Organic, Or No?

By Olivia Kutlesa

There are several reasons to eat organic, but is eating healthier one of them? According to a study conducted by leading professionals at Stanford’s School of Medicine, the answer seems to be “hardly.” A team led by Dena Bravata and Crystal Smith-Spangler compared the benefits of eating organic foods to non-organic foods. They seldom found evidence that supports the idea that organic food is more nutritious, and though it may have less pesticide exposure they did not find they were associated with fewer health risks.

In order to confirm this bold conclusion, the researchers analyzed 237 papers based on various studies. However, the bulk of the studies scrutinized were those that focused on the impurities of food products. Researchers analyzed the different levels of nutrients, bacteria, fungi and pesticides found in both organic and conventional foods.

Their findings suggested no significant differences in nutrient levels, except that organic foods contain significantly higher levels of phosphorus. Phosphorus is very necessary in many bodily functions such as bone formation, digestion and energy extraction. Despite conducting extensive analyses, the team was not able to conclude that specific organic fruits and vegetables were consistently a better choice. “Some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious … we were a little surprised that we didn’t find that,” Smith-Spangler said in a Stanford publication.

But, they did expose that antibiotic-resistant bacteria was lower in organically grown chicken and pork. While researchers determined that pesticide levels were about 30 percent greater in conventional food products, no produce was consistently free of pesticides. The pesticide levels found in both food categories were within the allowable safety limits.

The intention of this investigation was simple. “Our goal was to shed light on what the evidence is,” Smith-Spangler said. “This is information that people can use to make their own decisions based on their level of concern about pesticides, their budget and other considerations.” In conjunction, Bravata claimed that there are many other reasons, which look beyond health benefits, to buy organic food. These reasons included taste preferences and the outcomes of conventional farming, which affect both environmental and animal welfare. Smith-Spangler added that she learned that there was a lot of variation between the two farming practices. “It appears there are a lot of different factors that are important in predicting nutritional quality and harms,” she said. Among the various factors are soil types, weather
and fertilizer.

So are lower quantities of pesticides a reason to buy organic foods? Many health professionals, including those from Scientific American, don’t think so. Multiple health claims have assured the public that organic food is grown without toxic synthetic pesticides, but this is false. Canadian organic food products are supposed to be made with no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), antibiotics or growth hormones. However, the organic produce we receive on shelves is still made with ‘natural’ or ‘non-synthetic’ pesticides.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) released their records and showed that nearly 24 percent of organically produced apples contained pesticide residue. Dr. Walter Krol, who tests for pesticide contamination commented on this. “Pesticides are ending up in produce somehow and it’s not supposed to happen, so there are flaws in the integrity,” Walter said. “If [the CFIA is] concerned about pesticide residues, I don’t think it does a very good job of meeting those expectations.”

In 2011, the CFIA documentation showed that out of the 112 produce samples, many contained more than one kind of pesticide residue. The most common residue found within apples was the fungicide thiabendazole, which appeared almost as frequently in organic apples. One organic sample even posed a health risk, exceeding the maximum pesticide residue limit. These organic apples were not Canadian grown, but imported from other countries.

As stated before, certified Canadian organic products are supposed to be pesticide free and grown according to regulations. However, the CFIA has been having issues tracking how pesticide residues contaminate specific organic produce. The national manager of the CFIA, Michel Saumur, has expressed that there is simply too much information missing for the CFIA to track all foods certified as organic. Saumur believes that most of the pesticide presence in organic foods has been a result of contamination in buffer zones and is non-intentional, implying that it is beyond a farmer’s control. Moreover, only 30-20 percent of Canadian organic products are grown in Canada. Most are imported from the U.S.

Eating organic is much costlier than eating non-organically. However, according to the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada there are certain food products that are worth the purchase. This includes leafy greens — such as spinach, lettuce, kale and collard — because when they are grown inorganically they contain high levels of pesticides to keep them looking fresh. Also on the list are berries; Canada is unable to produce fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries all year long, and consequently they are imported from countries with less restrictive pesticide rules. Organic berries have shown to be more antioxidant-rich and smaller, which means that there are generally more per carton.

Another food to buy organic is meat. Conventionally grown livestock is raised in an environment in which the animals are over-populated, increasing the risk of disease and the amount of antibiotics and medications used. Organic meat comes from livestock that was not feed any synthetic additives or antibiotics that could promote growth. It also contains higher amounts of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is a fatty acid that improves immune function and reduces fat deposits. The list concludes with dairy, which can be recognized with a Canada Organic Logo. For similar reasons to buy organic meat, dairy cattle on conventional farms are kept in barns for large amounts of time as opposed to setting them out to graze. To be certified as organically grown cattle, the farmer must allow for cattle to graze out on the pasture for as long as they can. As a result of this, the CLA content in organic dairy is much higher. Furthermore, there are very strict antibiotic regulations on organic dairy, which only enable the cattle to be given medication when they are ill.

Overall, eating organic produce is a personal choice. As provided, there are many reasons to eat organic and many reasons to be cautious when buying organic produce. Whether you choose to eat organic or not, it is vital to incorporate as many fruits and vegetables into your diet instead of disregarding them for skeptical reasons.





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