Is it all hype or are organically produced foods really better for our health? The question can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. But maybe with a little more information, you can make an informed decision that is best for your family.
What exactly does the term organic mean? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, the term “organic agriculture” refers to a production system “that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity.” Growers who farm under organic standards use fewer and generally less toxic pesticides. Their management practices are designed to “restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.” To be able to label a product as certified organic, the grower must go through a three-year certification process.
Keep in mind, however, that many growers practice sustainable growing methods but do not seek certification for one reason or another. Does that mean their non-certified product is inferior to the organic product? Of course not. It just means that with an organic certification, the consumer knows some of the basics in the grower’s production system. With conventionally grown crops, the consumer doesn’t know how that food was treated before reaching the grocery shelves. Organic agriculture does tell us something about the way fruits and vegetables are grown. And what it tells us are good things, such as the product was grown in healthy soil with a minimal amount of chemicals. If that’s important to you, then you should feel comfortable supporting that type of system. But the fact is the conventional product that you don’t know anything about could be on the same level. It could be every bit as good as the organic food, or it could be inferior or superior. There’s just not enough information to be able to make a conclusive decision standing in the grocery aisle.
When it comes to our health, it never comes down to a single decision about whether to buy organic or conventional. It really comes down to dozens of daily decisions about what we eat, how much we eat, where it comes from, and how it combines with a whole host of other factors. Focusing on getting more natural whole foods into the diet rather than processed foods will make a bigger difference in one’s health than whether that whole food is organic or conventional. Organic and conventionally produced whole foods are a vast improvement over processed foods, whether they are labeled organic or not.
But what about the health of the planet? Isn’t organic better for the environment? There is no doubt that a well-run organic operation is based on environmental stewardship. A core requirement of an organic system is that farmers have to maintain or improve the natural resource base. They have to be conscious of soil and water quality and biodiversity on and off the farm. But here’s the other side of the coin. How much is an organic food system worth when its products are shipped vast distances to the consumer? There are definitely environmental drawbacks associated with the energy consumption and other factors relative to transportation that weigh against the organic choice. In that case, locally raised food, whether conventional or organic, may trump food from other regions. And a whole food diet, based on the freshest, least processed foods, goes hand-in-hand with choosing local food sources.
It all comes down to assessing what is important to you. Is it pesticides? Then, organic might be the answer, but you shouldn’t automatically assume conventionally produced food was heavily treated or retains significant residues. Is it the environment? Does good stewardship of the land 1,500 miles away balance the energy consumed to get that food to you? Is there one simple answer? No. You must make your choice based on your own belief system and your own needs. Either choice, when part of a whole-foods diet, can be a valid one for the health of your family.