Organic Food Part 2: Is Organic Food really healthier and safer?

The obvious place to start is the section of the grocery store that every customer is lead to upon entering, the produce section. At this point, lets propose that the vast majority of people, and possibly people reading this, know that organics are more expensive and… maybe better for people? They don’t really know, but its offered and it trends on social media every few weeks.

From a producer standpoint, organic plays out in a very specific way. First, how you plan your farm. If you want the high dollar organic prices when you sell your food, you must first bring in seeds that are organic, which cost more because the seed companies are also using organic standards. You must stick to regulated nutrient applications, which often means not using manure, which means relying on crop rotations of nitrogen fixing plants, green manures, fallow field designs (leaving land unused for it to rest) and compost. I can tell you from experience that it’s a lot of work. If you meet a farmer who’s good at organics, your meeting an incredibly skilled person, I assure you that you should be really impressed.

For use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, organics get very muddy. All but the absolute best and skilled farmers, working the most pristine land are going to have to use additives to keep their farms in business. When I think of spring farming, I think of asparagus. If you’ve ever grown asparagus, and had an asparagus beetle invasion, you know extreme disappointment. Again, if you’re a brilliant farmer, and a lucky one, you’ve planned your farm to prevent insect invasion and you have little to no insect problems. That is uncommon to say the least. For everyone else, once you have a crop with an insect problem, you have a really quick decision to make, do nothing and look at losing something like 50-90% of your crops, or spray with something that’s going to get rid of those insects. At this point, the difference between organic sprays and non-organic sprays is dubious. You’re really looking at picking chemicals from column a (organics) and avoiding column b (conventional). When you eat something organic, that does not mean you’re eating chemical free, or safe chemicals, it means you’re eating something that has been grown using non-synthetic chemicals. Chemicals derived from natural sources can also be very harmful.

It gets even more inscrutable when you consider the very large growers, whose agricultural practices are by and large destructive and terrible, and who are carrying the organic banner. When you buy something from Dole or Driscoli or Grimway, your buying mass produced products, and once you’ve worked in mass production, any sense of natural is obliterated regardless of the words used to describe it.

When you buy a container of strawberries, think about this: you are interacting with shelf space, and the grocery store has mandated that the shelf space never be empty. That puts an insane amount of pressure on the distributor of those strawberries to never run out, or they will lose that shelf space to a competitor and potentially huge amounts of marketing advantage that comes from being in the produce section in front of you. Something grown in nature cannot be guaranteed to be there, and thus those companies have to put artificial processes in place to continually provide organic produce, year round. Those artificial processes may be not offensive, and may not cause you any harm, but they have to hug the line of organic regulations as closely as possible, making the law the only important consideration not some sense of health and well being.

All that is to say that organics in the practical sense that the vast majority of consumers interface with it, is about little more than money generally, and profits specifically. Ironically, it is in forcing large corporations to marginally improve their behavior that the organic label has its greatest impact. That is likely cold comfort for the people who consume it most enthusiastically.

Conversely, the dangers of organic produce are significantly greater than that of conventional produce, although this shows up much more as raw ingredients in processed foods rather than in produce.

The locally grown organic (and conventionally grown) produce you buy at the closest farmer’s market may very well be more nutritious, and safer than conventional produce at the grocery store. But I find it very hard to believe that the mass-produced organic produce is significantly different in nutrient composition than the non-organic. What is different are rules I mentioned at the beginning of the article. Mass-produced organics have very strigent rules on what inputs can be used on heavily worked fields, and those shelf space demands of grocery store chains means the fallow fields and green manure crops are going to be pushed out in place of the organic versions of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, many of which are of dubious value. Beyond that, practices like chemical treatment before getting to the store are limited.

You may not realize it, but most or all of the produce you buy is treated with chemicals to either sterilize or force ripening. Organic produce cannot undergo these processes in the way that conventional fruits and vegetables can.

The safest thing to eat from a food safety standpoint are food replacement chemicals, the very kind prohibited by organic regulation, and the very ingredients those who buy organic want to avoid. That is a very unsatisfying realization from an ideological perspective, and its not advice that I personally subscribe to. I eat organic whenever I can, and I try hard to avoid food replacers each meal.