15 August 2009

is organic food healthier?

it is probably no secret that i'm an advocate of the organic movement. i buy organic products and produce whenever possible, despite the extra cost. i don't LIKE paying more for it, but i feel strongly that it's worth it not only for the sake of my family and their health and well being, but also for the health and well being of our planet. however, my husband is not of one mind with me on this; he simply sees the extra cost. but after showing him this article (below), he's a bit more understanding. the article really articulates well what "organic" really means and why it's important to buy organic products whenever possible. it was written by by Dr. Ayala Laufer-Cahana; you can read her credentials here.

I support the organic movement and started buying organic food as soon as organic alternatives were available to me. I will gladly pay more for an organically produced food item.

For the sake of full disclosure--I’m involved with an organic product that recently earned the organic seal. The long process made me even more respectful of the certifying agencies and the seal.

As I studied the subject more carefully, I became more and more convinced that eating and buying organic isn’t just about maintaining your own health; it’s about political change and doing something for the greater good.

I think that the first, selfish motivation is quite clear. Conventional food is grown using a multitude of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. We now know that these remain in the food, and are absorbed by and present in our body. Although conventional growers and food producers make every effort to convince us that these chemicals are safe and harmless in these amounts, common sense says that they definitely add nothing good to our health, and we’re probably better off without them.

Personally, I don’t want to be part of this experiment. We live in an environment that has hundreds of new, man-made chemicals. It will be very hard to prove that any single one of them is a direct cause of disease, as they probably do not have very high toxicity, but overall, this experiment is not going well so far. Despite major advancements in medical care, the rates of many chronic diseases are on the rise, and there is some concern that chronic, repeated chemical exposure contributes to that. While it’s impossible to avoid exposure altogether, I think that directly ingesting contaminants on a regular basis isn’t a good idea.

Organic farming practices

In order to look at the bigger picture of what “choosing organic” means, we have to understand organic practices. The certified organic label on a food means that the producers of the food followed several rules:

o They do not use synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers to grow crops.

o They do not fertilize with sewage sludge.

o Food is not irradiated or genetically modified.

o Organic farmers are required by the National Organic Standards to minimize soil erosion.

o Soil fertility is maintained through practices such as crop rotation, cover crops, and use of composted material (which is basically recycling farm waste into soil nutrients).

o Animals cannot be fed the byproducts of other animals.

o Animals are given access to the outdoors and treated more humanely (I read several reports that make me believe that the humane treatment of animals is an aspect that needs more attention).

We can easily see how important these practices are to the environment:

o An organic farm doesn’t contribute to the growing problem of chemical fertilizers’ run-off contaminating our rivers, lakes, oceans and drinking water. This contamination is persistent, and affects us -- as well as wildlife.

o An organic farm doesn’t contribute to our worrying dependence on foreign dwindling oil supplies (fertilizers are fossil fuel products).

o Farm workers on organic farms aren’t subjected to a work environment heavily contaminated by pesticides.

o Soil fertility is maintained for future generations.

o An organic farm recycles its waste, and doesn’t fill landfills with hazardous waste.

o An organic farm promotes biodiversity.

o Organic practices lead to crops that are more resistant to drought and pests, and probably are more complex in phytochemical composition. (Phytochemicals are chemical compounds derived from plants and fruits; there is evidence from epidemiological studies that phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables can significantly reduce the risk of disease.)

And as defined by the USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB):

"Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”

What does the organic seal mean?

The organic seal was introduced in 2002, and assures that products labeled as organic meet stringent standards established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Under the USDA regulations, In order for a product to be labeled as “organic” and gain the organic seal it must contain a minimum of 95% organic ingredients.

The certification is a very arduous process.

Growers seeking certification have to study the organic standards. Farm facilities and production methods must comply with the standards. Extensive paperwork must document farm history and current practices, and usually must include results of soil and water tests. A written annual production plan must be submitted, detailing every aspect of farming: Seed sources, field and crop locations, fertilization and pest control activities, harvest methods, storage locations, etc.

Annual on-farm inspections are part of the certification process, with a physical tour, examination of records, and an oral interview. Also, short-notice or surprise inspections can be made, and specific tests (e.g., soil, water, plant tissue) may be requested. For first-time farm certification, the soil must meet basic requirements of being free from use of prohibited substances (synthetic chemicals, etc.) for three years.

Certification for food producers is similar. Every aspect of the production, including ingredients, transport, processing and packaging are examined and need to adhere to strict standards.

The organic seal is earned with a lot of effort. The certifiers take their job very seriously, and for that, they have gained the public’s trust.

Do our choices matter?

By choosing organic food, consumers send the message to food growers and manufacturers that organic practices are important. The growth of the organic segment has been so dramatic because more and more people are demanding these products. And whether producers sign on to organic practices for ideological or financial and marketing reasons, the result is the same -- less degradation to our environment and a healthier planet.

So, yes, our choices matter a great deal.

If organic produce seems expensive, bear in mind that conventional foods have many hidden costs; the expenses associated with personal health and environmental degradation, for example, just weren't factored in when you bought them. We (and our children) will pay those costs later. With the prices of fossil fuels rising, we’ll also see conventional crops costing more (remember, conventional foods use fertilizers that are made from fossil fuels).

When you consider all the issues from a broad perspective, non-organic food is really just too expensive to even consider.

Is organic food always healthy food?

Organic doesn’t automatically mean “ready to eat now” or even necessarily “good for you”.

A common misconception I’ve encountered is that organic produce doesn’t need to be washed. Organic produce does need to be washed – and washed thoroughly. While organic food isn't sprayed with chemicals, microbial life is teeming between the leaves. Wildlife visit the fields and can contaminate produce in any number of ways. All produce is handled by many human hands that aren’t necessarily free of harmful bacteria and it’s more than likely that produce has been in contact with many surfaces that aren’t designed to be free of disease-causing germs.

Organic candy, organic soda or organic French fries, while still a tiny bit better because they’re free of pesticides, are still (organic) junk food, and should be eaten infrequently. So you do need to read the labels on organic foods carefully. If the food is full of sugars, fats, salt or calories, it’s a dessert, and shouldn’t be viewed as a “health food” (whatever that means).

“Organic” is not a panacea for all of life’s ills. While it would be nice if organic food folded the laundry and grew hair on bald spots, all kidding aside, it’s vitally important that we understand and apply the limits of what can be expected from organic food.

The organic seal promises that the food has been farmed according to the organic standards -- which are better for you and for the environment. But it doesn’t mean the food itself can’t be junk.

Dr. Ayala

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