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Is Organic Food Healthier for You, Animals, and the Environment? Know Your Facts

by Praveen Kumar

It is a common scenario – you are in the supermarket shopping for groceries when you come across two varieties of apple with one of them marked as ‘organic’. While both look red, juicy, and full of vitamins, leaving you confused on which one to buy. While organic produce can cost up to 50% more than conventional – people across the world are biting the bait, despite there being no documented evidence that consumption of organic food makes a significant impact on your health. In the western world, 54% people actively seek out organic food in their diet, while in the East, the number is 39%. A recent survey revealed the real reason people buy organic food is because they feel it has fewer pesticides, artificial additives, and is kinder to the animals and the environment. What they miss in making these assumptions is the fact that non organic food isn’t all that bad on all these accounts.

Amidst more and more land going into organic farming and the global organic trade industry estimated to be worth USD 29 billion in 2010 and growing at a steady rate of over 10% every year thereafter, we have a public that’s largely unaware of what really constitutes organic and whether it is worth the high price.  Here’s decoding some of the common concerns.

Is Organic Food Healthier?

How is organic food produced?

The term ‘organic’ implies the method of production used by farmers. The latter who grow organic produce do not use fertilizers or pesticides to enhance the soil quality or control weeds. Instead, they employ organic farming practices such as use of natural fertilizers, and crop rotation or mulch to control weeds and pests. These practices promote soil and water conservation and reduce pollution. Conventional farming, on the other hand, makes use of chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides.

Are ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ the same things?

No. The label ‘organic’ can be used only for foods that satisfy the USDA criteria for organic production. ‘Natural’ or ‘All Natural’ on the other hand are labels that refer to the concentration of natural elements being present in a food item.

Is organic food more nutritious?

While the biggest ever comparative study on nutritive value of organic vs. non organic food done by Stanford University’s Centre for Health Policy found no significant difference between the two, the most recent study in the domain has only reiterated the fact.  According to science, there is no evidence to support the argument that organic products are more nutritious than conventional foods. Studies report little significant difference in health benefits of organic foods over their conventionally grown counterparts, in addition to no consistent differences in the vitamin or mineral content. Protein and fat content have also been found to be similar in the two, though recent studies have found significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in organic milk and dairy products. Again, that does not necessarily mean they are healthier.

Is organic farming better for the environment?

One of the key positives of organic food is that it is believed to be safer for the environment as it does not involve use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Speaking of a single farm, it is true that organic farming consumes less energy, emits less greenhouse gasses, nitrous oxide and ammonia and causes less nitrogen leeching than a conventional field. However, when it comes to produce, the quantity is significantly lower in organic farming – that means that to grow equivalent quantities of food as conventional farms, organic farms need to occupy 84% more land – land which could otherwise have been used for forests and genuine nature reserves. That is a huge trade off.

Is organic food free from harmful pesticides, chemicals, and carcinogens?

Speaking of chemicals in food, one can’t help recalling the recent epic controversy surrounding Nestle’s Maggi noodles in India. Found to have 7 times the permissible lead content in test samples, India’s food regulatory authority FSSAI  issued a “unsafe and hazardous for human consumption” ban on the country’s most loved snack enjoyed by generations of Indians. In its defence, Nestle has blamed the high lead content in groundwater as the main culprit. So should we turn to organic noodles? No. Organic farming though far away from chemical pesticides, can use any pesticide that is labelled “natural”. This includes copper sulphate, which has been known to cause liver disease in vineyard sprayers in France. Separately, a study on Pyrethrin, another organic pesticide shows a 3.7 times higher incidence of leukaemia among farmers who handled pyrethrins compared to those who had not. The writing on the wall is clear – organic pesticides pose nearly the same health risks as chemical ones.

So what’s the way forward?

While the debate about organic s. non organic seems a never ending one, what is more important that you should get your facts right before you make a choice. If eating healthier foods and minimizing environmental impact is what you want, it’s best to buy local – irrespective of organic or not. Besides boosting the local economy, local produce is cheaper, fresher, easily available, and emits less carbon dioxide by way of less transportation involved. Eat local, eat healthy.

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