Should We Eat Organic Foods?
Organic foods are undeniably brilliant – it’s always great to know we’re growing and eating closer to the way that nature intended. But they do come at a premium, because organic foods are more labour intensive to grow (for example, instead of using chemical herbicides, organic farmers control weeds using methods like crop rotation, hand weeding, and mulching).
So is organically grown produce worth the extra money? Well, as with most nutrition topics, a quick Google search produces very conflicting messages – some sources argue strongly that eating anything other than organic is toxic for our health and the planet, while other voices dismiss organic food as a trendy lifestyle choice reserved just for the rich and privileged.
This makes it confusing and difficult to know whether we should try to eat organic foods all the time, or if it’s OK to buy produce that’s been grown more intensively.
Well, as ever, I wanted to cut through the noise and present to you the evidence – based on the best available science and research – so you can make your own decisions based on the facts.
There are three main reasons why people buy and eat organic foods, so I thought it would be most useful to address each one individually:
Organic foods contain more nutrients
People often cite the higher nutritional content of organic foods as a main reason for choosing them over conventionally grown produce.
But the difference between the two may be more subtle than we thought. Several meta-analyses, reviewing hundreds of studies that examined the macro- and micronutrient content of organic and conventionally grown foods, show either no difference, or only a very slight difference, in levels of vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates (ref). (if you want to learn more about what evidence to believe, check out my article that teaches you how here)
Where there is a nutritional advantage to organic foods is regarding the polyphenol content – these are not essential nutrients for humans, but they do have antioxidant properties and can reduce our risk of several non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. Meta-analyses report between 14-26% higher polyphenol content in organic than conventional produce (ref).
However, buying organic foods can cost anywhere between 10-50% more than non-organic. So for the same money you could buy one more portion of conventionally grown produce and end up taking in the same polyphenol content. Of course, this is the case if your budget is the limiting factor – if money’s not an issue and you’re going to eat the same amount of fruit and vegetables regardless of the cost, then you’d take in more polyphenols by choosing organic produce.
Organic foods contain fewer pesticide and herbicide residues
The science is pretty conclusive on this one – organic foods do contain significantly fewer pesticide residues than conventionally grown produce (ref).
In fact, controlled studies measuring pesticide breakdown products in the urine show that eating organic produce significantly (and immediately) decreases exposure to pesticides by up to nearly 90% (ref 1, ref 2).
But does the lower pesticide exposure actually result in protection against disease? Well, there are a number of cross-sectional studies that show an association between eating organic foods and a reduced risk of several chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.
But, it’s important to bear in mind that cross-sectional studies aren’t controlled, and there are likely to be other factors at play. For example, people eating organic foods are more likely to exercise, eat more fruit and vegetables, they drink less alcohol and are less likely to smoke (ref 1, ref 2). All these factors have been shown to decrease our risk of chronic diseases too, so we can’t say whether it’s the organic foods themselves, or just the lifestyle of people who buy organic foods.
What we ideally need to see are controlled clinical studies, but as yet there are relatively few. The ones that do exist actually show no difference in health or nutrition status between organic and conventional diets, although these studies were conducted over short durations, which limit the ability to find long-term effects (ref).
There have also been studies conducted showing that farmers and their families exposed to very high levels of pesticides are at greater risk of several chronic diseases, which sound very alarming (ref 1, ref 2). However, the pesticide residues on fruit and vegetables are a tiny fraction of the levels that the farmers actually spraying the stuff are exposed to, so we can’t assume the same effects for the average consumer.
In fact, a recent study actually calculated that the risk to our health of pesticide residues is equivalent to that of drinking one glass of wine every seven years (ref)! This study has its limitations, but does help to put things into perspective – most of us would benefit far more from reducing our alcohol intake than choosing organic foods.
So, until more controlled studies are done, we can’t say for sure whether organic food provides greater protection from disease. But we do know that eating organic food does lower our exposure to pesticide and herbicide residues, so in the meantime, eating organic foods would be a logical precautionary approach.
One last important note on this point – studies have shown that many people overestimate the health risks of pesticide residues. It’s been shown that organic food buyers estimate the risk to health of non-organic food to be almost as high as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day (ref). That kind of thinking is potentially dangerous, because it could lead to a decrease in overall fruit and vegetable consumption, especially for those who struggle to afford organic food.
And the benefits of eating more fruit and vegetables are enormous; they’ve been shown to decrease risk of cardiovascular disease, several cancers, and type 2 diabetes (ref). In fact, increased fruit and vegetable consumption has been shown to reduce overall mortality risk (ref) – that means dying by any cause! So, what’s the take away message regarding pesticide residues? It’s probably a good idea to aim for organic foods when possible, but definitely don’t stress if it’s not affordable or accessible because the benefits of eating more fruit and vegetables, regardless of how they’re produced, far outweigh the risks of the pesticide residues on conventionally grown produce.
Organic foods are better for the environment
Protecting our environment is so incredibly important for countless reasons, including our health. That’s because droughts, flooding, and other natural disasters leading to food shortages are strongly linked with climate change. Then there’s contamination, antibiotic resistance, and the decline of bee and other pollinator populations. All these things will eventually take a toll on food security and therefore public health. So, anything we can do to help protect the environment will also protect our health, and the health of our children and grandchildren.
The benefits to the environment of organic farming include:
Limiting the pollution of groundwater courses with synthetic pesticides and fertilisers – which can end up contaminating nearby rivers and lakes
Increasing biodiversity on farmed land by an average of 30%, including birds, rodents, bees and other pollinators (ref)
Lower energy requirements and carbon emissions (ref) mainly because manufacturing the synthetic fertilisers and pesticides produces greenhouse gas emissions
Healthier soil, thanks to their greater diversity of life and avoiding herbicides
There are other benefits too. However, organic farming isn’t perfect. Consider this: because organic farming doesn’t use synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, the productivity and yields tend to be lower than conventional farming (ref). In other words, you need more land to grow the same amount of food. And what are the environmental consequences of using more land? More deforestation? Does it mean more water needs to be used? Are the benefits to biodiversity offset by the extra land required to produce the same amount of food? Scientists don’t know – the research is inconclusive (ref).
The truth is the answer is much more complex and nuanced than simply labelling organic farming as ‘good’ and conventional as ‘bad’ for the environment. There are so many benefits and trade-offs at play (ref), and results vary depending on factors such as the location of farms, the soil quality, climate, and which crops are being grown.
Another bit of perspective here – did you know that one third of all agricultural land in the world is used to grow crops to feed livestock? (ref). When you combine that with the vast amount of land used for grazing and housing animals, it’s easy to see that our desire to eat meat and animal products is by far the biggest driver of climate change, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity of all. Agriculture alone is responsible for 80% of deforestation – throwing entire ecosystems, as well as our planet, off balance.
So by limiting, or ideally eliminating, meat and animal products from your diet, you’ve already made the most significant change possible to your environmental impact. When you put that into perspective, you may realise that you shouldn’t put too much pressure on yourself about whether your produce is organic or not.
The Take Away Message
As you can see, the science behind the health and environmental advantages of organic production is not as clear cut as many of us might think. There are complexities, nuances, and gaps in the research that need to be taken into account.
The reason there are such strongly conflicting views is perhaps because food, health, and sustainability are all such emotive topics. It’s understandable why people feel so strongly - they’re trying to do the right thing for their bodies and the planet. But to make informed decisions, we need to be aware of the facts, which I hope you now are.
Perhaps, like me, you’ll find a middle ground:
Buy organic produce a lot of the time, but also buy conventional produce when organic options aren’t available or are too expensive
Eat a whole foods, plant-based diet for the most significant benefits to health and the environment
It’s probably a good idea to wash your fruit and veggies too, not just to remove pesticide residues, but to also wash away soil which could contain bacteria like E. coli (ref)
Buy seasonal and local produce where possible and try to opt for un-packaged produce to reduce transport emissions and plastic use
I’m also lucky enough to have a garden where I can grow some of my own fruit and veg - even if you have a small space, you’d be surprised at what you could grow yourself.!
But please remember, by reducing or eliminating meat and animal products from your diet and eating a variety of whole plant foods, you’ve already made the most important choice for your health and for the planet. And please, PLEASE, don’t ever pick up a pack of non-organic kale and think “could this harm me or my family?” The benefits of getting all the vitamins, minerals, fibre, antioxidants and phyto-nutrients far outweigh the risks of any traces of pesticide residues.