The word “organic” can be plastered across anything these days and it will sell! Just yesterday I walked past a stand in WH Smith selling “organic” underwear…I then walked up to the counter and was greeted by different types of “organic” chocolate bars.
Now this is by no means a new phenomenon, but I was still left wondering: “is organic really the superior choice, or just another marketing ploy?”.
Generally, when we call something “organic” we are referring to the way the farmers have grown and processed the agricultural products, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and meat. These “organic” practices are said to be more environmentally friendly as they have been designed to encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution. Advocates of organic produce also argue that it is safer, possibly more nutritious, and often better tasting than non-organic food.
While the positive environmental impact is undoubtably true, the argument that organic food is “better for you” is still hotly debated.
So let’s take a look at some of the main arguments:
The main reason Aussies will choose organic produce over normal produce, is because it is “chemical free”. This means there are no artificial fertilisers and pesticides used in the process of production, and so there is “less chance of contamination”.
However, in Australia, the levels of chemical residue in food are so tightly regulated that all fresh food is safe to eat, regardless of whether or not it’s organic. The maximum pesticide residue limit on fruit is set to such a small level, and most fruits won’t even reach that. So the effects of any residue would be negligible.
Organic produce is also not without its own safety concerns. Many critics fear that using manure to fertilise organic crops might increase the risk of contamination by dangerous microbes like E. coli. However, there are strict practices in place to ensure that this type of contamination rarely occurs.
Basically, it’s agreed amongst all experts that you should wash all produce under running water before you eat it, irregardless of whether you have purchases organic or conventional fruit an veg.
Right now, there is no solid scientific evidence that would suggest organic food is any more nutritious that conventional food. Both organic and conventionally grown foods have been shown to provide all the nutrients required when included in a healthy, balanced diet.
A few studies have reported that organic produce has higher levels of vitamin C, certain minerals, and antioxidants — thought to protect the body against aging, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. But the differences are so small, it probably has limited impact on overall nutrition.
Associate Professor Samir Samman, from the School of Molecular Bioscience at the University of Sydney, says there is little evidence to suggest that organic food is nutritionally better than conventional food, especially in relation to fresh fruit and vegetables:
“Our review showed [that] when all the published articles on this topic are considered, organic food is reported to contain more vitamin C and phosphorous than conventionally produced food,” Professor Samman says. “[But] when the articles are scrutinised for scientific quality, and only the better-quality articles are considered, only phosphorous remained significantly higher in organic food as compared with conventional foods.
“Phosphorous is not in any way a limiting nutrient in the diet. The presence of higher amounts in organic food has probably little significance. We conclude from the analysis that the nutrient composition differs very little between foods that are produced by organic and conventional methods.
If you are, however, sourcing your fruit and veg from your Local Farmers Market there is some evidence to suggest the produce will be more nutritious and likely taste better. But this is more likely due to the fact that it has been sourced closer to the point of harvest, thus being more fresh. If the organic produce is sitting in the supermarket aisle or in your fridge, it will, however, lose this effect as nutrients, like Vitamin C, oxidise over time.
There is no denying, that going organic, comes with a price!
In 2013 the Suncorp Bank found that:
“a typical basket of organic, artisan or locally grown sustainable foods costs $100.30 per week, compared to $55.99 for a conventional supermarket fare. This equates to $2,340 per year. Analysis of supermarket prices shows that organic food is 79 per cent more expensive than established supermarket groceries, with some individual items up to 300 per cent dearer. Organic pasta is 318 per cent dearer than its traditional alternative, while organic bananas are 302 per cent more expensive”
Production costs for organic farms are usually a lot greater than conventional ones. Because these farms are usually a lot smaller, the time, labour and distribution costs are all increased. The yield of the crop is also a lot less. This cost is then naturally passed on to the consumer.
However, Roger Cohen of the NY Times has another take on the issue of labelling items “organic”, branding it “elitist” and “pseudoscientific”. While I don’t completely agree with Cohen and his stance against “organic” produce, he does raise a few interesting points about how practical these methods are when it comes to the question of feeding the world’s growing population:
“[it’s] an effective form of premium branding rather than a science, a slogan rather than better nutrition, “organic” has oozed over the menus, markets and malls of the world’s upscale neighborhood at a remarkable pace…
…the organic ideology is an elitist, pseudoscientific indulgence shot through with hype. There is a niche for it, if you can afford to shop at Whole Foods, but the future is nonorganic.
To feed a planet of 9 billion people, we are going to need high yields not low yields; we are going to need genetically modified crops; we are going to need pesticides and fertilizers and other elements of the industrialized food processes that have led mankind to be better fed and live longer than at any time in history.
Choosing to go organic is definitely not a bad thing! Organic food purchased locally can help reduce transport costs and provide support to small producers. The environmental benefits and improved animal welfare are also important issues that should be addressed.
However, for a lot of Aussies, paying a premium for organic food is neither practical nor affordable and it doesn’t make any sense for them to start skipping out on healthy conventional foods just so they can afford a few organic items.
Carl Winter, a Food Toxicologist at the University of California summed it up best:
“The best thing you can do for yourself is to eat lots of fruits and vegetables and grains. And eat variety. From my perspective, it doesn’t matter whether they are organic or conventional”