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What Does the Science Really Say about Organics?

April 30, 2013

Organic food is growing in popularity, but does it really have health and environmental benefits? Photo: Bridget Besaw

By Rebecca Benner, director of science, The Nature Conservancy in North Carolina

What does the science really say about organics?

There has been a fairly steady stream of debate about organic products (especially food), and whether they actually meet their marketed health and environmental claims. Dig deeper into the scientific research about organic foods and you’ll find the jury is still out; in other words, it’s not time to give up on organics yet.

Organic products are increasingly common. Most grocery stores carry at least a few kinds of organic foods, and there are a surprising number of organic clothing labels and other products appearing in the market all of which you can buy in places ranging from Target to Whole Foods.

Parallel with this growth comes the question of whether or not buying organic is “worth it.” A Stanford University study published in 2012 generated much of this debate when the research showed that organic foods have very few health benefits over conventional foods.

The flurry of responses to the article indicates the grey area around the value of organic foods — a statement which brings up the crux of the issue — what is the “value” or the “worth” of organic foods.

Health benefits are only one of the potential benefits of organic foods. The other is environmental.

The environment has always been my reason to buy organic — fewer pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers polluting our water ways and more natural habitats to provide places for wildlife to live within the agricultural matrix.

And those are definitely benefits of organic agriculture. But when organic agriculture began, it focused on local organics on small farms. Here, the benefits are clearer. But, like so much today, organics have become industrialized.

Large-scale organic farms are popping up in places that cannot environmentally support them (e.g. places where there is not enough water) in order to capture market share. Such far-flung organic fields mean transportation of products to markets where they are sold — which can result in large carbon emissions from that transportation. Thus, the environmental benefits of organic agriculture are contentious, particularly when it comes to feeding our growing global population and with it their demand for food.

There is great debate as to whether organics would require more land (therefore more environmental degradation) to meet this demand as compared to conventional agriculture given its slightly lowered yields.

So what is the good news around organics?

Well, more research emerges everyday showing organics may have many of the promised benefits depending on where and how the practices are used. A recent letter published in Nature demonstrates that organic agriculture might be a potential option for feeding people while protecting the environment; it at least deserves more scrutiny.

Additionally, the Stanford study confirmed that organic foods can lower your exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Given we do not know the full impacts of these chemicals and bacteria on our health, that reduced exposure could mean important benefits for people’s health in the long run.

Finally, supporting local, organic farms lowers your carbon footprint and the type and amount of contaminants entering your local waterways.

Investing in organics might not be the “silver bullet” for achieving the three lofty goals of being good for your health, protecting the environment, and still feeding the rapidly growing human population.

But it certainly is a step in the right direction, particularly if you buy local organic foods.  And while agricultural experts continue to research other ways to achieve these three goals, organics offers you an opportunity to be a part of the process of meeting all of the above objectives.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

Bengtsson, J., Ahnstrom, J., Weibull, A-C. 2005.  The effects of organic agriculture on biodiversity and abundance: a meta-analysis.  Journal of Applied Ecology 42: 261-269. 

Trewavas, A. 2001.  Urban myths of organic farming.  Nature 410: 409-410.

Seufert, V., Ramankutty, N., Foley, J. 2012. Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture. Nature 485: 229-232

Smith-Spangler C, et al. 2012.  Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives? A systematic review. Ann Intern Med.157 (5):348–366.


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