Shoppers who have the luxury of buying organic food around the world now have a lot of factors to consider when trying to make the best choices for their health and the environment. Questions like, “Is organic food really better” and “What’s the difference between organic food and regular food,” often arise.
Every government has different organic standards and not all countries even enforce regulations, which doesn’t make navigating the organic food industry any easier. Between checking food labels, geographical barrierslike food deserts, and the steep price tags on produce and meat, deciding whether or not to go organic can require weighing a lot of factors.
While the jury is still out on whether organic foods are necessarily healthier or tastier, the environmental benefits of organic farming methods and practices might be enough of a reason to minimize conventionally grown food if it's an accessible choice.
Options like growing organic food at home, scoping out farmers markets, joining a community supported agriculture (CSA) weekly pick-up, or subscribing to a regular delivery of local seasonal fruits and vegetables are making buying organic more doable than ever.
Here are five facts about the pros and cons of organic food production to consider next time you’re out shopping for groceries.
1. Organic food has fewer pesticides.
Chemicals used in agriculture to protect crops against insects, fungi, weeds, and other pests are known as pesticides. Artificial fertilizers and synthetic pesticides that contain heavy metals can pollute groundwater and create complications in many agriculture areas, and damage ecosystems, drinking water, farmers’ health, and soil fertility. Groundwater pollution can cause poor drinking water quality, water supply loss, degraded surface water systems, high cleanup costs, high costs for alternative water supplies, and potential health problems. Using organic fertilizers like compost and animal manure instead, organic farming reduces the risk of groundwater pollution.
2. Animals raised on organic farms live under healthier conditions.
Farmers feed conventionally raised livestock antibiotics to help prevent illnesses, but they also make crowded or unsanitary conditions possible. When antibiotics end up in food, they can contribute to antibiotic resistance, which poses a major public health threat to humans. Synthetic growth hormones also make cows gain weight faster or produce more milk.
While organic farms aren’t necessarily cruelty-free, livestock can lead healthier lives, access the outdoors, eat organic, and receive vaccinations that promote their well-being.
3. Organic farming has some environmental benefits.
Agriculture contributes to over 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity that negatively impacts climate change. Organic agriculture, however, helps ecosystems adjust better to the effects of climate change and can help reduce greenhouse gasses by isolating carbon in the soil. A 2020 study by the Technical University of Munich found that the greenhouse gas emissions of organically farmed produce were lower than conventionally farmed produce.
4. Not all produce needs to be purchased organic.
When visiting grocery stores, it’s important to remember that not all produce needs to be purchased organic. Fruits and vegetables with thick or inedible skins — like avocados, cantaloupe, pineapple, broccoli, cabbage, and corn — have little pesticide residue in the United States. In contrast, berries, spinach, grapes, apples, tomatoes, and celery all have high levels of pesticide residues.
When it comes to dairy, organic milk has a longer shelf life and can be a more cost-effective option. And while organic beef leaves more of a carbon footprint than conventional beef, it improves soil quality.
5. Organic food isn’t always healthier.
There is growing evidence that organic food has more health benefits than conventional food, but there is still more research necessary to prove that it is objectively more nutritious.
A review from 2014 did find that organic crops have higher concentrations of antioxidants than non-organic crops. And another 2017 scientific review suggested that organic food may reduce the risk of asthma, sinusitis, and obesity. What’s more, organic meat and dairy products are found to have more Omega-3, a fatty acid that promotes heart health. And because pesticides are often linked to neurodevelopmental issues and cancer, avoiding them when possible can’t hurt.