic yields in developing countries while pointing out changes to dietary choices and consumption patterns in the West will be needed. For example, nearly one-third of food produced today is lost or wasted writes Dr Adrian Muller from the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Switzerland.
Prof Nick Hewitt from Lancaster University writes how inefficient our dependence on meat for food is. Meat production for example, gives the world 18% of global calories yet “relies on feeding 34% of human-edible crop calories to animals globally”.
To go anywhere near feeding the world via organic farming, it seems a big change in lifestyle would be needed, at least in wealthy countries. “Without any changes in our lifestyles, the organically grown produce might not be sufficient to feed the world without bringing more land (that is: nature) under the plough" writes Professor Michael Palmgren, plant biologist from Denmark. "However, if we eat the produce directly instead of feeding it first to animals, and thereby reduce waste, there will certainly be enough to feed the world”. Whether such food waste and meat consumption patterns are likely to change remains a big question.
Why is Organic Food more expensive? Organic production methods are less efficient than conventional methods, so a loss in production must be compensated with a higher price.
Are pesticide residues on fruit and vegetables harmful to health? In Europe, USA and other advanced economies - No.
Does organic farming use less water? Uncertain
Will eating organic food significantly lower pesticide residue exposure? For synthetic pesticides - Yes.
Are organic wines healthier? - No, alcohol content is the same.