Going Organic

What is it? How do you do it? Why is it so important now? ET's introduction to all
things organic clarifies this complex topic and provides the most important reasons
why naturally grown or raised food can benefit your health.

By Lauren Tepper

April 2006

These days, it seems like everything is coming up organic. First, it was fruits and vegetables, then chicken and beef…Now, nearly every other health food store item under the sun appears to be touting itself as “organic.”

As proof, sales of organic food and beverages in the US reached $15 billion in 2004, up from $3.5 billion in 1997, and experts project they will double by 2009, according to Consumer Reports. While organic sales have increased 17% to 21% each year since ’97, the entire food industry’s sales have only grown 2% to 4%. What’s more, North America remains the largest market in the worldwide trend, with organic products available in 20,000 natural food stores (according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service).

However, the designation of “organic” can sometimes be confusing, and even a bit misleading. Does the word “organic” mean the same for salmon and shampoo as it does for spinach? And, even more importantly, what benefits can consumers reap from sowing the seeds of an organic lifestyle?

In the broadest sense, going organic means creating an existence that is simple, healthy and as close to nature as possible. It not only refers to what you eat, but to clothing and your home environment, how you recycle your trash and even how you feed your pet.

Organic food refers to anything that is grown, raised or produced naturally, without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, radiation, antibiotics or genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—all of which are prevalent in conventional food production. Organically raised animals must be given no feed made from animal byproducts, which can transmit mad cow disease.

Organic agriculture, in contrast to traditional farming practices, is environmentally friendly. “It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony,” states the National Organic Standards Board.

You may also have heard the term “sustainability,” which is closely related to organic farming. Sustainable products are grown according to the same principles as organic products but are not certified by the government; the consumer must rely on the farmer’s word. While organic has often become a hotly debated set of government-regulated standards, sustainability remains a philosophy about growing food that should be healthy for consumers and animals, does not harm the environment, is humane for workers and animals, provides a fair wage to the farmer, and supports and enhances rural communities. Organic farmers should, in theory, share a sustainable outlook on food production, but now that giant food manufacturers are hopping on the organic trend, they may be more motivated by profit than humanity.

Going organic in the true sense of the word means making a firm commitment to your health as well as to the greater good of the world at large. Need a little further explanation? Here are the top reasons why you should seriously consider going organic.

Reduce your exposure to dangerous pesticides. A growing body of research shows that by eating organic food you can greatly limit your contact with the chemicals found in conventionally produced food. The average person can wind up consuming small amounts of more than 30 pesticides every day when eating a variety of seemingly healthy, non-organic foods. Pesticides can cause health problems such as birth defects, nerve damage or even cancer, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The federal government regulates pesticide use in conventional products to be within what are deemed safe limits, while sources like the International Food Information Council say that food preparation methods including cooking, washing, canning, freezing and drying decrease the pesticide residues of most foods eaten. But critics still charge that these foods are not safe enough.

More than a dozen former widely used pesticides were banned, restricted or voluntarily withdrawn in 1996, when a federal law required pesticides to meet safety standards for children. This begs the question, “Which pesticides currently deemed safe will be banned in the future?”
As an alternative, organic foods are not completely free of pesticides, but they’re a lot better.

“Certified organic products have been grown and handled according to strict standards without toxic and persistent chemical inputs,” according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), a membership-based business association that focuses on the organic business community in North America. “However, organic crops are inadvertently exposed to agricultural chemicals that are now pervasive in rain and ground water due to their overuse during the past 50 years in North America, and due to drift via wind and rain.”

Avoid other chemical risks. Synthetic growth hormones, which can be found in pork, beef or dairy, may be carcinogenic according to recent studies, and exposure to them may be linked to early puberty in girls. Antibiotics used to speed up animals’ growth and ward off health problems from being kept in dirty, overcrowded pens have contributed to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans (i.e., infections that won’t go away). Even conventionally raised chickens may eat feed containing neurotoxins like arsenic and heavy metals, which can get passed on to you.

Protect your children’s health. Children are especially vulnerable to pesticide exposure, as their developing immune, hormonal and nervous systems are more prone to damage. That may be because they have a higher intake of food and water per unit of body weight than adults and their not fully developed organ systems have a limited ability to detoxify these substances.

A recent study supported by the EPA concluded that “an organic diet provides a dramatic and immediate protective effect” against pesticide exposure; researchers measured pesticide levels in the urine of 23 children before and after a switch to an organic diet, and after just five days levels had decreased to undetectable.

Be warned: New evidence shows that pesticides can even be transferred from mother to fetus in the womb, so it’s never too early to avoid exposure.

Obtain More Nutrients. Don’t go organic just for what’s not in it, but what is in it too: more vitamins and minerals than conventionally produced crops. On average, organic food can contain higher levels of vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, iron and chromium, with organic spinach, lettuce, cabbage and potatoes showing particularly high levels of minerals (Journal of Complementary Medicine, Vol. 7 No. 2). Danish researchers found that organic crops contain 10% to 50% more antioxidants than conventional crops (Journal of Science in Food and Agriculture 2001).

Many experts feel that there is not enough conclusive evidence to definitively say that organic produce has more nutrition value than conventionally produced crops, and studies have shown that sometimes, conventional produce may have more of certain nutrients: A 2004 study in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry found that while organic yellow plums were higher in ascorbic acid, vitamin E and beta-carotene, conventional plums were higher in quercetin. However, research that shows the increased amount of nutrients in organic products continues to increase.

Promote Healthier Soil and Cleaner Water. The primary focus of organic farming is to build healthy soil, which is the foundation for the whole food chain. Nearly 40% of the world’s agricultural land is seriously degraded according to scientists at the International Food Policy Research Institute, who say that soil degradation has hurt the productivity of 16% of the world’s agricultural land. Advocates argue that organic farming meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations.

Organic agriculture also contributes to cleaner water. Toxic chemicals are contaminating groundwater on every inhabited continent, endangering the most valuable supplies of fresh water, according to the Worldwatch Institute. Doing away with polluting pesticides and other chemicals protects and conserves our water resources. In fact, several water utilities in Germany now pay farmers to switch to organic operations because it costs less than removing farm chemicals from water supplies.

Enjoy More Flavor. Yes, that’s a subjective claim, but it would make sense that well-balanced soils produce robust, healthy plants. A 2005 poll by the Soil Association, the UK’s major organic accreditation organization, found that in addition to avoiding pesticides and food additives, consumers are primarily buying organic for the taste. Fruits and vegetables scored particularly high on flavor, followed closely by meat.

Some experts say that organic food tastes better simply because it is fresher. Because organic farms are usually smaller, they often sell their products closer to the point of harvest. Thus, organic fruits and vegetables taste more “farm fresh” than similar conventional produce. Organic foods might also have more flavor because organic farmers often breed with taste instead of marketability as the primary factor.

Say No to GMOs. A large amount of conventionally-produced food is now made with something known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMO-based food is
considered the next wave in mass market farming, using a radical new technology that alters the genetic makeup of plants and animals to provide them with traits they wouldn’t normally have—most often pest resistance. GMOs are promoted as a way to increase profits for farmers, decrease pesticide use and increase convenience.

Why should you be concerned about GMOs? They are virtually untested for safety and appear unlabeled on grocery store shelves everywhere. The four main GMO crops in the US are corn, soybeans, canola and cotton, which are found in dozens of processed foods in ingredients like corn syrup and cottonseed oil. Some scientists believe that allergens, bacteria and viruses could be transferred through GMOs; in a recent Russian study, the three-week mortality rate of rats fed genetically modified soy was 50%.

GMOs are also potentially harmful to the environment, as they threaten plant biodiversity (or a variety of species) and actually require more pesticide use, some experts charge. GMOs are completely banned from organic food.

Be Fruitful and Multiply. The decline in male reproductive health has been an issue here in the US and in Europe, with sperm concentrations in decline and abnormalities in development on the rise. A 1994 study by Danish researchers in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet compared the sperm density of members of an organic farming association with people of three other occupations and found that the organic group had significantly higher sperm counts. Researchers suggest that man-made chemicals act as endocrine (hormone) disruptors that harm the reproductive system.

As the research only continues to grow on the environmental and health impacts of conventionally produced food, going organic is a good bet. Of course, you could wait for more definitive organic/health connections, but would you rather be safe or sorry?

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