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 Tomatoes
Is organic produce better for you? It’s not just about avoiding the pesticides: Scientific research says yes, it’s more nutritious. Photo by Steve Woods | SXC.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

STEPHANIE ZONIS focuses on good foods and the people who produce them.

 

 

January 2008

Product Reviews / NutriNibbles

Organic Produce

Dietary Help Or Media Hype: Are Organic Fruit & Vegetables Really Better?


Click here to read other months’ Organic Matter columns.

I’ve written about all kinds of organic foods in this column, but I haven’t tackled much in the way of fruits and veggies. This is the first in a two-part article discussing organic produce, and whether it’s really better—and that ranges from healthier for people to better for the environment to better-tasting.

Is Organic Produce Better For You?

My one wish for 2008 was to be able to walk into a grocery store without having to make any ethical decisions on what I’m buying. Since that no longer seems possible, the next best thing is to be able to make reasonably well-informed ethical decisions, no easy matter in a world of sound bites and two-paragraph summaries that pretend to function as hard news. The first question I’ll tackle about organic produce is whether it’s better for people. We know it’s grown without chemical pesticides, but does it contain greater quantities of nutrients? I’ve seen a plethora of websites from organic farms, organic associations geared toward the consumer and retailers of organics claiming that yes, organic produce has greater nutritional value than that which is grown conventionally. I’ve even seen one website claiming that, because organic veggies grow more slowly, they take in greater amounts of nutrients from the earth. Is there any scientific evidence at all regarding the alleged nutritional superiority of organic fruits and veggies?

A good reference point is two studies, both published recently, regarding the nutritional value of organically-raised produce versus conventionally-produced. The first was a European Union-funded project in the U.K. Conducted over a four-year period, the PotatoQuality Low Input Food Project (QLIF) divided a 725-acre farm in half, raising conventional produce (and dairy cows) and their organic counterparts almost side by side. The initial results, published in October 2007, showed that organic tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, onions and lettuce contained up to 40% more antioxidants and higher levels of some vitamins and minerals (such as copper, iron, vitamin C and zinc) than conventional examples of the same fruits and vegetables. Organically-raised wheat also contained these higher levels of antioxidants and minerals. And the milk from organically-farmed dairy cows was found to have between 50% and 90% more antioxidants (depending upon which media outlet you credit) than conventionally-produced milk.
Photo of lettuce by Richard Sweet | SXC.

The USDA and the FSA (Food Standards Agency—the U.K. equivalent of the USDA) have long maintained that organic foods are no more nutritious than conventional Lettucefoods. Doesn’t this study prove them wrong? Well, not quite. Not yet, anyway. The full results of the U.K. study, which will not be published until sometime this year, showed significant variations in nutrient levels between organic and conventional produce; some conventionally-grown crops proved to have higher vitamin contents than those of the same species raised organically. In addition, as any small-scale farmer can tell you, fruits and vegetables are about the most variable foods out there. They are enormously influenced by species, microclimate during any particular growing season, soil condition, and more. (If you don’t believe me, look at the quality of any brand of vintage wine over a period of several years. You’ll notice changes in the wine with each vintage, often significant, usually caused by how good or poor a year it was for the wine grapes.) It’s possible that different species of lettuce or onion might have produced very different findings, or that if the study had been carried out for a longer period of time, the results might have been more (or less) in favor of organic produce. So I find this study interesting, but not conclusive. However, there was another set of results published in 2007 with less fanfare, which I find more intriguing.
Photo of lettuce by Ana Batista | SXC.

From 1994 to 2004, in a study conducted by researchers from the University of California at Davis, both organic and conventionally-grown tomatoes of one species were dried, then measured for levels of two flavonoids (a type of antioxidant): quercetin and kaempferol. Over the decade-long study, the mean levels of quercetin Tomatoeswere 79% higher in organically-grown tomatoes, while the average kaempferol levels of the organic tomatoes were 97% higher than in conventionally-grown tomatoes. The levels of both flavonoids increased over time in the tomatoes that had been grown organically but did not alter significantly in those that had been conventionally produced. The researchers noted that the increasing level of the flavonoids in the organically-grown tomatoes over the 10 year period corresponded with increasing amounts of organic matter in the soil in which those tomatoes were grown, along with a reduction in the manure applied once the soil for the organic tomatoes had reached “equilibrium levels of organic matter.” While the levels of only two antioxidants were measured, and those for just one crop, this study was conducted over a much longer period of time, and the scientists also looked at soil health, a critical aspect of agriculture too often neglected in studies.
Photo of tomatoes by Pawel Zawistowski | IST.

Again, the results of this research should make you think; up until now, the serious research of which I’m aware has concluded that conventionally and organic produce were nutritionally similar. Based on these studies, should you switch to organic produce, if you don’t already consume it? While any number of companies will tell you unhesitatingly that you must do so immediately, there are a few other aspects of fruit and vegetable consumption you might want to think about before you dive headfirst into that organic cornucopia.

For starters, people need to stop regarding vitamins, minerals and antioxidants as substances that will cure all bodily evils, present or potential. Ingesting excessive amounts of any or all of these, regardless of whether their sources are organic or conventional, will not guarantee good health and could even prove harmful. As far as the declaration that organic veggies contain more nutrients because they are slower-growing than conventional counterparts and remain in the soil for a longer time, Dr. Margaret Smith, a Professor in the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell University, says that such claims are made regularly by organic growers. Dr. Smith believes that “…the chemical composition of organic produce might be different because the chemical constitution of the soils in which these plants grow is different.” She also notes that, while she’s not a nutritionist, she has “yet to see any convincing scientific studies showing larger mineral and nutrient content in organic versus non-organic produce.”   

So, Should You Switch To Organic Produce?

Economics are frequently a sticking point where organics are concerned. If you’re watching every penny, affording organics may be difficult. Even though many big-chain U.S. grocers now carry them and they are more accessible, you’re going to pay more for organic fruits and vegetables in most cases. How much more?  One U.K. study found that organic produce is “typically about 30% more expensive,” and that figure seems to approximate U.S. costs as well. Why? Simple: Organic farming is more costly for the farmer. To begin with, organic certification is an expensive (not to mention time-consuming) process. Organic farming products, whether you’re talking about seeds or sprays, are invariably higher-priced than identical conventional items. Farming organically is more labor-intensive; labor costs time, and time equals money. And organic farming almost invariably results in lower crop yields. Even with the higher prices they charge, it can still be difficult for organic farmers to earn a living wage.

One of the most frequently-cited reasons for purchasing and consuming organic foods is the use, or over-use, of agrichemicals. An astronomical quantity of these chemicals, in synthetic pesticides, as well as in synthetic fertilizers, goes into the growing of conventional fruits and vegetables every year. An increasing number of people are becoming concerned about what effects these agrichemicals, and any run-off from them, may have on soil, groundwater, wildlife, and human health. There’s no better example of the environmental impact of agrichemicals than the annual “dead zone” that forms in the Gulf of Mexico.
Strawberries
Organic farming saves the environment from harmful chemical pesticides. Photo of strawberry farm by S.M. Jet | SXC.

Every year, beginning around April, an increasingly-large area in the Gulf becomes so oxygen-depleted that it cannot support any marine life. This is the dead zone, which peaks in size around late July. In 2005, this area was almost the size of the state of New Jersey. One of the chief causes of the dead zone, it turns out, is agricultural fertilizers. Excess nutrients from both synthetic fertilizers and manure drain into the Gulf from the Mississippi and Atchafalya River Basins. There, they cause microscopic phyloplankton to thrive and reproduce in large numbers. When the phyloplankton die, they sink to the ocean’s bottom, where they’re decomposed by bacteria that consume oxygen. Unfortunately, the bacteria also exhaust most of the oxygen in the water, leaving an insufficient amount for other marine life.

By contrast, organic production is distinctly limited in the types of chemicals that are allowed to be used (manure is also allowed in organic production, but there are serious restrictions on how it must be handled). Given that fewer chemicals are used in organic growing, wouldn’t that mean that organic foods are automatically better for the planet?

Food Miles & The Locavore Concept

True, the use of fewer synthetic pesticides and fertilizers is good news for our Earth. But by the time you add up all the real environmental costs, any benefit may be negated. As I write this, I’m looking at a beautiful catalog from an organic food company. They don’t make food themselves; they buy it from organic purveyors, so they’re a sort of organic food clearing house. They are perfectly willing to send me almost anything in the way of organic foods my heart could possibly desire, from fresh organic herbs to organic black bean soup to organic link sausages to organic cheesecake. I’ve tried a product or two from them before, and I like what they sell, as well as their friendly customer service. The problem is, they’re in California. I live several thousand miles away. So, by the time they’ve received everything from their suppliers and then shipped it to me, a great deal of fossil fuel has been used to get that better-for-the-planet organic food to an individual consumer.

How far food travels to get to your table is the concept called “food miles,” and it’s become a much bigger issue than it once was. Organic food shipped within the U.S. does come at a food mile cost, but now there’s the question of organic food imported into the U.S. Where this country was once a net exporter of organic food, imports now exceed exports by a ratio of about eight to one. Many of those imports come from countries such as Mexico and China, making those pesky food miles add up mighty quickly.
Plane
Organics might help the environment, but not if so much fossil fuel is spent shipping them around the country. Photo by Rodolfo Clix | SXC.

The average food on America’s tables (organic or otherwise) travels 1,500 miles and has given rise to the Locavore movement, where environmentally-concerned people commit to eating foods grown within 300 miles of their homes, which can be trucked efficiently to local markets.

Obviously, the optimal situation would be to find organically-grown fruits and veggies that are raised in your area. But in a country almost as many climates and sub-climates as there are politicians, that can prove difficult. (Locavores are challenged to eat seasonally and to home-can foods for the winter months.) And it may be getting even harder. In the excellent article “Filling Their Sales” on Grist.org, author Tom Philpott notes that, while organic food accounts for roughly 2.5% of all food sales in the U.S., only 0.2% of our farmland is in organic production. There’s more land in organic production in Italy than there is in all of the U.S., in fact, and Italy has a far smaller total land area. 

Moreover, farmland acres now transitioning into organics are almost equaled by those transitioning out of organics. With organic foods experiencing such popularity among consumers, that seems strange, until you realize that small-scale organic farmers are having a tough time holding their own economically. Small-scale organic farmers can get more for organic produce than they can for conventional in some scenarios, such as at a farmers market. But in some cases, large processing corporations buy up smaller organic-producing companies (for example, Small Planet Foods, which makes both Cascadian Farm and Muir Glen products, was purchased by General Mills in 1999). Alternatively, a large processor may make it difficult for an organic farmer to make a living wage because the processor has so much influence over the price it will pay to the farmer for his or her crop.

Maybe the solution is to gradually switch everyone over to organic production? Even supposing you could get Monsanto & Friends to agree to that, it still won’t work. The U.S. doesn’t have enough farmland left to transition all of our agriculture to organic production methods. Again, because organic agriculture has lower yields and is more labor intensive, we’d need much more farmland (and farm labor) than we have now.

Is It Really Organic?

Finally, there’s the “who do you trust?” game. Some people have trouble believing that certain businesses selling organic foods are truly playing by the rules of organic standards, in part because the current organic standards simply aren’t that impressively rigorous. Where such fingers are pointed, they tend to be pointed at large corporations, justifiably or otherwise. There’s a good deal of talk about the “true spirit” of the organic movement, and whether big companies really follow that spirit.

Make no mistake: Organics is big business these days. Sales of organic groceries (of all types) have been growing between 16% and 25% yearly (depending upon whose figures you accept) for some years now. And what about the source of organic produce?  With so much being imported, who’s watching over the suppliers from those countries to make sure organic standards are being met? China exports a great deal of organic food to the U.S. these days, but with the recent pet food and toy recalls and the discovery of contaminants in Chinese farmed fish, many consumers are understandably nervous about all products from China. So, who do you trust?

That’s the bad news about organic fruits and vegetables, along with the ongoing issue of appearance. Because no chemicals are used, organic produce often looks less pretty, more blemished, than does conventional. Consumers, especially American consumers, have been conditioned over time to expect fruit and vegetables that are perfect in appearance; in fact, much of our fruit is so bland-tasting because it has been grown to look perfect, not taste good. Remember the old saying that it’s what’s inside that counts? That applies here, too. Buying organic means understanding if an apple has a little russeting, or there’s a blemish on the rind of your grapefruit.  

Good News About Organics

The bad news—questionable origin of some products, blemishes on some others—is undeniably offset by the positive aspects of organic produce. And there are things you can do to keep down your total food miles. We’ll start with the good news about organic produce first.

  • No synthetic pesticides. Organic produce doesn’t add to the already-vast quantity of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers used on conventional produce. Some people are concerned about their intake of pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables (even after washing). In 2006, Consumer Reports noted that some produce was more likely to retain such residues, while it was less probable that other varieties did so. Among those fruits and veggies more likely to retain these residues (which included apples, celery, cherries, spinach, strawberries, nectarines, potatoes and red raspberries), organic produce offers an opportunity for people to keep some toxins out of their bodies when eating such foods. People with chemical sensitivities can sometimes find relief from symptoms by eating organics. And those with compromised immune systems, or immune systems not yet fully developed (that means kids), may be more affected by synthetic pesticide residues than the general population. Again, organic foods, especially organic produce, may be an answer here, although the Environmental Protection Agency insists that conventionally-grown produce is safe for children to consume.
  • No GMOs. Organic fruits and vegetables are not permitted to be irradiated or modified genetically. Longtime readers of this column understand that I have some very serious concerns about GMOs, genetically-modified organisms. It isn’t that I automatically condemn GMOs as bad, it’s that many of them have created at least as many problems as they were supposed to solve, or simply haven’t worked at all. Sufficient research on the effect of GM crops has not been carried out, and, once the genetic modification is released into the environment, recalling it is impossible. The idea that GMO seeds are “intellectual property” and cannot be saved at the end of harvest to plant next spring is absolute, well, fertilizer, and it’s placing more and more poor farmers deeper and deeper in debt, even while corporations (such as Monsanto and Syngenta) and their investors reap ever-greater profits from that situation. And unintentional crossbreeding and genetic drift have both been demonstrated to be all too real. Again, organic agriculture is one of very few ways around these GMOs.
  • Soil Health. Organic farming is also a heck of a lot better for soil health than conventional farming. Goodness, how I do keep harping on soil condition! Maybe more people should; that’s how important soil is. According to the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries and Water, soil condition “can be defined as the capacity of a soil to function, within land use and ecosystem boundaries, to sustain biological productivity, maintain environmental health, and promote plant, animal, and human health.” Is that crucial enough for you? So much of agriculture depends on soil health. Some would argue that agrichemicals can be used to restore soil health if any imbalances are found, but we already know that overuse of those chemicals is a major culprit in  environmental problems these days. Monoculture, a common practice in conventional farming, is the repeated growing of just one crop in one area. It’s a sure-fire way to strip soil of nutrients vital for plant growth, and it supports populations of those pests specific to the crop, as well as weeds that like those particular soil conditions. Organic farming uses techniques such as crop rotation and diversity, composting and cover cropping (cover crops, usually annual grasses and/or legumes, can control erosion and weeds, aerate and loosen the soil, act as a living mulch and even restore soil nutrients) to enrich and preserve valuable topsoil. This form of cultivation is invariably gentler to the land.
  • Availability. There’s a lot of talk about organic farming supporting small family farms. Some of that’s true—but some of it isn’t. There are some “supersized” organic farms these days, especially in California. They have gone far past the “small family farm” stage, although most probably started out that way. And we’ve all read about large corporations buying up what were once independent organic producers. But there’s an odd twist to all that. When big corporations get involved in something, it generally becomes more available to more people, and it costs less. That’s happened with organics, too. Unquestionably, they’ve become more widely available, and that’s driven the price down to a degree. I’m not sure organic fruits and vegetables will ever qualify as inexpensive, but any price reduction for the consumer will result in more people buying the organic product. And there are small family farms out there growing organic fruits and vegetables; you might just have to do a bit of searching for them.

Cutting Down Your “Food Miles”

If you buy organic fruits and vegetables to help yourself and the soil, what can you do to offset those food miles?

  • Support organic vendors at your local farmers market. Many communities of even modest size have Farmers’ Markets weekly during growing season, and the Farmers’ Markets in some areas are justly famous for excellent, locally-grown produce. Not sure if it’s organically grown? Just ask!
  • Eat according to the season. I know; those organic raspberries from the southern hemisphere look so tempting when they’re in the market in January! But I’ve never found any raspberries (or other produce) that benefited from jet lag, or six weeks on a ship. Produce will taste and smell better when it hasn’t traveled for thousands of miles. Enjoy what is harvested closer to home.
  • Support CSAs. You can also buy a share in an organic CSA program. CSA stands for “community-supported agriculture.” CSA members pay in advance for a share of a farmer’s total crop. This guarantees local, seasonal, and, in this case, organic fruits and veggies. By purchasing a CSA share, you are definitely supporting a local farmer, as well. And check out a local organic co-op, if one is nearby.

People are always looking for that magic bullet, the one that’s going to solve all of a range of problems in one area of daily life. Organic agriculture is not that magic bullet. Having said that, it can be a step in a very positive direction. If locale and your pocketbook permit, I hope you’ll choose to eat organic fruits and vegetables at least some of the time. Support your local organic farmers and sustainable agriculture, keep chemical pesticides off your plate and potentially, get more nutrients in every bite.

 

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