How Does Organic Food Differ from Conventionally Farmed and Processed Food?
Organic foods are foods that are grown and produced without the use of chemical pesticides, fungicides, fertilisers, irradiation and genetic modification (GM). All food labelled as organic and sold in Europe must comply with EU legislation on organic production and will be accredited by one of the organic certification bodies.
It is estimated that the average piece of conventionally farmed fruit, now contains between 20-30 different pesticide residues. The argument put forward by conventional food producers is that these residues are in such small amounts that they do not harm consumers. This is vigorously debated, and seems extremely unlikely. Although the full extent of damage to consumer health is not yet known, studies now suggest that pesticide and fertilizer residues may be contributing factors to a broad spectrum of severe health problems ranging from auto-immune diseases such as cancers (including leukemia), to birth defects and hormone disruption. Children are particularly at risk and may suffer from impeded neurological development if overexposed to pesticides. 1
In 1993 the United States National Research Council published a report that determined the major source of exposure to pesticides for children and infants is through diet. 2 A study in 2006 measured the levels of organophosphorusorganic food (food grown without synthetic pesticides). In this study it was found that levels of pesticide exposure dropped dramatically and immediately when the children switched to an organic diet. 3
Likewise, meat from animals raised on intensive farms has been shown to retain residues from growth promoting hormones as well as antibiotics. These potentially harmful residues are assimilated into our bodies once we have consumed the meat and/or dairy products. It is now being debated whether these residues have contributed to the increase in antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria. Animal welfare is not a priority.
Organic food products, whether meat, dairy, eggs, fruit, vegetables, cereals or oils will have minimal amounts of chemical residues, if any. The products, whether processed or in their raw state will therefore be infinitely 'safer' for human and animal consumption. Long-term damage to the environment is minimised.
Organic Farming vs. Intensive Farming
Organic farming works with nature, not against it. In comparison, intensive and conventional farms, with their primary aim of producing huge quantities of crops and meat at low cost, use cheaper chemical solutions to maximise their harvest. Toxic pesticides and fertilizers are not only absorbed into the growing crop and soils, but also filter down to the water table. Ultimately residues from these toxins end up in the water table unless removed, although it is extremely difficult to remove them all.
Organic farming relies on using more traditional methods and practices. Chemical interference, whether in the form of pesticides, fungicides or fertilizers, cannot be used. The resulting crop will be clear of potentially harmful residues, and has minimal impact on the environment.
Intensive animal farms rear huge numbers of animals in extremely confined spaces (a typical cage for battery chicken farming is about the size of a cabinet drawer and may hold as many as 8-10 hens. 4 The conditions can be horrific — filthy pens and cages covered in animal excrement, where dead and dying animals are may be left for days alongside healthy animals. Because disease is so rife under these conditions, the animals are routinely fed antibiotics to prevent infections, as well as growth promoters to speed up their physical development. The foodstuffs used to feed these intensively reared animals is rarely their natural diet, and may comprise high protein ingredients such as bone and offal taken from the carcasses of other animals. In this way, a large number of people believe that BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) was caused by feeding cows (natural herbivores) processed cattle and sheep bone meal. 5
Meat produced from an organic farm also means that greater emphasis has been put on animal welfare, allowing the livestock to roam freely, and have access to the outside world with sunlight (no massive barns stuffed with pens and cages lit by artificial lighting 24/7 for these animals). Equally importantly, the animals are fed natural feedstuffs, and are not routinely subjected to growth promoters or antibiotics. The resulting meat is both tastier, healthier and guilt-free.
Improving agricultural productivity was the main driver for widespread use of manufactured pesticides on crops. The organic movement really took off in the 1940's in response to this. Crop rotation, biological pest control, and compost are some of the techniques used in organic agriculture to manage pests and sustain soil quality. Synthetic pesticides, fertilisers, growth hormones, genetic modification, livestock antibiotics and food additives are prohibited or strictly limited.
The problems from using chemical pesticides and fertilisers not only affect what is grown, but also affects the environment. Run-off (surface residues flushed off the plants by rainwater) is either absorbed into the soil, or will enter streams, rivers and ultimately seas. Synthetic chemicals used in conventional farming then enter the food chain through contaminated water, fish or other animals that consume the affected aquatic environment. Additionally, many pesticides are sprayed onto crops resulting in potential contamination via drift for any living plant, animal or human in the localised area.
A major disadvantage of using hazardous chemicals as front line pest control systems, herbicides and fungicides is the effect on the soil. Combine this with a complete lack of crop rotation, and the resulting soil not only loses key mineral content, but also affects the potency of beneficial soil microbes including those that help the plant absorb the nutrients.
Sustainable Farming, Sustainable Economics.
For humans, sustainability is the potential for long-term maintenance of well being, which has environmental, economic, and social dimensions. — Wikipedia
Originally farmers may have been attracted to organic farming techniques by government subsidies and premium prices, as well as for environmental benefits and ethical beliefs. Once a supply-driven market, organic farming is now demand-driven as a result of increased consumer awareness of environmental and health concerns throughout 'developed' nations. Since 1990, the market for organic products has grown from nothing, reaching $55 billion in 2009 whilst last year (2010) saw North America overtake Europe as the world's largest market for organic food and drink. 6
With an annual growth rate of about 20% per year in the industrial world, global sales are approaching US $40 billion this year. Traditional farming methods, comparable to organic farming techniques, but not accredited as organic are, employed by many crop producers in the developing world. In other cases, farmers in the developing world have converted for economic reasons. 7
The argument that suggests organic farming uses more resources and land mass than conventional farming to achieve a similar yield is being refuted by scientists: “Organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base” 8
- 1 – Zahm and Ward, 1998, Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 106.
- 2 – National Research Council (1993), Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children. National Academies Press.
- 3 – Lu C, Toepel K, Irish R, Fenske RA, Barr DB, Bravo R (2006). Organic diets significantly lower children's dietary exposure to organophosphorus pesticides..
- 4 – Singer, Peter, 2006 'In Defence of Animals' p175
- 5 – Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, March BSE: Disease control & eradication – Causes of BSE, 2007.
- 6 – OrganicMonitor.com
- 7 – Paull, John "China's Organic Revolution", Journal of Organic Systems (2007) 2 (1): 1-11.
- 8 – Perfecto et al, in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems (2007) 22: 86-108, Cambridge University Press, cited in New Scientist 13:46 12 July 2007