Farm Fresh Perspectives: Is organic really better?

As I was finishing my lunch of organic vegetables, conventional cottage cheese with dried cranberries, and a neon green “energy soda” (some of you are doubting my commitment to the cause right now), that big question that people keep asking flashed through my brain: Is organic food really better for me? Just uttering that question, I can see myself wading into perilous waters, so I will do my best to answer it in a way that is informative, concise, and unbiased, which is, of course, impossible.

Nothing is truly unbiased. Even the peer-reviewed scientific literature I read on this topic had evident biases, and we would all do well to remember that when we are shaping our opinions. That said, you also need to know that I cannot even begin to face the entirety of this issue, so I’m going to frame it through some of the most popular consumer questions.

Is organic food more nutritious than conventional food? I use produce as a primary example throughout much of this article because the vast majority of comparative research has focused on produce. There have been literally hundreds of studies regarding the nutritional content of organic produce vs. conventional produce. Overall, the results have been inconclusive. Several studies agree that organic vegetables, specifically leafy greens, are likely to have a higher concentration of vitamin C and a lower concentration of nitrates than conventionally raised vegetables. Still, just because something is statistically significant in a scientific study does not mean it is nutritionally significant in your body. Infant exposure to nitrates should be kept to a minimum, but I would be more concerned about my well water than my lettuce. I can grow my own lettuce.

Does organic food contain pesticide residues? Studies show that organic produce exhibits residues significantly less often and in lower quantity than conventional produce. Regulations for certified organic production prohibit the use of most synthetically-derived pesticides, fertilizers and other agrochemicals. However, the National Organic Program maintains the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, which details allowed synthetic substances, prohibited natural substances, and non-organic ingredients that are exceptions to the rule. Also, persistent environmental pollutants have been found in both organic and conventional produce and are mostly a function of where the farm of origin is located. These long-lasting substances might be a result of mining or manufacturing near the farm, or they may stem from agrochemicals that were applied long ago. Neither organic nor conventional produce is more likely to contain such pollutants.

Does organic produce have manure on it? Both organic and conventional farmers use manure on their fields. Organic produce has not been conclusively shown to exhibit microbial contamination more often than conventional. Manure helps to replace nutrients that are removed from the soil with the crop, which must be replenished, or the soil will become unproductive. Manure adds organic matter, which helps soil to retain more water and nutrients, as well as to be more easily workable. Conventional farmers have more alternatives for fertilizer, but organic farmers are required to compost raw manure before applying it to crops destined for human food. They can only apply raw manure if it is incorporated into the soil 120 days before harvest if the edible portion is exposed to soil contact (like tomatoes) or 90 days if the edible portion is protected from soil contact (like sweet corn). Just to be safe, you should always wash your vegetables with soap and water anyway.

Does organic food taste better than conventional food? Well, does steak taste better than lobster? Scientists have designed consumer panels that compare texture, firmness, color, aftertaste, mouth feel, etc. of organic vs. conventional food. Again, results are mixed. Taste some and decide for yourself, that’s what really matters.

Although “certified organic” does not claim to guarantee improved nutrition or safety, do not use this article as an excuse to avoid fresh fruits and vegetables. They are one of the most important components of a balanced diet, and you are much better off eating conventional produce than no produce at all. To be quite honest, I am not that worried about the safety or nutritive value of our current food supply (although I do question its sustainability). Personally, I support organic agriculture because I think it is an opportunity for farmers to make a fair living on what they produce with less reliance on government subsidies. I support organic agriculture because I think low-input production improves land health and biodiversity. I support organic agriculture because I like to have some say in the food system for which I am voting with my grocery dollar. I don’t buy organic food because I think it is better for me, I think it is better for US.

Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture in University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or

From the Jan. 25-31, 2006, issue

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