Thursday, April 23, 2009

Organic vs. Conventional Produce: The Face-Off

Greetings friends,

Last week I posted little sneak peek of the differences between organic food and conventionally grown food. As the video states, a food is considered organic if it is not genetically modified and is produced without the use of pesticides, fertilizer, sewage sludge and radiation. Consequently this implies that conventional farming employs one or more of these methods. Since we are in a very real sense what we eat—what we put into our bodies is what the body has available to keep us functioning—plants, too are in a real sense what they absorb.

So what impact do conventional farming methods have on the produce we eat? Well for starters all these methods are more or less unnatural, as in they do not offer the ideal environment for the organism to develop. And without getting what they naturally need, the organisms get sick.

  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been engineered to either produce more, last longer, or be more resistant to pesticides. The problem is that we haven't been engineered along with them to effortlessly adapt to their changes. In some cases, crops like soybeans have been modified for greater resistance to pests by concentrating their natural poisons. So we're eating food that contains more toxins than our bodies would normally have to deal with. (Most plants have natural toxins, but in most food crops they are in such small concentrations that we can easily metabolize them.) You can take a look at my soy blog to get more details about all the cancers and problems in which soy, especially genetically modified soy, is implicated.

  • Pesticides are used in conventional farming to ensure that the least amount of the crops is eaten by bugs. This yields a greater harvest and thus more products, but the problem is that it also yields chemical residue on our dinner plates. Most pesticides are known carcinogens and are likely to cause cancer especially over years of consumption. And children are more sensitive to getting sick from them than adults.

  • Fertilizers have to be used in conventional farming methods because, unlike in traditional farming, the same plot of land gets reused year after year without giving the soil any time to recover. Traditionally farmers would rotate different crops on the same plot of land and occasionally not grow anything on there for a while. Conventional farmers don't practice crop rotation and leech all nutrients from the soil and then they add synthetic fertilizers that make the crops look nice. The problem with these nice-looking crops is that they have a fraction of the nutritional value that they would have had they been grown on soil that was still alive. Here is an interview that explains farming methods, their impact on food and consequently on the consumers.

  • Sewage sludge pretty much speaks for itself. It's crap that's being absorbed by plants and then eaten by us.

  • Radiation is my most recent and most saddening discovery. Basically to give otherwise perishable fresh fruits and vegetables a longer shelf-life, some manufacturers irradiate the produce. This kills a lot of the microorganism that would normally cause rotting. The problem is that the radiation doesn't discriminate between microorganisms that we need and those we don't. Furthermore it damages the food and creates free radicals as well as URPs—Unique Radiolytic Products. UPRs are free radicals that after being caused by radiation have combined with other chemicals, such as pesticides, and are quite unique in the damage they can do to us. I don't particularly like the way this video is presented, but it's informational and calls attention to the fact that it's not required of manufacturers to label irradiated foods. They're still allowed to call them fresh.

For a while there has been a debate raging between people who claimed that organic farming was just better for the environment than conventional farming and that it made no difference which produce people ended up eating, and people who claimed that organic food itself was better for humans than conventionally grown food. As far as I understand there are still some people out there who claim that conventionally grown food is as good for you as organic food. Well, that's been shown to be a lie. Organic produce is better for your health than the alternative. If you go into a supermarket and hold up a can of conventional black beans next to an organic one, you'll notice that the vitamin and nutrient count is higher in the organic beans. Go ahead and compare any organic and non-organic nutrition labels and see what you'll find. It's very likely that the organic food will also be higher in calories, but these aren't the empty calories that deplete your body of vitamins, enzymes and minerals as you digest them. These are the calories that will give you energy, nutrients and probably help you to stay or become lean.

A Danish study conducted in 2005 shows that rats fed organic food actually had better immune systems and were less obese than their conventionally fed counterparts. To read about that and a lot more information on organic food you can click this link and scroll down to why organic foods are better for health.

While I would love to eat everything organic, I cannot afford it because conventional farming is subsidized by the government and therefore often, though not always, cheaper. However after doing this research, I am no longer wondering how much better organic foods are for me, but I'm beginning to wonder if conventionally grown foods aren't actually flat out harmful. I don't feel that I know enough to make that claim, but the question is in the back of my mind. Meanwhile if you're not convinced by the benefits of organic foods and farming, here are 10 more reasons in favor of organic. Among them one of the best is that unlike conventional farming methods, organic farming is sustainable and conserves the environment. It is the natural way of growing food and it yields living, healthy produce. Since we are what we eat, in my opinion we should aim for healthy and alive instead of chemically contaminated and nutritionally compromised.

But this is the gist of organic versus conventional. I hope that after reading this you'll reconsider some of your shopping practices or at least be more aware of the ways seemingly fresh and good produce can impact your health. Next week I'll be talking about organic animal products and what impact the manufacturing method has on the resulting products, so make sure to tune back in.

Till then,

Health is not valued till sickness comes.”--Thomas Fuller


  1. Great post! For me, the one noticeable difference between organic and conventionally grown foods is the taste. Organic chicken and beef taste better than anything I've ever had, the flavors of peanut butter, peppers and carrots are so robust and concentrated they are something to savor because they seem like a delicacy and don't even get me started on oranges. I could write sonnets about organic oranges.

  2. Hahaha! Yes, I prefer the tastes, too. How about you do write a sonnet about organic oranges? And give me a little shout-out since I introduced you to them. =P

  3. There are lists floating about which show statistics about which crops have the highest concentration of pesticides and which the lowest (there's a dirty dozen list which I want to claim the Environmental Working Group put out, but I may be misremembering. They rock, though, they have the Skin Deep database at which tells you exactly how harmful your favorite lotion is). Good place to start for deciding which foods to focus the most on for organic, for those of us with tight budgets. Doesn't change the problems with conventional farming's use of fertilizers, but I'm slightly more frightened of pesticides and fungicides than unnatural fertilizers. Luckily for me mangos are on the low pesticide list so I can still buy my favorite fruit treat when the organic version is too expensive.

    Conventional strawberries scare me... apparently they have a very high concentration of harmful stuff. And apples are also on the dirty dozen list for high levels of pesticides. A conventional apple a day will probably not keep the doctor away (oh, how I love silly folk sayings...)

  4. Kas, thanks so much for the tips!

  5. Tina, thanks for the clear and practical explanation of the effects of conventional farming. I will use, if you don´t mind, your info to share around interested people in Mexico.

    Let me know if it´s okay,