Natural State Gardening: Why Organic? (And Why Local?) Part II: Eating

Debate continues about organic versus conventional agriculture. Which one is safer, more nutritious, better for the environment, and best able to feed the world? Also, how does local food fit into this equation?

Due to the many facets of this topic, I have divided this topic into two posts: the “Growing” aspect and the “Eating” aspect. This is Part II, the “Eating” post. You can find Part I, the “Growing” post, here.

As with Part I: before we dive in, let’s clarify a few things:

  • -There is a wide spectrum of quality amongst farms. One “organic” farm may be doing just enough to meet the requirements, growing a massive monocrop that is sprayed with questionable “organic” pesticides. Another organic farm may go above and beyond to produce amazing produce grown in soil full of nutrients, organic matter and microbial life. A similarly broad spectrum can be found in conventional farming, too. The point here is: you must know your farmers and their practices to know what quality produce you are getting, or grow your own!
  • -Science is subject to political influence. Funding for research must come from somewhere. Funders often have an agenda or cause they seek to promote via the funded research. So, it’s important to understand that this influence is real and can lead to skewed research and conclusions. Agriculture (conventional and organic) is not immune to this kind of political influence, so be careful when reading studies or articles referencing studies.

 

When you shop for food, you are probably considering at least some of the following factors: nutritional content, toxin content, cost, and flavor. So, how do organic, conventional, and local produce perform in these categories?

 

Much of the following information comes from a 2014 review of 343 peer-reviewed studies by the British Journal of Nutrition – this is a respected study, though some of the funding is from an organic farming charity organization. As a sort of counter-balance, I am also including info from a 2012 Stanford study that got a lot of press – this is a less respected study that failed to include certain important nutrients in their nutrient analysis, and was funded partially by organizations with strong ties to agricultural and biochemical companies, such as Monsanto and Cargill. This Stanford study is mostly included to demonstrate that even research that is funded by anti-organic organizations such as Monsanto and Cargill don’t provide solid evidence against organics, and even provide some evidence in favor of organics. Let’s dig in…

  • -NUTRITIONAL CONTENT: Most people don’t favor organic food for nutritional reasons. The reason for favoring organic is usually to avoid ingesting synthetic chemicals used in conventional agriculture. But since there is debate about this topic, let’s see what the research says. Also, how does local produce compare nutritionally?
    • -The Stanford Study found that “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.”
    • -British Journal of Nutrition: “concentrations of a range of antioxidants such as polyphenolics were found to be substantially higher in organic crops/crop-based foods”
      • -These antioxidants are linked to “reduced risk of chronic diseases” and were found at levels 19 to 69% higher in organic foods.
    • -Another review (PDF) found that organic crops “provide significantly greater levels of vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus than non-organic varieties of the same foods.” They also found that the longer soil is worked using organic methods, the more nutritious its produce. So, seek out veteran organic farmers for the most nutritious foods!
    • -FRESHNESS: Crops begin to lose nutritional value as soon as they are harvested. According to Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side, the crops that lose nutrients most quickly are: artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, kale, leeks, lettuce, and spinach. These are best home-grown or purchased from local farmers (to get the freshest product) and eaten within a few day of harvest to maximize nutrient content. Avoid buying these items from the grocery store because they most likely will have been harvested more than a week ago (and will have lost much of their nutritional value). Instead, buy these items from local growers or grow them yourself.
      • For example, 10 days after harvest, broccoli has “…lost more than 80 percent of its glucosinolates, 75 percent of a class of phytonutrients called flavonoids, and 50 percent of its vitamin C.” That’s a lot of nutrient loss!
    • -This post is mostly focused on veggies and fruits, but it is worth mentioning that the nutritional value of grass-fed animal products is far superior to those of the conventional confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
    • -Regardless of organic vs conventional, fresh is important. So, grow your own produce or buy local when possible.

 

  • -TOXIN CONTENT: One of the biggest reasons for buying organic is to avoid ingesting synthetic chemical toxins typically found on and in conventionally-grown produce. So, how much should we worry about the toxin content of our produce? Is buying organic a better option?
    • -The first question we should ask is: Does conventional produce have more chemical residues than organically grown produce? Short answer: Yes.
      • -British Journal of Nutrition: “the frequency of occurrence of pesticide residues was found to be four times higher in conventional crops, which also contained significantly higher concentrations of the toxic metal Cd [Cadmium].”
      • -Stanford study: “Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.” Even the Stanford study that was partially funded by agricultural chemical companies admits that organic produce can reduce exposure to harmful food contaminates.
    • -So, there are more chemical residues in conventionally grown produce than organic, but how much does this matter? It depends…
      • -Children (and fetuses, especially) are most vulnerable to the effects of chemical residues and antibiotic resistant bacteria found on conventional produce. This article shares research findings on this topic, highlighting the impaired cognitive development in children (including prenatal) exposed to significant amounts of organophosphate pesticides from conventionally grown produce.
      • -Adults are likely less affected by the effects of agricultural chemicals. In fact, according to this study, most (over 99%) of the toxins we ingest are NOT from chemicals, but from naturally-occurring toxins produced by the plants themselves!
        • -This suggests that – nutritionally – we shouldn’t be highly concerned about the effects of agricultural chemicals (ecological effects, aside).
        • -HOWEVER, the Stanford study notes that “there have been no long-term studies of health outcomes for people who eat primarily organic food versus those who eat primarily conventional — […] this type of study would be expensive and hard to conduct — and the studies that are available vary greatly in their design, size and scope, so drawing broad conclusions is difficult.”
        • -Also, there are still many unknowns about the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Organic foods are prohibited by law from containing GMOs, so this is a good reason to be safe by choosing organic.
        • -Finally, the 99% study cited above is from 1990. Do the study’s results still hold true today given changes in conventional agriculture? Are our scientific instruments able to detect all that needs to be detected to really know whether synthetic chemicals are a health threat to consumers? I don’t know.
      • -In my opinion, it is best to err on the side of caution by choosing organic when possible, especially for children and fetuses. As Michael Pollen says (in this article): “I would just encourage people to educate themselves and not take headlines at face value. It’s a complicated question, and we need to a do a lot more science,” he said. “The absence of proof means that we either haven’t studied it or we haven’t found it yet, it doesn’t mean we won’t. In the meantime, there’s a precautionary principle: even though the case isn’t closed on low levels of pesticides in our diet, there are very good reasons to minimize them.”

 

  • -COST:
    • -Is it more expensive to buy organic and/or local produce compared to non-organic grocery store produce? Yes, organic and/or local produce is typically more expensive.
    • -How much more expensive? It varies (by item, location, season, etc.). A survey done by Colby College students in Maine found organic items to be 68% more expensive than non-organic, on average. This article compares the cost of organic and non-organic Thanksgiving feasts, and found that the organic meal was about twice as costly. This survey from Iowa, however, shows that local is sometimes less expensive, especially when the produce item is in season locally.
    • -Though buying local farmers’ market produce may be more expensive, a larger portion of your money goes to the farmer. Buy directly from farmers as much as possible – this way they get all or almost all of the money for their crops rather than roughly half of the money when selling through grocery stores or other middlemen. This will also help ensure that you’re getting the freshest produce.
    • -I’d like to add that the nutrient-per-dollar ratio (or “bang for your buck”) is going to be higher for locally grown crops, especially when considering crops that lose nutrients most quickly (i.e., artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, kale, leeks, lettuce, and spinach).

 

  • -FLAVOR:
    • -Though flavor is not usually a big factor for choosing organic vs conventional, flavor is often a noticeable factor for local produce. Local is generally fresher, and fresher tastes better.
    • -Large scale (usually non-local) growers tend to select crop varieties that are durable for mechanical harvest/processing and shipping cross-country. Small scale local farmers tend to select tastier varieties of produce (which tend to not ship as well) because they don’t have to worry as much about mechanical harvesting and transportation Take carrots, for example: Most large scale growers tend to select carrot varieties based on non-flavor factors such as whether the carrot has durable tops, so that the carrot is harvestable by machine without breaking. This creates an opportunity for local growers (who are likely hand-harvesting their carrots) to outcompete their larger competitors in regards to flavor by selecting varieties based on flavor (or, perhaps, nutritional value).
    • -Try eating freshly harvested produce grown in nutrient rich soil and judge the flavor difference for yourself!

 

PRACTICAL TAKEAWAYS:

  • -Perhaps the debate between conventional and organic is a little misguided, as it seems LOCAL is the biggest factor for getting nutritious produce. Buy local and/or grow your own produce for freshest, most flavorful, and most nutritious produce. Here are the best options for sourcing produce, in order from most ideal to least ideal:
    • -Best option = homegrown organic
    • -Then, local organic
    • -Then, local conventional or non-local organic (depending on your preference for more nutrients or lack of chemicals, respectively)
    • -Then, non-local conventional
  • -Don’t let the debate over conventional/organic discourage veggie and fruit consumption
    • -When in doubt or on a tight budget, use the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) “Clean Fifteen” and “Dirty Dozen” lists to help you shop. The “Dirty Dozen” are the most chemically sprayed crops, and are the most worthwhile to buy organic. The “Clean Fifteen” are the least sprayed crops, so there is less concern about buying organic for these. Regardless, be sure to eat plenty of veggies! As the EWG website says,” …the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh risks of pesticide exposure.”
  • -Some local farmers grow organically, but for whatever reason have decided not to be certified as organic growers. Don’t overlook these farmers!
  • -Where to buy local organic foods in the Little Rock, AR area:
  • -For local organic options around the nation, check these sites out: