There are those who preach the miraculous benefits of organic foods, then there are many others who think such claims are rubbish – a part of the ‘fad diet’ craze going on these days. But organic is such a delicious word, it even sounds healthy! So where does organic food stand in terms of superiority over conventional foods? It is certainly true; you are likely to pay almost double the price for the organic compared to conventional foodstuff. For instance, Sainsbury’s will charge you £1.00 for 750g of organically grown carrots but £0.45 for the same amount of conventionally grown carrots. More than double in this case (2.22 times, to be exact). So really, we should ask ourselves: is the price tag for organic food justified?

According to the Food Standards Agency in the UK, organic food must be produced using minimal amounts of pesticides and fertilisers with consideration to both animal welfare and soil health. In addition, foods sold with advertising labels ‘organic’ must contain at least 95% of their ingredients from organic sources and none from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), with only certain additives permitted for use. On the other hand, conventional foods must also abide by sets of food safety regulations, including maximum permitted levels of pesticides found in them. Maximum residue levels (MRLs) for conventional food are set by the European Commission and are tightly controlled for all food products. A recent study found that while pesticide levels in organic foods were detectable but not quantifiable, conventional foods had quantifiable pesticide residues, despite being below the MRLs. This means that if pesticides do indeed pose a health risk, organic food is most likely to be healthier. However, current evidence is lacking regarding the health effects of chronic exposure to pesticides, but this is not to say there are none. Don’t be fooled just yet: although organic farming uses botanical pesticides (i.e. Obtained from natural sources) such as nicotine, rotenone and warfarin, those substances are extracted and highly concentrated thus possibly becoming harmful. Moreover, botanical pesticides are not government-regulated, so food industries can use them much more freely.

Another side to the story is the comparison of nutritional values of organic and conventional fruits and vegetables. Generally, consumers have been found to believe that organic food is tastier than and nutritionally superior to conventional food. A Brazilian study compared the vitamin C, vitamin A, and lycopene content of several fruits grown organically and conventionally but found no superior nutritional content of organic fruits compared to conventional fruits. In a different study, polyphenol content and antioxidant capacity of tomatoes was higher in those organically grown. Yet another study found that among 5 different vegetables analysed, only organic cabbage was found to have higher vitamin C, riboflavin, and ß-carotene content than conventional cabbage. Obviously, different studies comparing the nutritional value of organic and conventional agriculture remain inconclusive, so we can’t really say organic food is healthier than conventional food. The nutritional content of food probably differs based on varying environmental conditions such as soil quality, seasons, temperature, location and so on.

The last aspect commonly discussed is the detrimental impact of conventional farming practices on the environment. Simply put, global agriculture today must keep up with the growing world population. Thus, regular pesticide use in conventional farming provides food security, albeit at the cost of the environment and other species that face more harm by the pesticide levels than humans do. On the other hand, however, organic farming uses minimal pesticides, causing higher harvest and post-harvest losses of produce, thus reduced yield. So it is likely that producing an equal amount of food organically would require more land, causing more deforestation and biodiversity loss as a result. Replacing conventional farming with organic practices may perhaps restore biodiversity of other organisms, but at the expense of humans. It must be said too, that the use of pesticides has definitely created pest and bacterial resistance, which could most likely pose increased disease risk to animals and humans alike.

So, there are clearly good points to be made about how conventional farming is not necessarily always inferior to organic farming. However, there is an enormous yet conflicting body of evidence that makes it difficult to decide which stance to adopt. I would say, if you are an environmentalist who is concerned with the welfare of the planet and organisms living on it, you may as well choose organic food. However, if you are merely choosing organic food for the nutritional benefits, don’t be too certain of it as no solid evidence exists yet. So again I ask: is the price tag for organic food justified? I leave it for you to decide.

 

Laura Jabri, MSc 

Laura has a masters in Clinical and Public Health Nutrition from University College London and a bachelors degree from the American University of Beirut. Her interests include nutrition education, obesity prevention, maternal and child nutrition, undernutrition in developing countries and food sustainability solutions.  Tweet her @laurajabri

Foodtalk blog posts are written by a variety of health and care professionals in order to showcase different perspectives in the world of nutrition and health.