Demystifying Organic Food


By Cody Fenwick

Photo courtesy of Sonny Abesamis.

Farmers often treat fruits and vegetables with many kinds of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that are not fit for human consumption. Organically grown crops, labeled as such by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), are required to be free from synthetic fertilizers and most synthetic pesticides. For this reason, many see them as a healthier choice compared to conventionally grown options.

Analysis from Consumer Reports, however, found that this is not universally the case. Researchers studied the amount of residue found on a variety of produce, after being washed and prepared, and they found that all of the organic produce they studied showed minimal pesticide contamination. Moreover, they found that some conventionally grown produce is virtually as free of pesticides as its organic counterparts.

Whether or not conventionally farmed produce differs from the organic variety in this way depends on both the type of fruit or vegetable and on the region in which it was grown. For instance, avocados conventionally produced in Chile, Peru, and Mexico are as free of pesticides as organic avocados. Conventionally grown American strawberries, on the other hand, carry far more pesticide residue than the organic variety.

Some of the data seem shocking. One line in the report reads “Eating one serving of green beans from the U.S. is 200 times riskier than eating a serving of U.S.-grown broccoli.”

This is not necessarily as frightening as it might sound. If the baseline level of risk is minute, even 200 times that risk could still be negligible.

But what exactly is the risk of consuming pesticides? BTR corresponded via email with Marion Nestle, writer and professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, while investigating these questions.

“It’s very difficult to know what harm pesticides and herbicides cause to human health,” she explains, “because there isn’t enough science to answer even the most basic questions.” There is evidence that many of the chemicals used in conventional farming pose a danger to the health of farm workers, but the dangers posed to consumers are, as yet, less clear.

A recent paper published in the Oxford Journal Human Reproduction did find that male consumption of produce with high levels of pesticide was correlated with reduced sperm count.

Yet, it’s not the case that organic farming methods eschew all pesticides or chemicals. Rather, as Nestle explained on her website, “The [USDA’s organic food labeling] rules say that fruits and vegetables must not be treated with synthetic pesticides or fertilizers and cannot be genetically modified, irradiated, or fertilized with sewage sludge.”

Organic farmers may still use natural pesticides on their crops. They may use even greater amounts of pesticide than conventional farmers. Some argue that natural pesticides are not necessarily less dangerous than synthetic pesticides.

Nevertheless, Nestle believes that there’s still good reason to prefer organically farmed produce generally. “Studies clearly show that people who eat organic foods have lower levels of pesticides in their blood,” she writes.

“Does that make them healthier?” she asks. “Hard to say.”

Similar evidence consistently shows that organic produce typically contains significantly less pesticide residue and toxic metals, though scientists dispute whether organic produce is more nutritious.

On the other hand, buying organic produce tends to be more expensive, as Consumer Reports found an average 49 percent mark up in price compared to conventional alternatives. However, there was significant variation in pricing. Some organic zucchini, for instance, cost 303 percent more than conventional zucchini.

Still, some organic produce was found to be cheaper than conventional alternatives found in other locations. So though a complete shift to organic fare may be out of reach for many, careful shopping and an awareness of which types of conventional produce typically carry the most pesticides may allow people to drastically reduce their pesticide consumption while on a budget.

Consumer Reports also points out that while reducing consumption of pesticides is important, inability to buy organic produce should not deter fruit and vegetable consumption. “Your primary goal is to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables—ideally five or more servings a day—even if it’s a type that falls into our very high-risk category.”

Additionally, experts recommend washing any produce, organic or conventional.

Nestle also advises the public pay close attention to agriculture policy. “I think it’s important that the organic standards remain as rigorous as possible,” she writes, “and I wish the farm bill promoted sustainable farming methods much more than it currently does.”