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Within the food industry, defining the benefits of organic food is largely left to word of mouth, media coverage, and the promotional efforts of organic advocates. Major food and beverage corporations[1] have rapidly moved to acquire significant stake in both fresh and processed organic products.[2] Still, the specific sales points of "organics" go largely unmentioned on product packaging and in mainstream media advertising.

Claims of improved food quality are regularly used in conventional food marketing, with "low fat", "low sodium", "whole grain", "high fiber", "vitamin enriched", "no trans-fat" and other commonly advertised benefits. By contrast, "certified organic" is generally left to stand on its own as self-explanatory, assisted only by general terms like "natural".

Meanwhile, consumer surveys have consistently identified food quality as the main reason for purchasing organic food. Higher nutritional value, no toxic residues from pesticides, and better taste are often cited, as is the positive impact of organic production on the environment.[3] Whether organic food actually delivers on these desires and beliefs is controversial and the subject of scientifically inconclusive debate. The debate centers on a variety of specific and supposedly demonstrable characteristics which proponents claim make organic food superior to the product of conventional farming and processing.

Contents

Food safety

Organic food proponents express concern over the potential negative effects of various chemical cultivation methods and genetic modification techniques used in modern conventional agriculture. The effect of pesticide residues from crop spraying, the presence of veterinary drugs in meat products, and the relatively unknown long term impacts of genetically modified varieties and breeds are all encompassed. Organic food is seen as avoiding relieving these concerns by prohibiting such practices. At present, there are no definitive scientific conclusions on any of these matters; individual studies are cited on both sides of the debate.

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Chemical contamination

Organic food proponents cite the existence of reduced levels of pesticides and herbicides as a way to reduce the long term risk of chemical consumption. The degree of risk posed by pesticide residues remains uncertain. Pesticide use in conventional food products is heavily regulated, with established, research-based maximum residue levels (MRLs) below which residues are considered safe for human consumption. Also, many pesticides are not cumulative in the body, and are regularly eliminated. Notable exceptions include heavy metals such as lead or mercury which are sometimes found in foodstuffs in countries which have lax food production standards. The U.S. and most of Europe prohibit the use of inorganic compounds containing heavy metals in any type of agriculture including conventional.[4] Organic farming standards do not allow the use of synthetic pesticides, but they do allow the use of certain so-called natural pesticides, such as those derived from plants. The most common organic pesticides, accepted for restricted use by most organic standards, include Bt, pyrethrum, and rotenone. Some organic pesticides, such as rotenone, have high toxicity to fish and aquatic creatures with some toxicity to mammals including humans.

A study published by the National Research Council in 1993 determined that for infants and children, the major source of exposure to pesticides is through diet.[5] A recent study in 2006 measured the levels of organophosphorus pesticide exposure in 23 school children before and after replacing their diet with organic food. In this study it was found that levels of organophosphorus pesticide exposure dropped dramatically and immediately when the children switched to an organic diet.[6]

One of the major differences in the production of organically produced food from traditional techniques is its reliance on so-called natural methods of providing soil nutrients. While both methods rely on nitrates to provide nitrogen to the soil, organic agriculture gets the majority of its nitrates from manure and composting sources. These sources of nitrogen have a slower transfer of nitrogen to the soil spreading out the release of nitrogen over the growing season and helping to reduce the leeching of nitrates into water sources where they can cause health problems. However, the slower transfer can also increase nitrate run-off. Manure and compost also contain the other macronutrients, phosphate and potassium, and micronutrients. While neither chemical or organic applications of nutrients to the soil provide the ideal situation, on small to medium scale operations, manure provides the benefit of reduced soil erosion and less leeching of nitrates into the soil. Regardless of the benefits, the application of man-made nutrients will always be required to sustain a global agriculture system that feeds the entire world.[1] Organic farming also relies on the mining of inorganic chemicals.

Organic methods of fertilization are not necessarily free from risk. Critics claim that using manure to fertilize organic crops might increase the risk of contamination by dangerous microbes like E. coli. However, organic animal manure, typically that of cattle, is manure from animals that eat mainly hay and other organic, primarily non-grain materials. This is seen as a way to reduce the amount of E. Coli bacteria present, and the feces of organically-raised cattle have only 1% of the E. Coli present in non-organic manure. Still, when using primarily manure to grow organic crops, the risk for mycotoxin contamination is significantly increased. Mycotoxins are the result of molds found in some varieties of cow feed, and even in very small amounts they can induce liver cancer if consumed over a long period of time. It is important to note that conventional farms also use manure as fertilizer but in much smaller quantities.[4] It should also be noted that many organic farmers consider using manure directly as fertilizer to be an unsound practice, and instead the manure should be composted first.[7][8]

Hormonal contamination

Organic proponents cite evidence that some chemicals used in conventional farming, including pesticides and herbicides, mimic hormones - usually estrogen - when inside a person. They claim that this is significant even at the minute levels that the average person is exposed to. The US government states that these chemicals are safe when used correctly, but proponents claim such tests are only done on healthy adults - and that children and fetuses might be at risk to even small amounts of these chemicals.

In Australia, the Government sponsored Australian Total Diet Survey measures pesticide residues found in typical Australian diets. The 2004 survey found all estimated dietary exposures to pesticide residues were below 16% of the respective Acceptable daily intakes and therefore all exposures are well within the applicable health standards.

Transgenic contamination

Certified organic foods are not substantially genetically modified. The health risks surrounding genetically modified foods remain highly contentious.

Genetic modification is a prohibited/excluded method in organic production as defined in the National Organic Program (NOP). GMO contamination of organic crops may unintentionally occur primarily through either pollen drift and/or the handling of raw organic agricultural products.

The USDA does not require GMO testing for all crops marketed or labeled as organic and therefore does not technically regulate GMO traces for such. The USDA does verify, through Accredited Certifying Agents, the composition and percentage of organic ingredients for all food products labeled or marketed as certified organic in the United States.

The NOP does not prescribe that an Accredited Certifying Agent (ACA) revoke or suspend certification of an organic farm if accidental GMO pollen drift occurs. But all ACA's have the authority to test soils and/or crops, if necessary, for GMO's and other prohibited substances and methods. If organic certification is continued for an organic farm affected by GMO contamination (almost always through pollen drift) the farmer does have an opportunity to market most future organic crops. However, the farmers' ability to market the GMO contaminated organic crop is minimized substantially and the organic market premium is lost.

In most European countries, certification rules are much stricter. Basically, any confirmed detection of transgenic plant, seed or feed can result in a loss of organic status and consequent substantial economic losses for the farmer.

Other issues surrounding GMOs may also concern consumers, such as the ownership of biological intellectual property by corporations, and reduction in crop varieties.

With estimates that pollen of some crops (eg. canola) can travel more than 5 kilometers per year, we can be certain that the technology and marketing of organic foods will clash with the technology and marketing of GMO foods, in countries where the growing of GMO is permitted. In many countries, however, public awareness is limited and the battles seem to take place with a small elite in the GMO industry and the NGOs that oppose them.

Nutritional value

Some organic advocates claim that organic food is more nutritious. Increased soil quality, greater attention to quality, and selection of crop varieties for nutrition and taste instead of size, appearance, and shipping characteristics are claimed to be reasons for higher nutrient density of organic foods.

Organic advocates claim that organically grown potatoes, oranges, and leafy vegetables have more vitamin C than conventionally grown products. Phenolic compounds are also found in significantly higher concentrations in organic foods, and these may provide antioxidant protection against heart disease and cancer.[9]

Still isolated bits of research suggest that conventional agricultural practices are degrading food quality. A study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in 2004, entitled Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999, compared vegetables analysed in 1950 and in 1999, and found noticeable decreases in six of 13 nutrients examined (the six were: protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and ascorbic acid).[10] Percentage reductions ranged from 6% for protein to 38% of riboflavin, although when evaluated on a per-food or per-nutrient level, usually no distinguishable changes were found. Reductions in calcium, phosphorus, iron and ascorbic acid were also found. The authors suggested that the differences probably reflect changes in cultivated varieties between 1950 and 1999, in which there may have been trade-offs between yield and nutrient content.

Whether organic foodstuffs have a higher nutrient content is still debatable. Studies have shown no clear, consistent results, and those that have suffer from significant experimental design flaws, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Further, the FAO found that in some crops, such as wheat, there appears to be a trade-off: in conventionally farmed wheat the levels of protein are higher, but the lower levels in organic materials are offset by gains in alpha-amylase and sugar contents.[4]

Taste

Many claim that organic food tastes better. This is primarily referred to regarding fresh food.

It is possible that organic food tastes better simply because it is fresher. Because organic farms tend to be smaller, they often sell their products closer to the point of harvest.[11] Thus, organic fruits and vegetables taste more "farm fresh" than comparable conventional produce.

However, organic foods might also have more flavor because organic farmers often breed with taste instead of marketability as the primary factor. Conventional tomatoes, for example, are often bred to be perfectly red and round, to match the ideal appearance of a tomato. They are also bred to resist damage in transport and storage, for a longer shelf-life. This means that taste is an attribute that has a lower priority. In addition to crop diversity and selection practices, organic farming emphasizes soil nutrition, which can positively influence the taste of the food. Tests by the United Nations FAO demonstrated that some apples, specifically the "Golden Delicious" variety, have higher flavonoid counts when grown organically. This suggests that they do have more flavour.[4]

Some foods, such as bananas, are picked when unripe, then artificially induced to ripen using a chemical (such as propylene or ethylene) while in transit, possibly producing a different taste.[12] The issue of ethylene use in organic food production is contentious; opponents claiming that its use only benefits large companies, and opens the door to weaker organic standards.[13]

Environmental impact

Every food purchase supports the system that delivers it, and if large-scale chemical production methods are damaging to the environment, then purchasing these foods supports this damage. A main goal of organic farming is minimizing impact to the environment.

Sustainability

Proponents of organic farming say that "conventional" farming is unsustainable, because it relies on artificial inputs (synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals, machinery, etc.) that ultimately requires energy in the form of fossil fuels, and because the land is degraded through soil erosion, salinization, and other processes that eventually render the soil infertile. Many claim that without cheap fossil fuels and government subsidies, conventional agriculture would not be possible, and that despite technological advancements, there will eventually be an agricultural crisis as a result of depleted soil. The cultivation of monocultures, many acres planted with the same crop year after year, increases susceptibility to pests and diseases and depletes the soil, while eliminating most native flora and fauna.

In contrast, organic farming often utilizes intercropping, crop rotation, fallow periods, and integrated pest management to promote biodiversity and preserve the health of the soil while minimizing the risk of diseases. The main goal of organic farming is sustainability, so organic farms seek to minimize dependence on outside resources and be self-sufficient.

Pollution

Modern agricultural practices often result in large amounts of nitrogen runoff from the heavy use of fertilizer, which pollutes watersheds. In addition to posing a threat to human health and disrupting aquatic ecosystems, this sometimes results in algal blooms which deplete the water of oxygen resulting in fishkills. Pesticide runoff also causes many problems.

Transportation

Claims that eating organic food is better for the environment are, however, frustrated by the fact that most of the organic food sold today travels the same great distances as conventional food. A UK study published in 2005 in the Journal of Food Policy found that maximum environmental benefit would result from purchasing food produced within a 12-mile radius.[14] Therefore, buying local food that is not organic could be environmentally "better" than buying organic food that has travelled hundreds or thousands of miles. Many small organic farms, however, sell much or all of their produce locally.

Efficiency

Studies have shown organic farms to be more energy efficient than their conventional counterparts. One of these studies was done with apple farms in the state of Washington. In that study, the organic farms were found to be at least 7% more energy efficient.[15] And although some critics of organic farms cite evidence that organic farms produce less yield than conventional farms, they also found a much more substantial decrease in resources used. One prominent 21-year Swiss study found an average 20% lower organic yields over conventional methods. However, that came with consumption of 50% less fertilizer, and 97% less pesticide.[16]

In comparing yields, a US survey published in 2001 analyzed 150 growing seasons of data on various crops and concluded that organic yields were 95-100% of conventional yields.[17] Because organic farms don't use toxic pesticides and herbicides, there is more biodiversity in the soil. Besides higher soil quality[18] - more life in the soil allows for higher water retention. This helps increase yields for organic farms in drought years where there is less rain. During drought years, organic farms have been found to have yields 20-40% higher than conventional farms.[19]

Large scale organic farms

Many advocates of organic farming view large scale, corporate owned "organic farms" as being against the spirit of organic farming, since they tend to use unsustainable practices similar to conventional farms.

Summary

Without exception, the fundamental claims of benefit are contentious and well-contended by various supporters of conventional agriculture, regardless of the fact that the food industry establishment also has a significant stake in organic food. The hot button issue seems to be the effect of pesticides on people, animals, and the environment. This is still being debated by experts in toxicology. There are research reports, expert opinions, and anecdotal evidence both supporting and rebutting them. The same holds true for the other claimed advantages.

References and notes

  1. ^ Corporations such as Kraft Foods, Heinz, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Cargill, Unilever, General Mills, and Campbell Soup
  2. ^ "Corporate Industry Structure: 2005", by Phil Howard, Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, University of California, Santa Cruz.
  3. ^ "Millions turn to organic food" (BBC News, 8-Feb-2000), "2003 BC Organic Food Survey: Key Findings" (Synovate Research, 2003), "One Year after USDA Organic Standards are Enacted More Americans are Consuming Organic Food" (Whole Foods Market, 14-Oct-2003), "Consumer Knowledge and Perceptions About Organic Food" (Journal of Extension, Aug-2005)
  4. ^ a b c d Food Safety and Quality as Affected by Organic Farming, Twenty Second FAO Regional Conference for Europe, 24-28 Jul-2000.
  5. ^ National Research Council. Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children. National Academies Press; 1993. ISBN 0-309-04875-3. Retrieved 10-Apr-2006.
  6. ^ Lu, Chensheng, et al. (2006). "Organic Diets Significantly Lower Children’s Dietary Exposure to Organophosphorus Pesticides". Environmental Health Perspectives 114: 260–263.  
  7. ^ manure facts from the Organic Trade Association
  8. ^ 'Holistic management at the Northland Sheep Dairy' describes the disadvantages of using uncomposted manure under the second section 'Pros and Cons of Milking Sheep'
  9. ^ Asami, Danny K. "Comparison of the Total Phenolic and Ascorbic Acid Content of Freeze-Dried and Air-Dried Marionberry, Strawberry, and Corn Grown Using Conventional, Organic, and Sustainable Agricultural Practices". Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (American Chemical Society), 51 (5), 1237 -1241, 2003. 10.1021/jf020635c S0021-8561(02)00635-0. Retrieved 10-Apr-2006.
  10. ^ Donald Davis, et al. (2004). "Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999". Journal of the American College of Nutrition 23: 669–682.  
  11. ^ Note For North Americans: this is not necessarily the case--increasingly, organic foods are grown by larger corporations who use South American farms for growing. This has led some observers to point out that the higher amount of fossil fuel burned to ship these "organic" products means that purchasing them is more ecologically destructive than buying many non-organic vegetables grown stateside, such as New Jersey tomatoes.
  12. ^ "Banana Wars", by Joanna Blythman (The Observer, 13-Mar-2005) and "Bananas & Plantains", Honduran Agricultural Research Foundation (FHIA).
  13. ^ "The organic label just won't stick if feds keep this up", by Julie Deardorff (Chicago Tribune, 9-Dec-2005) and "Dole urges organics board to approve ethylene use", by Joan Murphy (The Produce News, 22-Nov-2005).
  14. ^ "Local food 'greener than organic'", BBC News, 2-Mar-2005.
  15. ^ Reganold et al. (April 2001). "Sustainability of three apple production systems". Nature 410: 926–930. doi:10.1038/35073574.  
  16. ^ Maeder et al. (May 2002). "Soil Fertility and Biodiversity in Organic Farming". Science 296: 1694–1697. doi:10.1126/science.1071148. PMID 12040197.  
  17. ^ Welsh, Rick (1999). "Economics of Organic Grain and Soybean Production in the Midwestern United States". Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture.  
  18. ^ Johnston, A. E. (1986). "Soil organic-matter, effects on soils and crops". Soil Use Management 2: 97–105. doi:10.1111/j.1475-2743.1986.tb00690.x.  
  19. ^ Lotter, D. W., Seidel, R. & Liebhardt W. (2003). "The performance of organic and conventional cropping systems in an extreme climate year". American Journal of Alternative Agriculture 18: 146–154. doi:10.1079/AJAA200345.  

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