The Benefits of Eating Organic
Organic is the fastest-growing segment of the American grocery market. More and more households are choosing to buy organic foods over “conventional” foods—but what’s the difference, and is it worth the price?
What is organic?
Organic food is produced without the use of chemical pesticides or fertilizers. (Pesticides include insecticides, which target insects, and herbicides, which target weeds. Fertilizers are used to enhance soil nutrients where they may be lacking.) The practices of organic agriculture aim to cycle resources, promote ecological balance and preserve biodiversity.
The problem with “conventional”
While the terminology (“organic” and “conventional”) makes it seem as though organic is a special type of food we haven’t had access to previously, it’s actually quite the opposite: 10,000 years of agricultural production has been “organic,” without the use of chemical pesticides or fertilizers. What we now call “conventional” agriculture didn’t exist until after World War II.
Insecticides are neurotoxins, developed from the same nerve gases used in World War II. They are incredibly toxic to handle, though their toxicity decreases in sunlight (more on this in a moment).
In general, the argument for using chemical pesticides is that they improve yield, and they break down quickly enough to not be deadly when consumed. (Pesticides are so severely toxic that there are stringent federal guidelines regarding when they are allowed to be sprayed before harvest, in order to reduce their toxicity before human consumption.) However, foods grown with chemical pesticides do retain pesticide residues that are ultimately consumed by whoever eats them. These residues are in legally allowable amounts that aren’t harmful on impact, but they bioaccumulate over time to cause severe health effects.
Research shows that prolonged exposure to chemical pesticides (including their residues) leads to increased risk of cardiovascular and respiratory disease, reproductive damage and cancer. Additionally, the recent rise in gluten intolerance and autoimmune disease can be attributed to pesticide exposure through consumption.
Health benefits of eating organic
By choosing organic foods, you avoid consuming insecticides and herbicides. This removes toxic, endocrine-disrupting, carcinogenic pesticide residues from your diet. Enough said!
Many studies also show that organically grown produce contains higher nutrient profiles than their conventional counterparts. This is due to the quality of soil the crops are grown in: in general, chemically-treated land has less nutrient-rich soil with fewer beneficial microorganisms. Which leads us to:
Environmental benefits of organic farming
In addition to the human health consequences of pesticide exposure, pesticide-treated land harms beneficial soil microorganisms and other wildlife (have you heard about the pollinator crisis?). Runoff from chemically-fertilized cropland pollutes water sources, leading to algae blooms and killing marine life (for example, the Gulf Dead Zone from Mississippi River’s agricultural runoff).
Organic agriculture, on the other hand, utilizes practices that promote soil health, encourage beneficial microorganisms and pollinators, and protect our natural resources from toxic runoff.
Social benefits of organic farming
Exposure to pesticides is a significant health concern for farmworkers in the U.S., many of whom are economically disadvantaged and don’t have sufficient access to healthcare, nor the political power to advocate for safer working conditions. Organic practices are much safer for farmworkers and neighboring communities (which are impacted by toxic groundwater and air pollution from chemical pesticide application).
Foods labeled as “organic,” follow the guidelines of the USDA and must be certified through the USDA organic seal, or a USDA-accredited organic certification process (like Oregon Tilth). One requirement for organic certification is that crops cannot be genetically modified (which typically inserts insecticides into the crop’s genome), so certified organic foods are a sure way to avoid GMOs.
However, the certification process can be cost-prohibitive to small farming operations, so some farmers may produce and sell organically grown food but can’t afford to label it as such (this is common at farmers’ markets). In the U.S. it is not permitted to label a food product as “organic” if it has not been certified as such.
“Dirty Dozen”: the top 12 foods to buy organic
Ideally, all the food we consume would be organic. But since that’s not feasible for many of us (due to cost, availability, or eating out), your best bet is to start with the foods that are shown to have the highest amounts of pesticide residues. Environmental Working Group publishes an annual report on pesticides in produce, listing the “Dirty Dozen,” or the top 12 foods to buy organic:
Sweet bell peppers
+ Organic animal products
Because toxins biomagnify up the food chain, if you consume animal products, it’s best to choose organic—animals that were fed organic food themselves.
FOUR WELLNESS TIP
When possible, choose organic foods. In particular, use the list above to purchase the “Dirty Dozen” organically grown and if you eat animal products, choose organically raised.
HEALTHY COOKWARE FOR HEALTHY EATING
Did you know that some cookware is made of materials that leach harmful toxins into your food? In addition to reducing toxins in our food sources, it’s also important to reduce them in our kitchenware—the containers we use to prepare, cook and store our food.
Get our free guide to stocking a healthier kitchen:
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