Organic fresh produce sales in 2020 were $8.54 billion, an increase of over $1 billion from 2019. A very sobering study of 55 rice types found that organic rice contained significantly more arsenic than non-organic rice. More than half of the rice samples were “unfit to feed to infants” (Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety, July 1, 2020;197(1):110601).
Compared to conventionally-grown foods, organic foods usually cost more and have not been shown to be safer, provide more or better nutrients, or be more likely to have been grown at a small local farm. In 2018, the Food Marketing Institute reported that the average price for organic produce was 54 percent higher than for non-organic produce; organic milk cost 72 percent more, and organic eggs cost 82 percent more. Organic foods cost more to produce because they require:
• more land to grow the foods,
• more workers to prepare and harvest the crops, and
• more work to control weeds and insects.
Many North Americans are willing to pay this extra price because 50 percent of them believe that organic foods are more healthful for you (Pew Research Center, published online November 19, 2018). Manufacturers have taken advantage of this belief and sell organic clothes, cigarettes, water, soap, condoms, lipstick, perfume, mattresses, and just about anything that touches your body, as well as all categories of foods. However, U.S. government control over the use of the label “organic” is lax because there are few government agencies or contractors to check the production of organic products.
Definition of Organic
An organic product is defined as something that is made or grown naturally, without use of fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides manufactured by humans. To be recognized as “organic,” foods and other products are supposed to be grown with:
• No synthetic fertilizers or pesticides (with some exceptions)
• No antibiotics or growth hormones for livestock
• No genetically modified ingredients
• No artificial flavors, colors or preservatives
• No sewage sludge
• No radiation of foods
Both conventional and organic fruits and vegetables are grown with pesticides, but organic growers use “natural” pesticides (such as ground-up chrysanthemums), while conventional growers use “artificial” pesticides that are often copies of the pesticides found in nature. Your body cannot distinguish between “natural’ and artificial pesticides or fertilizers. For example, organic growers can feed plants nitrogen from animal manure, but not use fertilizers that contains the same nitrogen from a factory. This makes no sense because nitrogen is a chemical element and therefore is the same regardless of its origin. Other chemical elements such as arsenic, chromium, or nickel are toxic and are found naturally in soil.
Strong evidence exists that many pesticides and herbicides used regularly today, both natural and artificial, can harm you by increasing your risk for cancers. From the 1950s onward, the government set maximum allowable residue levels on foods. In the 1970s, the EPA banned DDT and other insecticides. Some farmers, but certainly not all, have responded by using insecticides only after safer methods have failed. Examples of safer insect control include using healthful insects to help control crop-damaging ones and improving plants genetically to resist insect damage (which is ironic since genetic modification is supposed to disqualify a food from being labeled organic).
“Organic” is Difficult to Regulate
The demand for organic foods has increased so much that more than 80 percent of organic foods now come from very large farms producing very large amounts of organic products that are sold in large commercial establishments such as Walmart, Costco, and Kroger. Less than eight percent is produced by small farmers.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tries to regulate farms or handling operations by having them certified by a state or private agency accredited by USDA. Farms and handling operations that sell less than $5,000 worth per year of organic products are exempt from certification. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a government-approved company is supposed to inspect the farm to assure that it is following all the rules. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant are supposed to be certified, too. You can imagine how expensive and time-consuming this process is, and in reality, only a small percentage of the producers actually get inspected repeatedly to see that they are following the rules.
No Data to Show That Conventional Produce is Harmful
We know that chronic exposure to large amounts of pesticides can harm you (Interdiscip Toxicol, Mar 2009;2(1):1-12), but we have no proof that eating conventional produce is harmful to humans. All of the available evidence is that the people who eat the most fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and other seeds are at markedly reduced risk for heart attacks, diabetes, strokes, certain cancers and premature death, regardless of whether their food is conventionally grown or organic (Amer J of Clin Nutr, Aug 2013;98(2):454-459).
If you are concerned about pesticide levels and have a tight budget or do not have good sources of organic produce, you may be interested in the findings of The Environmental Working Group (EWG). Their good news is that the following non-organic foods have very low levels of pesticides: onions, avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, mangoes, peas, asparagus, kiwi fruit, cabbage, eggplant, melons, grapefruit, sweet potatoes, papayas, sweet peas, cantaloupe, broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms and cabbage. Fruits and vegetables that are eaten with their skin usually contain higher pesticide levels, but I do not recommend removing edible skins from produce just to reduce pesticide exposure, because the skins are concentrated sources of nutrients and fiber. Washing fresh fruits and vegetables under running water can help to remove bacteria and chemicals from the surface of fruits and vegetables, whether they are organic or conventionally grown.
Diana and I support organic farmers for their efforts to solve environmental problems, and we often buy organic produce. However, if budget is an issue, it’s more healthful to eat a lot of conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables than a small amount of organic fruits and vegetables or none at all. The scientific literature shows that it is more healthful to eat lots of fruits and vegetables from any source than to replace them with the processed foods that crowd our supermarket shelves.
• The label “organic” does not mean that a food is healthful. Organic white flour, organic sugars and organic junk foods, such as cookies, crackers, chips or ice cream, are still junk foods.
• Wash all fruits and vegetables before you eat them, even though washing does not remove all pesticides. Remove the outer leaves from lettuce, cabbage and other leafy greens.