Is Organic Food really "better"?

The bottom line consumer question is: "Is organic food significantly 'better' than regular supermarket food?" If not, less attention needs be paid to understanding organic vs. conventional food. If so, consumers have to educate themselves, or risk being misled. This area is a hotbed of controversy, and there are no conclusive answers.

The basic claims for the superiority of organic food are:

Tastier: Organic advocates claim organic food tastes better because of the way it is produced, and because there is generally a greater variety to choose from. There is no body of scientific taste testing to consult.
More nutritious: Food produced under organic conditions are somehow structurally different from chemically-raised and processed products. This pro-organic claim is so far beyond the scope of modern science to prove or disprove. The complex make-up of food, the effect of growing and processing methods, and the internal interactions between people and their nutrients are largely unknown. Measurements of some food components — protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and minerals, and so on — only account for the most obvious factors that have been identified so far, and research is minimal. However, there are scientific indications that, by favoring certain aspects of a plant's development, other aspects may be retarded, resulting in less nutritious food. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in 2004, entitled Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999, compared nutritional analysis of vegetables done in 1950 and in 1999, and found substantial decreases in six of 13 nutrients examined. Percentage reductions included 6% of protein and 38% of riboflavin. Reductions in calcium, phosphorus, iron and ascorbic acid were also found. The study, conducted at the Biochemical Institute, University of Texas, concluded that the most likely cause was the breeding of crops to maximize yield. Although not on the surface a strictly organic issue, plant breeding objectives for commercial production is completely integrated with industrialized, chemical-based farming.
Non-toxic: Organic proponents point to potential problems with toxic residues from agricultural chemicals like pesticides. There is no argument that traces do not exist; however, it is widely held that: (a) they are well in "safe" limits (as established by government regulations); (b) washing and other recommended preparation methods eliminate any risk. One potentially relevant new areas is the principle of hormesis, an emerging outlook on the extreme low level effects of substances, that might suggest that exposure to minute quantities of toxic residues on foods may have as specific effects on humans.
Better for the environment: By this argument, every food purchase supports the system that delivers it: if the large-scale chemical production methods are damaging to the environment, then people who buy these products are directly contributing to the problem. A recent UK study concluded that local food is best for the environment, and recommended food produced within a few miles radius as being the most advantageious. Insofar as organic food is often imported from long distances, local organics would seem environmentally to be the better bet.

None of these claims are widely accepted as scientific fact although it seems to be difficult to make the argument that foods grown with chemicals/pesticides are better than those without. There are research reports, expert opinions, and anecdotal evidence both supporting and rebutting them. Learning more about these debates leads to clearer understanding of organic food, and its potential value.

To the consumer looking for self-education, a basic awareness of recent food history provides a useful context. Chemical agriculture and mass production of supermarket food have only been big business for about 50 years. During that period, radical changes in the way food is produced have been justified by quoting scientific studies and conducting large-scale advertising and publicity campaigns. In recent years, the negative longer-term effects of many chemical agriculture practices have become increasingly hard to deny, however, the lack of balanced agricultural and food research is still overwhelming. It is unlikely that anything near definitive scientific conclusions will be drawn for years, possibly decades. In the meantime, consumers have to either trust the existing standards and claims, or come to their own common sense conclusions.

Radical Organic
Faced with inconclusive research, conflicting marketing messages, and an overall avalanche of information, some food producers and consumers who want to act now are implementing radical approaches to defining and buying organic food.

Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is one such approach, that cuts out all the middlemen by having consumers partner with local farmers. CSA members prepurchase "shares" in a season's harvest, and pick up their weekly portions from distribution sites. Thus, consumers provide direct financing for farms, participate in the risks and rewards of annual growing conditions, and participate with farmers in distribution networks.

Various alternative organic standards are also emerging. They generally bypass formal certification, and provide their own definition of organic food. One such, the Authentic Food standard, proposed by leading US organic farmer Eliot Coleman, includes criteria that are incompatible with current agribusiness:

All foods are produced by the growers who sell them.
Fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs and meat products are produced within a 50-mile radius of their place of their final sale.
The seed and storage crops (grains, beans, nuts, potatoes, etc.) are produced within a 300-mile radius of their final sale.
Only traditional processed foods such as cheese, wine, bread and lactofermented products may claim, "Made with Authentic ingredients."
Particularly in developed nations, it is difficult to imagine not having the majority of products found in today's supermarkets. On the other hand, most of those products did not exist 100 years ago, and many of them are only a few decades old.

Legal Definition
In the United States, agricultural products that claim to be "organic" must adhere to the requirements of the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 (found in 7 U.S.C.A. § 6501-22) and the regulations (found in 7 C.F.R. Part 205) promulgated by the USDA through the National Organic Program ("NOP") under this act. These laws essential require that any product that claims to be organic must have been manufactured and handled according to specific NOP requirements.

Facts and Statistics-
While organics account for 1–2% of total food sales worldwide, the organic food market is growing rapidly, both in developed and developing nations.

  • World organic food sales were US $23 billion in 2002.

  • The world organic market has been growing by 20% a year since the early 1990s, with future growth estimates ranging from 10-50% annually depending on the country.

  • In the US:

  • "Organic products are now available in nearly 20,000 natural food stores and 73 percent of conventional grocery stores, and account for approximately 1-2 percent of total food sales in the U.S." — Feb 2003

  • Two thirds of organic milk and cream and half of organic cheese and yogurt are sold through conventional supermarkets.

  • In Germany: Baby food is almost exclusively organic, and over 30% of bread baked in Munich is organic.Link

  • In Italy: Existing legislation calls for all school lunches to be organic by 2005.

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