Written by Simone le Roux
When you hear the word “organic” what do you picture? Lush green fields, singing birds, buzzing bees, and dew-covered apples? Do you automatically reach for an “organic” option because you’ve been told it’s healthier for you? Do you imagine the not-organic industry to be one of sterile laboratories, men in suits laughing over piles of money and more chemicals than you can shake a (genetically modified) stick at?
If this is the case for you, you’re not alone. Some truly excellent marketing has been done around the Organic Industry to make us believe that organic food is better for us and the environment. Here’s why you’re most likely wasting your money buying organic food.
What does “organic” actually mean?
The term “Organic” originally meant “relating to or derived from living matter”. And if you think that’s vague, in chemistry the word just means “anything containing carbon that isn’t a mineral or a salt”. Based on that alone, all the food you eat is organic, regardless of what the label eagerly tells you. However, the term has come to mean something different in today’s context.
“Organic” in the food industry, according to the USDA, means using only organic substances in farming while prohibiting synthetic substances. In practice, this means that produce can only be considered organic if it’s been grown in a field with no synthetic or prohibited substances in it for at least three years.
More recently, “organic” has been used synonymously with GMO-free. This is also misleading in that it’s wrong. A GMO, or genetically modified organism, is anything which has had its genes modified. Most of our produce has been genetically modified at some point by selective breeding – you take two plants with characteristics you like and breed them together to create a better variety. Go ahead and google what bananas or watermelons looked like before we selectively bred them into the delicious fruit salad ingredients they are today. I’ll wait.
It was necessary to refine the term “GMO” to something less broad, given that there are several techniques that can be used to modify the genes of an organism. The term “GMO” is now used to convey any organism which has had a foreign gene inserted precisely into its DNA to give it a more desirable trait. For example, scientists in Texas genetically modified carrots to have higher amounts of calcium that humans can absorb, making them more beneficial to the health of the people who eat them. Gene insertion or deletion makes it quicker and easier for us to create plants which are pest resistant, drought resistant, healthier, require fewer resources or even just taste better.
This definition narrows the term “GMO” significantly, however, and gives organic farms wiggle room to use other techniques without having to drop their organic labels. In a process called mutagenesis I can take a bunch of organic carrot seeds, blast them with radiation to induce a multitude of uncontrolled mutations, then plant them and pick the plants with characteristics I want to keep. The resultant plants would not have to be classified as genetically modified, even though they most certainly are. Moreover, Mutagenesis results in more changes to the plant’s genes than simply inserting a single gene would.
“GMO” and “organic” are both highly misleading terms which many people don’t understand correctly, and the Organic Industry uses this to a massive advantage.
Does organic mean fewer harmful chemicals?
There is a common misconception that organic farmers do not use pesticides on their crops. This is untrue: organic farmers do use pesticides, but they must be considered natural, as opposed to synthetic. Natural pesticides are ones which are found naturally occurring in nature, whereas synthetic pesticides are produced in labs, usually based off of successful natural pesticides. Being “natural”, though, is not the same as being “healthy”. Arsenic and sulfuric acid are both 100% natural and I don’t want them around my food. Interestingly, both were used as organic pesticides in the past.
Before we jump into talking about pesticides, let’s get this out of the way. The pesticide most often cited as the reason people should avoid conventional crops is glyphosate, AKA RoundUp. There have been many claims that link it to cancer and a host of other diseases in animals which consume crops sprayed with glyphosate. However, multiple studies have been conducted on its effects and it has been concluded by the World Health Organisation there is no carcinogenic risk to humans who consume crops sprayed with glyphosphate. There are other, organic pesticides you should be keeping an eye on instead.
Organic pesticides are by no means safer than synthetic ones. For example, Rotenone remains a commonly-used organic pesticide in the USA even though research on rats revealed that Rotenone exposure resulted in symptoms similar to those of Parkinson’s Disease.
Most conventional crops are bred to be resistant to insects, and stronger pesticides. Synthetic pesticides are also engineered to be as efficient as possible. This means that fewer pesticides are required in the growing of these crops compared to organic crops. Organic crops often need multiple applications of pesticides per year because they lack resistance to many of the pests which plague farmers. A recent meta-analysis showed that GM crops reduce the use of pesticides by 37%. If anything, conventional crops often have fewer pesticides (or “chemicals”) for you to worry about.
Is organic food healthier?
Okay so organic food doesn’t have fewer chemicals - whatever that means - but surely it’s better for you? We are told over and over again that organic food is much healthier for us.
There is a common narrative that genetically modified foods are responsible for all kinds of diseases, including diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and probably a lack of empathy too. As we examined above, pesticides on conventional food hardly pose a health risk. Genetically modified crops and their potential risks have also been examined in many long-term studies and it has been shown consistently that they are completely safe to eat.
But is organic food healthier than conventional food in that it contains more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants? This is a pretty convenient selling point, as it justifies the higher price tags on organic food. Sure it costs more, but you’re eating healthier, right? Empirical evidence suggests otherwise. Several studies have been conducted which show that organic food is no healthier than conventional food, except for some minimal benefits found in organic dairy. Otherwise, you’re spending extra money on the placebo effect.
It’s also worth noting that buying organic food is considered preferable because it tastes better than conventional food. However, blind taste tests revealed that people often can’t tell the difference between the two. It’s just exceptional marketing that’s making organic produce taste better.
Is organic better for the environment?
Fine, I hear you say. Maybe organic food isn’t healthier, and maybe it doesn’t taste better, but at least it’s good for the environment. Organic farming is way better than those enormous factory farms which churn out profit at the expense of the land. Organic farming alone focuses on sustainability and conservation, whereas conventional farming takes shortcuts that ultimately destroy the ecosystem. Right?
If you’ve read this far, you’re hopefully a bit more sceptical about this.
Genetically modified crops are engineered to use fewer resources such as water and soil nutrients. This means more produce per acre with fewer resources. Genetically modified crops not only use up fewer precious resources, but they also reduce the need to clear naturally-occurring environments, such as rainforest, in favour of more farmland. A recent study showed that organic farms typically yield only 80% of what conventional farms do – that’s 20% of that land essentially going to waste.
A popular argument in favour of organic produce is that the reduced yield is worthwhile because organic farming focuses on sustainability and conservation-friendly farming practices. This may be true, but many conventional farms do the same and genetically modified crops make that easier. It makes logical sense to farm sustainably, focusing on soil health and the environment, because it means less money and effort from the farmers. Hate on big agriculture companies all you want, but they’re actively working towards improving farming methods to increase soil and environmental health.
Organic pesticides can also be worse for the environment than synthetic ones: A Canadian study tested the ecological effects of organic vs synthetic pesticides in controlling soybean aphids. The synthetic pesticides were not only more effective, but they were less likely to damage the environment. Organic pesticides in this study tended to kill more off-target species than synthetic ones. And this makes sense: synthetic pesticides are engineered to be more efficient than their “naturally-occurring” counterparts. While, of course, these results can not speak to each and every organic vs synthetic pesticide comparison, they show that assumptions can not be made regarding organic produce’s superior environmental impact.
There are farms which are good for the environment and farms which couldn’t care less about it, but each of those categories are full of both conventional and organic farms. The organic label is certainly not a symbol of environmental well-being. In fact, it could be quite the opposite.
Am I wasting my money?
Well, yeah. Organic food doesn’t contain fewer “chemicals”, it’s not healthier for you and it’s not necessarily better for the environment. It’s only more expensive because you’re paying for less efficient farming techniques and a meaningless label.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to eat more healthily or do better by the environment. You also absolutely should aim to support your local farmers and go to town on some fresh produce markets. Unfortunately, doing all those things requires more research and thought than automatically reaching for anything with an “organic” label. Organic is to food what a Lacoste label is to polo shirts – it doesn’t achieve more than the regular version, buying it just shows everyone how rich you are.
If you have more questions or you’d like to do further research, take a look at some of the sources cited in this article. The Genetic Literacy Project is a great starting point to bust some of the more pervasive myths around organic food.