The principles behind organic farming are good. Poisonous pesticides are not healthy for human or animal bodies, and they can dangerously contaminate soil and water as well.
Pesticide residue on plants, as well as in the bodies of animals raised for meat, easily makes its way into our daily meals. And that’s not all we’re eating – growth hormones and antibiotics are also widely used in conventional farming practices.
But before you empty out your fridge and vow to never eat anything but organic food again, there are some things you should know. Turns out, organic farming has its own problems. It’s not very carefully regulated, and though we tend to assume organic food is locally grown, that is definitely not always the case.
So before you make any sweeping pronouncements that might double your food budget, check out the following 7 disturbing facts about organic food. The hype and the reality are simply worlds apart.
1. It Is Barely Regulated
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has caught on to the trend of organic food, and has grown its bureaucracy around organic produce considerably in the last several years. What it has not done is require any consistent standard of certification or rigorous field-testing of crops.
None of the current 43 staffers in the organic department of the USDA are responsible for safety testing, recalling potentially contaminated products, or finding fraud. This department is also not doing anything to encourage domestic farming, which leads us to the next problem.
2. It’s Not Local
The “Buy Local” and “Farm to Table” movements in the U.S. are about supporting healthy communities and enjoying the nutritional benefit of the freshest possible food.
Yet the demand for organic food has outstripped what American farmers can produce and driven up imports from China, Turkey, and elsewhere. Some of these countries have disastrous food safety records, yet the imported products are not safety tested.
Today, up to 80 percent of “organic” food in American stores is imported. And while we want to state clearly that correlation does not equal causation, this increase in organic imports has coincided with a significant bump in incidents of organic food-borne illness. Clearly the freshness factor of imported organic food is compromised, too.
3. It Might Still Contain Pesticides
Though testing regulations are sparse, when organic food is tested, the results are discouraging. In two separate studies done by the USDA in 2010-2011 and 2015, about 43% of supposedly organic food was found to have prohibited pesticide residue.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the farmers are cheating. Organic farms with proximity to conventional farms are likely to get pesticide residue from the air or ground water. But it’s also incorrect to assume that organic farmers don’t use any pesticides at all.
They do apply natural pesticides – products that can be found an extracted from nature. We don’t know for sure how much of that stuff remains in the food, and not all “natural” things are healthy to consume.
4. Organic Products Spread Food Poisoning More Regularly
Just because organic foods are grown without chemical pesticides, that doesn’t mean they are automatically safe. Organic crops tend to rely more on manure than conventional ones, which favor chemical fertilizers. The USDA does not require testing for fecal contamination on organic crops, which can lead to more frequent spread of illnesses like E. coli and Salmonella.
The issue is hotly debated, with some reports saying that organic produce is 4-8 times more likely to be recalled than conventional, and others maintaining that any perceived difference is in a split between producers that are certified organic and those that merely claim the name.
5. The Organic Label Is About Marketing, Not Health
The label that the USDA provides for foods that are certified organic is not based on any objective process that scientifically determines the authenticity or safety of the food.
The organics program comes out of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, without connection or reporting to departments that cover food safety, research, inspection, nutrition, or risk management.
6. The System Is Open To Abuse
There are approximately 80 agencies that grant USDA organic certification to farmers and other food producers. These agencies receive 1.5% to 3% of their gross revenue from clients in the form of a royalty for shipments they approve.
There is clearly a financial incentive for certifying agencies to pass products through, which leaves the door open for abuse in the name of the almighty dollar.
7. Demand For Organic Produce Spikes The Already High Price
Here we must acknowledge that organic products do take more time and effort to produce than conventional. In terms of meat and dairy products, producers eschew the use of growth hormones that can bump the yield.
Crops losses are higher among organic producers because they use less in the way of pesticides. They also practice crop rotation that leaves a certain amount of land fallow each growing season, whereas conventional growers plant every available inch.
But while supply and demand is a hallmark of our free market system, there is something unsavory about consumers paying so much more for a product that is not exactly as advertised. And the more we want it, the more corners that will be cut in order to keep supplying the stuff.
We don’t blame you if you still want to buy organic over conventionally produced food. Done correctly, it can be tastier and more nutrient-rich. Many of the problems with organic food are related to the regulation of it rather than the food itself, although science is finding it difficult to pinpoint any consistently better health outcomes for people who eat all organic.
For now, we recommend that you buy your organic products straight from local farmers. You’ll save money by cutting out the middle-man, support families in your own community, and be much better assured that you are getting the real deal.