I have been eating as much organic food as possible for around 30 years. Initially it was really difficult to find and extremely expensive. I was fortunate to be able to afford to buy it but frustrated that it was so difficult to find.
I’ve never been happy with chemicals in food. My eldest son, now in his forties, was extremely sensitive to food colourings. I felt that pesticides were almost certainly dangerous in a similar way. This was reinforced when I learnt that many pesticides worked by attacking the nervous system of pests. If they could do that to pests, they could do it to us.
Does organic food have health benefits?
In 2012 a highly publicized meta-analysis of more than 200 studies concluded that organic food was no more nutritious than conventionally grown food.
Research since then has suggested that organic onions contain more flavonoids (such as quercetin) than non-organic ones. Quercetin has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects which might help reduce inflammation, kill cancer cells, control blood sugar, and help prevent heart disease. So a food with higher levels of quercetin is likely to be beneficial.
In the largest study of its kind, an international team of experts led by Newcastle University, UK, has shown that both organic milk and meat contain around 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally produced products. Omega-3 fatty acids may reduce inflammation and may help prevent heart disease.
Analyzing data from around the world, the team reviewed 196 papers on milk and 67 papers on meat and found clear differences between organic and conventional milk and meat, especially in terms of fatty acid composition, and the concentrations of certain essential minerals and antioxidants.
A 2019 study published in Microbiology found that organic apples harbour a more diverse and balanced bacterial community. Many of us think of bacteria as being harmful, but there are a lot of beneficial bacteria that live on us and in us. The researchers say that that these bacteria on organic apples could make them healthier and tastier than conventional apples, as well as better for the environment.
How can I get organic food cheaply?
Buying a local organic fruit and veg box is a way to get a good range of organic food. So, is going to your local farmers’ market. The prices are often much better than you’d pay in a supermarket, and you’d probably be reducing your food miles and supporting local businesses.
Organic food usually costs more than non-organic food. If you’re on a tight budget this is a real problem. The best approach is to buying some food organically and accept that everything else will be non-organic. You may decide it’s best to choose the ones where there’s the lowest price difference between organic and non-organic. But there is a better approach.
Focus on the foods that are likely to have the highest amount of pesticide residues. But how do you know what they are? Fortunately there are some not-for-profits that can tell you exactly that.
The UK Pesticide Action Network produce two lists: The Dirty Dozen and The Clean Fifteen. The dirty dozen are ones that contain a lot of pesticides, and so it’s good to buy organic. This year citrus fruit and strawberries are at the top, so buy organic versions of these if at all possible. The clean fifteen are fifteen items where it is least important to buy organic. These include beetroot, corn on the cob and mushrooms.
The US Environmental Working Group produce a list each year called the Dirty 12. These are the produce in the US that contain the most chemicals. This year the top three are strawberries, spinach and kale. So if you can only afford a few organic foods, then concentrate on the Dirty 12.
Are organic pesticides better for the environment?
Pesticides have repeatedly been shown to have a big impact on our environment.
Pollinating insects are endangered globally, with a particularly steep decline over the last 40 years. An extensive 3-year study from Lund University in Sweden has found that organic farming methods can contribute to halting the pollinator decline. This beneficial effect is due to both the absence of insecticides and a higher provision of flower resources.
In another study organic farming was shown to benefit honeybee colonies, especially when food is scarce in late spring. The scientists analysed six years of data collected through a unique system for monitoring domesticated bees that is unparalleled in Europe.
Pesticides and farm workers
Agricultural workers are often exposed to high levels of pesticides. They aren’t always provided with the right protective clothing, or they may be provided with it but not want to wear it because it’s hot and uncomfortable. So eating organic food helps to protect these people too.
The Pesticide Action Network says:
“Long term pesticide exposure has been linked to the development of Parkinson’s disease; asthma; depression and anxiety; attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); and cancer, including leukaemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”
So the health benfits haven’t been totally and uneqivically established, but the environmental benefits certainly have. Without pollinating insects, our food will be compromised. Even if we look at this from a purely selfish point of view, ignoring the stress it is putting on bees and other inesects, we should all be eating more organic food.