A few weeks ago, word got out that a review being published in September’s American Journal of Clinical Nutrition had concluded that organic foods are not healthier or more nutritious than conventional food.

Organic advocates were outraged. Mildly engaged consumers began to wonder if organics were really worth the higher price tag.

Momentarily leaving aside some the review’s conclusions, my first thought was: Is higher nutritional quality really what motivates consumers to buy organic food, anyway? Isn’t it more about what’s not in the food than what is?

Most people I know who make a point of buying organic do so to avoid ingesting antibiotics, pesticides and other toxins. Sure, if my organic tomato had a few more vitamins than a conventionally grown one, that would be a nice bonus, but it’s not the reason I’m buying it.

And according to the Organic Trade Association, there are plenty of other good reasons to buy organic food that don’t have anything to do with what goes in your body. The association provides information on how organic agriculture can improve soil fertility, prevent chemical fertilizers from polluting waterways and accommodate higher species diversity.

Make your own connection between food and conservation this Earth Day and throw a Picnic for the Planet. Join all the others who are putting their dot on the map and taking the Earth to lunch.

The environmental reach of conventionally grown food is longer than most of us can even imagine. I stopped buying non-organic bananas after a short visit to Costa Rica revealed something about the industry I never would have known about: the use of plastic bags.

During my visit, my colleague and I drove past millions of banana trees, but I never saw a single banana. Instead, I saw big, blue plastic bags covering each banana bunch on every single tree.

My colleague explained that these bags were filled with pesticides and placed over the bananas to protect them from insects that might cause brown spots on the fruit, making them aesthetically unappealing to American consumers.

According to FleetWatch, these bags are used three times before being recycled, but locals will tell you that these blue bags are everywhere, littering the forest floor and choking rivers and streams.

But back to the review.

The review of 55 studies from 1958 to 2008 found that conventionally produced crops had a higher content of nitrogen, while organically produced crops had higher phosphorous and acidity content. No differences were found between the two classes of crops for the other nutrient categories — including vitamin C, zinc, and calcium — that were analyzed.

The review, funded by the U.K. Food Standards Agency, didn’t look for differences in pesticide residues between organic and conventional growing methods.

Organic advocates had strong objections to the review for a number of reasons.

Michael Hansen, Ph.D., a senior scientist at Consumers Union, cited the use of older studies as a major flaw. He told WebMD that most studies done before 1980 probably had flawed methodologies, and newer studies show clear differences in nutrient content between the two growing methods.

Secondly, the study doesn’t look at differences in polyphenols and certain antioxidants, which chief scientist for The Organic Center Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., says are 25 percent higher in organically grown food.

So, what does this mean for your food purchases?

Benbrook actually has some really sound advice: If you want to maximize the nutrient content of your produce, choose the freshest and most colorful fruits and vegetables. And if you want to minimize pesticide residues and environmental pollution, choose organic.

For now, my habits — choosing organic and local produce when I can — aren’t changing.

(Image: Banana bags in Costa Rica. Credit: Margaret Southern/TNC.)

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  1. All of the above; and I can’t wait for Prof. Gary Nabhan’s research on anti-oxidants (University of Arizona)
    His book, Coming Home to Eat, was a start…

  2. Modern, high-till, artificially-fertilized agriculture depletes a broad spectrum of nutrients from the soil, those besides NPK that are still critically important to good body function. You can grow crops that look normal, but are not nutritionally as rich as those grown organically in well-maintained, naturally-fertilized soil. I’ll be interested to read the report.

  3. There is a long continuum from organic to artificial. Actually, it is the distinction that is artificial.

    The idea should be to produce food, wood, fibers etc in ways that enhance the total ecological value chain. Often that will mean using some “artificial” fertilizers or pesticides. Is it better to cover one acre with artificially fertilized oil palms or produce the same output on ten acres “naturally?”

    And what about biosolids? Is it better to apply them to soils where they can help plants grow, so should we dispose of them as toxic wastes because they contain non-organic components?

    I think the author takes the sensible middle ground and I would agree. Eat what is natural when you can, but don’t make a religion of it. Organic may be better, but maybe not.

  4. A couple thoughts: Are they talking about comparing big biz organics with just regular non organic food? Are they breaking down different food items, ie tomatoes, okra etc.? It is quite possible some items will be less improved nutritionally by being organic than not.

    As someone else pointed out, being organic is also about what is *not* in the food we are eating. In some cases, it isn’t even about being technically organic but eating as much as possible locally (fresher), knowing that this food is fresher than the supermarket, and that his/her food is grown sustainably (soil quality etc.) in ways that may not qualify him for full fledged organic, but is certainly more fresh and sustainable than veggies arriving from thousands of miles away. (And, for many small farmers, the fees and paperwork to be certified organic can become prohibitive.)

    So, I don’t necessarily look for “organic” in the supermarket, but I do weigh it in as one factor in my considerations of what to buy.

  5. on bananas, gross…plus, they’re ripe when they have spots…much sweeter!

  6. I’m a agronomical engineer, and I must say banana bags nowadays are being used in costa rica to produce corners pads for pallets that are going to be exported with boxes full of bananas. This program has been around for about 5 years, and growers are really concerned about the enviroment, they are building team on each farm dedicated to enviromental preservation and mitigation of growing practices.

  7. My biggest concern in this debate is caused by the absence of any mention of GMO foods vs. organics. It is known that big producers of fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified seeds are bullying farmers to use their seeds, the AAEM’s warning of dangers to our own health notwithstanding (see American Academy of Environmental Medicine, May 19, 2009, . There is a host of other publications and public warnings against GMO foods so my prime reason for choosing organic foods is based on my desire to protect my family from GMO’s and to strengthen organic farmers, not to mention the protection of our natural resources, etc.

  8. I made the same decision about not purchasing conventionally-grown bananas after spending time in Costa Rica and working with endangered leatherback sea turtles. I also think that data will continue to support the higher levels of antioxidants and other healthy secondary compounds in organic produce. The plants have to work harder at anti-herbivory defense mechanisms when not doused with pesticides.

  9. A ONG ECO & VIDA, Secretaria de Meio Ambiente da Associação Comunidade Varzina (ACV), CNPJ nº 02.834.119/0001- 95, estabelecida à Av. Bertioga nº 1288, Vila Tupi, Cidade de Várzea Paulista, Estado de São Paulo, CEP nº 13225-000, Fone nº 45964058 ou 72147867, vem através deste propor negociação para áreas de (APA). Sabendo dos projetos e programas de preservação ambiental que essa instituição possui, gostaríamos de propor a possibilidade de interesse dessa entidade de futura negociação, através da compra de duas (2) grandes Áreas de Preservação Ambiental (APAS), situadas na Cidade de Mogi das Cruzes, Estado de São Paulo.
    Essas referidas áreas são de herdeiros, sendo que os mesmos já nomearam um procurador e este me procurou pedindo o apoio da nossa entidade para a intermediação das prováveis negociações junto a esta instituição.
    Caso haja algum interesse sobre o assunto, desde já nos colocamos à disposição para outros esclarecimentos.
    Meus contatos: Celular: (11) 72147867/ (11) 40384893

    Atenciosamente: Mário Medina (Diretor de Meio Ambiente)

  10. The problem with the term “organic” is that has mixed together several concepts.

    Yes, we should use less pesticides. Integrated Pest Management is probably best. We should not be fooled by the notion that natural toxic chemicals are somehow better than synthetic ones.

    The best idea of organic farming is the improvement of the soil. But, no till is a valid idea too.

    The greatest fallacy of organic farming is the myth of synthetic fertilizers. So-called “chemical” fertilizers contain the same chemical elements and compounds as so-called natural fertilizers.

    The simple fact is that because organic farming does not use artificially fixed Nitrogen, it is not really sustainable.

    Also, we can not continue throw away the Phosphate used go grow our foods. There is only so much available to mine and we will run out. We must start to refine Phosphate from sewage and agricultural waste.

  11. Know the projects and programs to protect this institution, I would suggest the possibility of an interest in this entity, in future negotiations, the purchase of two (2) a large part of the Environmental Protection Act (PASA), located in Mogi das Cruzes, São Paulo .

    These areas are the heirs, and now has appointed a lawyer, and it came to me asking for support for our organization as an intermediary in the negotiations may be in this institution.


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