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pesticides

  • Although I typically write about nutraceuticals, I thought I’d address a different topic for this issue: whether or not organic foods are actually better than conventional foods. It’s a question I’m often asked.

    Statistics & Definition
    Over the past few decades, sales of organic foods have consistently increased. U.S. organic food sales in 2018 were no exception. According to Nielsen Homescan household projected data, organic food sales during the 52 weeks ending November 28, 2018, rose nearly nine percent over the previous period, surpassing $21 billion.1 Clearly, consumers are willing to pay the typical 10 to 40 percent higher price for organic foods over conventionally produced foods. But why? According to one survey2, the main reasons consumers purchased organic foods were for the avoidance of pesticides (70 percent), for freshness (68 percent), for health and nutrition (67 percent), and to avoid genetically modified foods (55 percent).

    Now that we know why consumers buy organic food, let’s define organic food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

    Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.3

    After reading the USDA’s definition of organic and the results of the previously cited consumer survey, one might think that organic foods would be universally accepted as being healthier than conventionally grown foods. However, this is not necessarily the case. For example, the USDA “makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food.”4 So, does this mean that the public has been duped and there is really no significant benefit to using organic foods over conventional foods? To answer this question from a scientific perspective, let’s examine the research.

    The Research on Organic Foods

    In a study on the “Nutritional Quality of Organic Versus Conventional Fruits, Vegetables, and Grains,”5 organic crops were found to contain significantly more vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus and significantly fewer nitrates than conventional crops (see chart on following page). There were nonsignificant trends showing less protein but of better quality and a higher content of nutritionally significant minerals with lower amounts of some heavy metals in organic crops compared to conventional ones.

    In a review6 of earlier research, studies showed that organic fertilization practices produce crops that also had higher levels of ascorbic acid, lower levels of nitrate, and improved protein quality compared with conventionally grown crops. In addition, animal studies showed better growth and reproduction in animals fed organically grown feed compared with those fed conventionally grown feed.

    In other research, organic crops contained a significantly higher amount of certain antioxidants (vitamin C, polyphenols and flavonoids) and minerals than conventional ones. Moreover, there was a lower level of pesticide residues, nitrate and some heavy metal contaminations in organic crops compared to conventional ones. A relationship was seen between the different fertilization and plant protection methods of these two plant production systems and the nutritional composition of crops. The conclusion was that organically produced plant-derived food products have a higher nutritional value, including antioxidants than conventional ones.7 Furthermore, due to the lower level of contamination in organic crops, the risk of diseases caused by contaminated food was thought to be significantly reduced.

    organic crops vs conventional crops

    According to Organic farming, food quality and, human health: A review of the evidence8, “A comprehensive review of existing research reveals significant differences between organically and nonorganically grown food. These differences relate to food safety, primary nutrients, secondary nutrients [aka, phytochemicals] and health outcomes demonstrated by feeding trials.” With regard to food safety:

    • Nearly all pesticides are prohibited in organic farming.
    • There is no evidence linking organically produced foods with an increased risk of food poisoning.
    • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their derivatives are prohibited in organic production.
    • The routine, growth promoting or prophylactic use of antibiotics is prohibited in organic standards for animal husbandry.
    • No record has been found of any case of BSE, suspected of being linked to new variant CJD in humans, in an animal born and reared organically.
    • More than 500 additives are permitted for use in nonorganically processed foods, compared with around 30 permitted in organic processing.
    • Studies have shown lower levels of potentially harmful nitrate in organically produced crops.
    With regard to primary nutrients:
    • Vitamin C and dry matter contents are higher, on average, in organically grown crops.
    • Mineral contents are also higher, on average, in organically grown crops.
    • Research indicates a clear long-term decline in the trace mineral content of fruit and vegetables, and the influence of farming practices requires further investigation.
    With regard to phytochemicals:
    • Research is beginning to confirm the expectation that organic crops contain an increased range and volume of naturally occurring compounds known variously as secondary plant metabolites or phytochemicals.
    • Phytochemicals increase the capacity of plants to withstand external challenges from pests and diseases, and an increasing number of them are also known to be beneficial to humans.

    Nevertheless, not all studies have shown higher levels of nutrients or phytochemicals in organic goods. In a review9 of eleven studies comparing organic and conventional foods with respect to nutrient/phytochemical levels, nine of the studies demonstrated higher levels while two of the studies found no differences. Of course, nine out of eleven studies are still reasonably impressive.

    Even in research that did not find strong evidence that organic and conventional foods differ in concentrations of various nutrients, other health benefits were still seen in organic foods (e.g., a reduction in nitrate content10), and reasonably consistent findings were still seen for higher nitrate and lower vitamin C contents of conventionally-produced vegetables.11

    On August 22, 2002, Dr. Erik Steen Kristensen of the Danish Research Centre for Organic Farming presented data on food safety from an organic perspective at the 14th International In a presentation given at a European conference on organic food and farming12, the impact of organic foods on health and safety was addressed. The data presented showed overwhelmingly positive results for both health and safety (see table below).

    Health and Safety Impact of Organic Foods

    Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements Congress in Victoria, Canada. Dr. Kristensen offered reasons to consider organic foods, specific reasons associated with the risks of conventionally farmed foods13:

    • Discovery of animals with BSE—Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, aka, mad cow disease
    • Increased occurrence of Salmonella in meat and eggs
    • Increased occurrence of campylobacter in meat
    • Listeria in dairy products
    • Increased occurrence of dioxin in food and fodder
    • Too high amounts of pesticides, antibiotics, additives, etc. in food
    • Toxic fungi in food from stocks

    The Research on Organic Farming

    In addition to nutrition and health, another area of consideration associated with the benefits of organic foods, or more specifically organic farming, is biodiversity. Organic agriculture has been confirmed as environmentally sound and more sustainable than mainstream agriculture. In fact, the World Wildlife Fund supports organic farming because it benefits people and nature:

    It is a system that is essential for conserving biodiversity, especially in the center of fields. It avoids the release of toxic pesticide residues into the environment, and it supports rural development, fair trade, food safety, animal welfare, and market-oriented production. No other farming system encapsulates all these benefits and in a way that the public can easily recognize.15

    A research project conducted by Britain's Soil Association and sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund indicated that in most studies important differences have been found between the biodiversity on the organic and conventional farms, generally with substantially greater levels of both abundance and diversity of species on the organic farms. This includes:16

    • Plants: five times as many wild plants in arable fields, 57 percent more species and several rare and declining wild arable species found only on the organic farms.
    • Birds: 25 percent more birds at the field edge, 44 percent more in-field in autumn/winter; 2.2 times as many breeding skylarks and higher skylark breeding rates.
    • Invertebrates: 1.6 times as many of the arthropods that comprise bird food; three times as many non-pest butterflies in the crop areas; one to five times as many spider numbers and one to two times as many spider species.
    • Crop pests: a significant decrease in aphid numbers; no change in numbers of pest butterflies.
    • Distribution of the biodiversity benefits: though the field boundaries had the highest levels of wildlife, the highest increases were found in the cropped areas of the fields.
    • Quality of the habitats: both the field boundary and crop habitats were more favorable on the organic farms.
    • The field boundaries: they had more trees, larger hedges and no spray drift; the crops were sparser, with no herbicides, allowing more weeds; there was also more grassland and a greater variety of crop types.
    • Organic farming was identified as having many beneficial practices: reversing the trends in conventional farming that have caused the decline in biodiversity: crop rotations with grass leys, mixed spring and autumn sowing, more permanent pasture, no use of herbicides or synthetic pesticides and use of "green manure."

    The general consensus of other research17,18 comparing conventional and organic systems of farming was that organic farming is less damaging to the environment for the following reasons:

    • They don't consume or release synthetic pesticides into the environment. This is significant since some of the pesticides may harm soil, water and local terrestrial and aquatic wildlife.
    • They are better at sustaining diverse ecosystems, including populations of plants and insects, as well as animals.
    • When calculated either per unit area or per unit of yield, they use less energy and produce less waste.

    Further to this last point, one study19 found a 20 percent smaller yield from organic farms using 50 percent less fertilizer and 97 percent less pesticide. In addition, a study20 in 2007 compiled research from 293 different comparisons between organic and conventional farming to assess the overall efficiency of the two agricultural systems. The authors concluded, "Organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base."

    One researcher pointed out that, related to the environmentally sound nature of organic farming, the consumers' well-being is based on the certainty "that by purchasing, eating and enjoying organic food, one has contributed to a better future and an improved environment. These effects with their social implications along with improved animal welfare may, in the end, be more important than any measurable contribution of balanced Western diets to individual nutritional health."21

    Conclusion
    To answer the earlier posed question, no the public has not been duped. There really are significant benefits to using organic foods over their conventional counterparts. These include health, nutrition and environmental benefits.

    References
    1. Smith H. Organic Sales Soared in 2018: Nielsen. Food Industry Executive. January 9, 2019. Retrieved May 29, 2019 from https://foodindustryexecutive.com/2019/01/organic-sales-soared-in-2018-nielsen/
    2. Whole Foods Market. 2005 Whole Foods Market organic trend tracker. Austin, Tex.: Whole FoodsMarket; 2005.
    3. Organic Food Standards and Labels: The Facts. National Organic Program. Retrieved June 6, 2006 from http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/Consumers/brochure.html
    4. Organic Food Standards and Labels: The Facts. National Organic Program. Retrieved June 6, 2006 from http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/Consumers/brochure.html.
    5. Worthington V. Nutritional Quality of Organic Versus Conventional Fruits, Vegetables, and Grains. J Alternative Compl Med 2001; (7)2:161–73.
    6. Worthington V. Effect of agricultural methods on nutritional quality: a comparison of organic with conventional crops. Altern Ther Health Med 1998(1):58–69.
    7. Györéné KG, Varga A, Lugasi A. A comparison of chemical composition and nutritional value of organically and conventionally grown plant derived foods. Orv Hetil 2006;147(43):2081–90.
    8. Organic farming, food quality and,human health: A review of the evidence. Bristol, United Kingdom: Soil Association; 2006.
    9. Winter CK, Davis SF. Organic Foods. Journal of Food Science 2006; 71(9):R117–R124.
    10. Bourn D, Prescott J. A comparison of the nutritional value, sensory qualities, and food safety of organically and conventionally produced foods. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 2002;42(1):1–34.
    11. Williams CM. Nutritional quality of organic food: shades of grey or shades of green? Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 2002; 61:19–24.
    12. O’Doherty Jensen K, Larsen HN, Mølgaard JP, Andersen J-O, Tingstad A, Marckmann P, Astrup A. 2001. Organic foods and human health. Proceedings of the European conference: Organic Food and Farming. Towards Partnership and Action in Europe. Danish Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, Copenhagen 10–11 May 2001, 172–77.
    13. Kristensen ES. Food safety in an organic perspective. 14th IFOAM Congress, Victoria, Canada; August 22nd 2002. Accessed on May 25, 2005 from http://orgprints.org/19/03/Kristensen_IFOAM_2002.ppt
    14. Köpke U. Organic foods: do they have a role? Forum Nutr 2005;(57):62–72.
    15. The Biodiversity Benefits of Organic Farming. Bristol, United Kingdom: Soil Association; 2000.
    16. The Biodiversity Benefits of Organic Farming. Bristol, United Kingdom: Soil Association; 2000.
    17. Stolze M, Piorr A, Häring AM, Dabbert S. 2000. Environmental impacts of organic farming in Europe. Organic Farming in Europe: Economics and Policy Vol. 6. Universität Hohenheim, Stuttgart-Hohenheim.
    18. Hansen B, Alrøe HJ, Kristensen ES. Approaches to assess the environmental impact of organic farming with particular regard to Denmark. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 2001; 83:11–26.
    19. Mäder P, Fliessbach A, Dubois D, Gunst L, Fried P, Niggli U. Soil Fertility and Biodiversity in Organic Farming. Science 2002; 296:1694–7.
    20. Perfecto et al, In Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 2007; 22: 86-108 Cambridge University Press: cited in New Scientist 13:46 12 July 2007.
    21. Köpke U. Organic foods: do they have a role? Forum Nutr 2005;(57):62–72.
  • You may have heard that 'going organic' is a healthy choice for the farmers, the environment, and your own health. But do you really understand why it's such a positive choice?

    This article series explores the benefits of choosing organic.

    Reason: Organic food offers superior health benefits

    Some of my previous articles have highlighted health benefits that can be obtained from choosing organic. These range from helping to protect the body from cancer1 to explaining the profound benefits of nurturing healthy soil2 to sharing some of the potentially toxic processes3 and chemicals4 that conventional food can be subjected to.

    In some ways I was reluctant to straight out claim that organic food is more nutritious because this is not always true. There are organic food products on the market that have been highly processed into something that is quite far removed from the crop they started from. Throughout this process valuable nutrients are lost and the end result becomes less nutritious for our bodies.

    It is also worth mentioning that nutrient levels in the soil can vary a lot within both conventional and organic crops depending on how the farmer or grower approaches soil health.

    Additionally, it is important to compare nutrient levels between the same types of crops because nutrient levels vary between types of plants and specific varieties in both conventional and organic growing.

    As I mentioned in an earlier article5 soil health is of the utmost importance in organic farming. This is a crucial factor in successful organic growing because quick fix solutions such as synthetic chemical fertilizers are not allowed to be used. Nurturing the soil creates a healthy soil microbiome, which grows healthy plants, which in turn help people to be healthy.

    Plants need to use their own inbuilt protection mechanisms to ward off pests because these same protection mechanisms are what provide us with antioxidants for our bodies. If plants are routinely being sprayed with synthetic pesticides the plant loses the requirement to use these amazing natural protection mechanisms. Along with that, the antioxidants that have been linked to optimal health in humans are severely depleted.

    There are always going to be studies that show no difference in antioxidant levels between conventional and organic crops. Some studies are repeated over again until beneficial results are found to support whatever corporate giant is funding the study. However there certainly is evidence out there that organically grown crops have higher nutritional content.

    A large study carried out meta-analyses based on 343 peerreviewed publications that indicate statistically significant and meaningful differences in composition between organic and non-organic crops/crop-based foods. The concentrations of a range of antioxidants such as polyphenolics were found to be substantially higher in organic crops/crop-based foods.6

    The 'look' of some organic produce can sometimes put people off eating it because it doesn't seem as appealing. In my experience, I have often found that our customers are pleasantly surprised by how wonderful their 'ugly' looking fruit tastes, and there is also evidence to suggest that it could contain superior nutritional qualities.

    Studies have found that apples with 'scabs' on the skin or leaves contained higher antioxidants (phenolic compounds) than scab-free apples and apple leaves.7,8 Similarly, higher concentrations of resveratrol (an antioxidant) have been found in grape leaves following fungal infection or exposure to ultraviolet light.9

    These results all connect back to the plant needing to work hard to fight for its survival. The inbuilt protective mechanisms kick in and these same protection mechanisms are what provide us with antioxidants. To remind you once more, a plant that has been sprayed with synthetic pesticides does not require these mechanisms for protection from pests, and therefore is unlikely to have antioxidants in the same concentrations that a plant which has not been subjected to synthetic pesticides will have.

    With this in mind, give that 'ugly' looking fruit a bit of a chance—you might be pleasantly surprised by the taste and it's highly likely that it's better for you too.

    1. https://www.justorganic.co.nz/why-go-organic-reason-7-help-protect-againstcancer/
    2. https://www.justorganic.co.nz/why-go-organic-reason-2-healthy-soil-healthybody/
    3. https://www.justorganic.co.nz/why-choose-organic-reason-4-irradiation/
    4. https://www.justorganic.co.nz/why-go-organic-reason-1-glyphosate/
    5. https://www.justorganic.co.nz/why-go-organic-reason-2-healthy-soil-healthybody/
    6. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/british-journal-of-nutrition/article/higher-antioxidant-and-lower-cadmium-concentrations-and-lower-incidenceof-pesticide-residues-in-organically-grown-crops-a-systematic-literature-review-and-meta-analyses/33F09637EAE6C4ED119E0C4BFFE2D5B1/corereader#
    7. http://publik.tuwien.ac.at/files/PubDat_194363.pdf
    8. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10535-011-0176-6#/page-1
    9. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0048405976900771
  • You may have heard that 'going organic' is a healthy choice for the farmers, the environment, and your own health. But do you really understand why it's such a positive choice? This article series explores the benefits of choosing organic.

    Reason: The Critics Lack Understanding
    There is more than one side to every debate, and the world of organics is not exempt. There are those who believe through and through that organics is the way forward for a healthy and sustainable future. On the other end of the continuum, there are critics who strongly believe that organic farming is not the answer for sustainability, and that choosing organic will have little impact on a person's health. Then of course there are those in the middle who aren't strongly pulled either way.

    In a recent debate on social media, I was surprised at how many people were convinced that organics is not sustainable, and that it is even harmful to the environment. After much trawling through comments and eliminating one or two 'bogus' social media profiles, it became evident that many of these organic farming critics have a lack of understanding around what organic means, and the principles behind it.

    Let's address some of the common statements that were made:

    "Only about 30 percent of organic food is actually even organic."
    First of all, I'm not sure where this person derived the number of 30 percent from. However, what they may be referring to is that there are foods which have the word 'organic' in their name, but are not actually certified. This is likely where the notion that 'organic food is not actually organic' has come from. A food producer may genuinely believe their product is organic and that the ingredients in it have been organically grown. Or they may have just used the word because they can (marketing purposes). However, the best way to ensure that what you are eating really is organic, is by choosing products that are certified. If you choose certified organic, you can rest assured that the product has met strict organic criteria and standards.

    "Organic pesticides are worse for the environment."
    This statement shows a lack of understanding of organic principles. Organic systems use principles such as manure to feed the soil, crop rotation, ecology and biodiversity, and companion planting to grow strong, healthy crops. Organic farmers understand these principles and follow them so that there is little need for pesticides. Many organic farmers will choose to remove weeds manually rather than apply a natural pesticide. Yes, there are pesticides that are allowed to be used in organic farming but they are naturally derived and are biodegradable. If they are used, the focus is on control, rather than annihilation of pests because organic farmers understand the importance of a fully functioning eco system.

    This statement prompted me into an email discussion with Philippa Jamieson, editor of Organic NZ. Philippa explains,"Organic growers are allowed under certification rules to use a certain quantity of copper sprays in orchards for fungal disease, but it's limited. Copper is a heavy metal and can build up in the soil. Apart from that I haven't heard of any organic pesticide that anyone in the organic sector (or outside of it) has expressed any concern about whatsoever!"

    "The organic system is un-regulated."
    I suspect that the worry here is similar to the concern behind the first statement ("Only about 30 percent of organic food is actually even organic"). The problem here may be more related to the consumers' perception that something is organic, by the way it is marketed. Remember to choose certified organic so you can rest assured that the product you are choosing has been regulated.

    I am far more concerned about the regulation of nonorganic pesticides because so many harmful pesticides have been regulated for use (e.g. pesticides which contain the active ingredient Glyphosate).

    "Organic farming is not sustainable."
    The argument here is that yields from organic farming are lower so we need more land to get the same amount and balance of food and would have to destroy forest to do so. To respond to the critics on this one: We could go organic if we all ate less meat and more vegetables, pulses and grains as it takes far less land to produce these foods than it does for meat. A surplus of food and environmental problems exist with the traditional system.

    Additionally, studies are now noting comparable yields in organic farming—the gap is closing.1,2

    The following articles provide further information and links to resources that highlight organics as part of the solution for a healthy and sustainable future.3,4

    1. https://www.leopold.iastate.edu/news/05-23-2013/soilbuilding-benefits-organic-practices
    2. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v485/n7397/full/nature11069.html
    3. https://www.organic-center.org/news/response-to-organicfarming-is-not-sustainable/
    4. http://www.wellnesswarrior.org/despite_what_the_food_industry_wants_you_to_believe
  • You may have heard that "going organic" is a healthy choice for the farmers, the environment, and your own health. But do you really understand why it's such a positive choice? This article series explores the benefits of choosing organic. Reason: It checks a lot of boxes

    Many of the attributes that consumers are looking for in their food, beverages, household items and beauty products are covered under the banner of certified organic products.

    The 2016 New Zealand Organic Market report highlighted some of the main factors consumers are looking for when it comes to their purchases. One of the factors that rated highly was for GM/GE free food. Consumers may or may not be aware that purchasing certified organic products instantly assures the product does not contain any genetically modified ingredients. So by purchasing organic it's an easy way to ensure you're avoiding genetically engineered food.

    The report highlighted another important factor for consumers is that their food is 100 percent natural. By choosing organic you can be assured what you're purchasing is 100 percent natural. However, it must be noted that the two words are not interchangeable, as some might believe! For example, a conventional apple or orange is "100 percent natural" but this doesn"t mean it has not been sprayed with copious layers of synthetic chemicals. So purchasing "natural" products does not necessarily mean you are purchasing organic, but purchasing organic does mean you are purchasing natural. Most consumers are aware purchasing certified organic products means they will be avoiding synthetic chemicals but they do not necessarily make the connection that their "natural" product could have been involved in a lot of chemical treatments.

    Lesser known is the fact that irradiated products or ingredients are not permitted. Non organic food items such as herbs and spices, herbal teas and tropical fruits may be subjected to irradiation in order to stop the development of insects concealed within produce and to lengthen shelf life. The foods are put through powerful gamma rays or x-rays, a practice which is raising concerns in the scientific community about nutrient loss, free radical production, and links to diseases. Consumers can rest assured that any certified organic foods they purchase will not have been irradiated.

    Sustainability is a core, fundamental concept at the heart of the organic movement so it can be a good choice for those who are intent on looking after the environment and improving it for future generations. Organic farms vary in their efforts to improve animal welfare and employ principles of permaculture—just as conventional farms do. For this reason consumers may choose to investigate the origin of their food and products further. Positive choices do not need to be complicated however; and the certified organic label helps to make purchasing easier by checking a number of the boxes that consumers are looking for.

    Note: This article was written with relevance to New Zealand Certified Organic Standards. Standards in other countries may vary slightly.