The purchase of organic food has become nothing short of a global trend, as consumers aim to spend money on products they feel they can relate to and trust. This means knowing exactly what food is made of, how it is processed and its country of origin.
While millions of shoppers continue to flock to grocery stores and farmers’ markets, investing their faith (and dollars) in the promise of healthy organic foods, the debate surrounding the true value of "organic" has yet to reach a definitive conclusion. The return to a so-called “natural diet” piques shoppers’ interests - enough to generate a global organic market valued at an estimated $48 billion in 2007.
In July 2009, researchers in London claimed that customers only purchase organic food because they believe it is healthier for their bodies. Scientists at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, however, were not convinced.
After a review of 162 scientific papers published in the last 50 years, the research team concluded that there was simply no notable difference between reportedly healthier organic food and conventionally processed food products.
"There is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority," says Alan Dangour, one of the report’s authors.
On the other side of the debate, the Soil Association, an international charity whose primary activities involve campaigning for public education on nutrition and health and participates in the certification of organic food in the U.K., disagrees.
In response to the July 2009 report on the lack of additional health benefits in organic food, the Soil Association’s Policy Director Peter Melchett stated in a press release, “We are disappointed in the conclusions the researchers have reached. The review rejected almost all of the existing studies of comparisons between organic and non-organic nutritional differences.”
"Although the researchers say that the differences between organic and non-organic food are not ‘important’, due to the relatively few studies, they report in their analysis that there are higher levels of beneficial nutrients in organic compared to non-organic foods.”
Despite in which camp your opinions lie, the implied power of eating organic still holds sway over shoppers’ decisions.
What does the label mean?
In order to make educated decisions about the benefits of organic food, shoppers must first understand what sets organic products apart from their conventional counterparts and what qualifies as "organic" in the U.S.
“Organic refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed," says Jennifer Rose, new media manager and staff writer of the Organic Trade Association (OTA). "It includes a system of production, processing, distribution and sales that assures consumers that the products maintain the organic integrity that begins on the farm.”
“This system which is governed by strict government standards,” Rose explains, “requires that products bearing the organic label are made without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, antibiotics, synthetic hormones, genetic engineering or other excluded practices, sewage, sludge or irradiation.”
Jack Hunter, spokesman for the U.K.-based Soil Association, says, “Certain standards for animal welfare, avoidance of chemicals and harmful food additives form the basis for the trade term ‘organic.’ This is enshrined in European law, but many organizations set their standards above this level, including ours. The Soil Association is considered one of the highest standards in the world, so consumers seeing our distinctive logo can be sure of high standards, policed by our inspectors who visit all levels of the production chain on an annual and unannounced basis.”
According to Hunter, many of the benefits of organic food are even overlooked by consumers who believe that these products are better only in the sense that they contain no chemicals, antibiotics, traces of pesticides or fertilizers.
“Organic is a package of really worthwhile things," he says. "This often makes it hard to understand and is why most people think organic equals no chemicals. Organic is all about producing food in a way that doesn’t harm people or the environment.”
An essential element of sustainable farming
Organic food is tied directly to the concept of sustainable farming, which covers every part of the food production process from the way animals are fed and their living conditions to the types of amendments that can or cannot be added to the soil in which products are grown.
“So where a worrying amount of pigs, chickens and cows can be reared in miserable conditions, grow faster than their bodies can cope with, are fed things they have not evolved to eat and get a liberal dose of drugs, organic farming does not allow such abuses in the name of profit," Hunter says.
Rose shares a similar sentiment on the overall benefits of organic farming and says that in addition to the environmental benefits, which include soil health, carbon sequestration, clean water supplies and the many personal health advantages organic food has to offer, organic farmers are required by law in the U.S. to “provide their animals with access to the outdoors and pasture, quality organic feed and safe, clean living conditions” without the use of antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones.
“Because organic farms are less intensive, they are far better for wildlife, both in terms of diversity and sheer numbers," Hunter says. "Fields growing wheat one year will need to replace the lost nitrogen through manure and growing clover, for example.”
Given the environmental benefits of eating organic, it is no shock either that many consumers find organic food more pleasing to the palate. Nutritionists around the world have also revealed that organic food contains higher levels of several important vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, iron, and chromium, in addition to cancer-fighting antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. According to Hunter, a good example is organic milk, which has on average 68 percent more omega-3 essential fatty acids than conventionally produced milk.
The cost of organic
Despite the progressive move towards organic products around the world, there are still some confusing aspects of organic food, such as why standards vary from country to country and also - from an ecological point of view - whether organic food outweighs the benefits of buying local, conventionally grown food from community farmers.
Rose explains that the difference in organic standards exists simply because the development of these laws originates at the national versus international level.
"Some may be very similar as they may have followed direction from an international body, such as the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM)," she says. "OTA is supportive of equivalence or trade agreements with other countries, and there has been some progress on this front, such as the equivalence agreement between the U.S. and Canada signed last year.”
“However, in order to be sold as organic in the U.S., products, regardless of their origin, must meet U.S. standards. Thus, it doesn’t matter where they were grown. They must be certified by USDA-accredited certifying agents or by agencies within their countries that have been recognized by USDA as meeting the requirements of the National Organic Program.”
When asked which is more beneficial, buying local produce from farmers or purchasing organic food from the supermarket, Rose says, “It’s great if you have a personal relationship with a local farmer whose production methods you can trust. It is important to remember, though, that only products bearing the organic label afford government-backed assurance about how they were grown and processed. So, if you want to be sure that what you buy has indeed been grown and processed according to strict production and processing standards, organic is the best choice.”
Hunter, on the other hand, advises consumers to do a little bit of both when grocery shopping.
"Local food is going to be fresher than anything you can buy in the supermarket, organic or not," he says. "Because many nutrients break down with time, local food is often more nutritious, too. But unless it’s organic, it may have been grown with pesticides and on farms that are a disaster for wildlife. If you can afford it, buy local and organic. Often, local is the cheapest way of buying organic. It’s significantly cheaper to get through box schemes than at the supermarket and sometimes even cheaper at a farm shop or farmers’ market.”
Yet another issue that researchers have raised in the past is whether or not the benefits of organic food outweigh the extra costs in shipping or fuel. In terms of fossil fuels, is an organic apple traveling from Washington state to Pennsylvania really worth the extra mileage?
Rose says organic food actually helps to reduce our carbon footprint and combat climate change by preventing organic farmers from using fossil fuel-based fertilizers. She believes that shipping organic products, even from a distance as wide as California to New York, makes no difference since non-organic products are usually shipped the same way.
Hunter, however, sees it differently. “The benefits and pitfalls of flying produce around the world is a complicated one involving third world development, consumer choice and the balancing of competing environmental issues," he says. "Some products can’t be grown in colder climates and need to be transported long distances. This isn’t much of an issue where these are shipped, but are problematic when flying is involved. Some of this is undoubtedly organic."
When it comes to organic foods, sentiments and opinions run strong. While researchers such as those at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine believe that the alleged benefits of organic food are negligible, other organizations are campaigning in countries around the world to promote the consumption of organic produce and meat.
“The basic message is that in the race to make food cheap - which is a good thing - there has been these unintended consequences which mean that really, it’s not that cheap at all," Hunter says. "Not if you consider that so many of us are becoming obese, in large part because of the rubbish many of us are now eating. It’s also not cheap on the animals that suffer or the environment that is trashed.”
Whatever the opinion of these organizations or campaigns, the ultimate choice is still left to the consumer, who must determine whether the extra financial costs of organic food are worth the health benefits so frequently debated by researchers for nearly an entire century.