Organic Food Versus Conventional Food

Although most food is produced via so-called conventional growing methods, the market for organic food has steadily grown in recent years and shows no signs of tapering off. Organic food shoppers are willing to pay more for a product that they believe is more nutritious, safer, and environmentally friendlier than conventionally grown food. But, is organic food really all it's purported to be? And is it worth the price premium? These are the questions facing consumers that are considering going (or staying) organic.

Organic Food

Organic food is produced via farming practices that emphasize recycling of farm-produced organic materials, biological pest and weed control, crop rotation, and conservation of soil and water resources. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge; bioengineering; ionizing radiation, preservatives, or coloring agents. Organic farming is more labor and management intensive than conventional farming but it is also much kinder to the environment.

Any product sold as "organic" must be certified. This means that it must be grown and processed according to strict uniform standards that are verified by government-approved inspectors. In the United States, USDA certification includes inspections of farm fields and processing facilities, pest control methods, and periodic testing of soil and water. Companies that handle or process organic food before it reaches supermarkets or restaurants must be certified also.

Conventional Food

Non-organic or conventionally grown food is grown according to farming practices that rely on fertilizers to increase crop yields, pesticides to protect crops from pests, herbicides to manage weeds, and antibiotics and hormones to increase productive efficiency of livestock.

Conventional farming was the dominant farming method during the 20th century and accounts for the vast majority of farming - and foods - today. The rise of conventional farming coincided with the development of synthetic chemicals and fertilizers, many of which are petroleum-based.

Conventional farming is evolving and is actually employing practices that overlap with organic farming. One of these is integrated pest management (IPM), an approach that uses current, comprehensive information on the life cycles of pests and their interaction with the environment to control the pests in the most economically and environmentally sound way. A big benefit of IPM is that it reduces the amount of pesticides used to produce a crop.

Why Go Organic?

People that buy organic foods often do so because of the perceived health benefits since organic foods are produced without synthetic chemicals, pesticides, preservatives, food colorings, antibiotics, growth hormones, or genetically modified organisms. However, there is no conclusive evidence that organically produced foods are more nutritious or safer than conventionally grown foods. The National Research Council claims that the traces of pesticides left on conventionally grown products are unlikely to cause an increased cancer risk, especially if they are properly washed.

There is some evidence to suggest that certain types of organic foods are healthier than their non-organic counterparts. For example, a study at Newcastle University in England showed organic milk contained 67 percent more vitamins and antioxidants, as well as more “healthy” fat than conventional milk. As to whether all organic foods carry substantial benefits over their non-organic counterparts, that is still a controversial topic.

Another reason people chose to go organic is because of the environmental benefits associated with organic farming. That is, organic farming conserves natural resources, reduces energy use, and helps protect our air, soil, water and food supply from potentially toxic chemicals and other pollutants.

Taste Differences

Some people believe organic foods taste better although studies do not show any notable flavor difference. Factors such as food variety, growing conditions, and ripeness when picked can all cause taste differences. In general, people tend to find that the fresher a food is, the better it tastes, regardless of how it was produced.

Organic Food Drawbacks

There are a few drawbacks to organic foods: 1) they cost more than conventionally grown foods, 2) they are highly perishable because they do not contain preservatives and other chemicals, 3) availability and variety are limited. However, organic food is becoming more widespread, showing up in more mainstream markets instead of just specialty stores. This should also result in lower prices.

Food Quality and Safety

Organic and conventional food must meet the same USDA quality and safety standards. The difference lies in how the food is produced, processed and handled. Note that organic fruits and vegetables are likely to spoil faster because they aren't treated with waxes or preservatives.

Conventionally grown fruits and vegetables typically have more uniform shapes and fewer blemishes or other imperfections than organically grown produce. However, this is mostly an aesthetics and marketing issue, not an indicator of food quality.

Conventionally grown produce is likely to have higher traces of pesticides than organic produce. However, one can generally reduce the levels of pesticide residues by simply washing, and when possible peeling, fruits and vegetables before eating them. Most experts agree that the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables far outweigh any risk of ingesting traces of pesticides.