Which is the greener choice – commercially-farmed food or organically-farmed food? Let’s look at some of the facts surrounding these two methods of producing our food and find out which is the greener choice and how each one compares with helping us save money.
Firstly, we probably need some definitions to clarify the comparison.
Commercially-farmed food is how the majority of the food we eat is grown. Farmers use chemical fertilizers to supply the plants with nutrients to make crops grow faster, use herbicides to control weeds so they don’t compete with the crops and pesticides to kill off insect pests that can eat the plants and lower production. These farms are often mono-culture that is, a single plant type is grown over a large space, often many acres, and the same crop is replanted year after year. Animals grown for food are often given antibiotics and growth hormones to speed up production and fed large quantities of grain instead of grazing on natural pastures.
Organically-farmed food is grown without chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. The quality of the soil is considered of utmost importance; the nutrients and trace elements, which plants need to grow, are found in healthy soil. Organic farmers use natural fertilizers that feed the soil and improve its structure; these include compost and manures. Weeds and insect pests are controlled by natural methods and no artificial or chemical products are used on the plants. Crops are rotated each season to control disease and to ensure the soil doesn’t become depleted in nutrients; different plants use different nutrients and some give back nutrition to the soil.
Comparing these definitions alone clearly show that organically-farmed food is by far the greener option. The organic method of farming adds to the soil rather than depleting it of nutrients; it doesn’t rely on chemicals (many of which have been shown to be toxic to beneficial insects, wildlife, pets and humans) to protect the plants from pests and disease; it helps to maintain the natural balance in the environment.
What Does Science Say?
There has been considerable research into the comparison of the two farming methods. One study conducted by Rutgers University compared the nutritional content of common vegetables.
Among its findings was the differing amount of magnesium, a beneficial mineral, found in organic and non-organic produce. To get the same amount of magnesium that is in one organic tomato, you would need to eat 24 commercially grown tomatoes. This is partially due to the depletion of the mineral in the soils of a non-organic farm. Low levels of magnesium in humans has been linked to diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Another study done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology compared various foods grown in the US with the same foods grown in Latin and Central America where modern chemical farming methods are not established.
Across the range of foods tested, the results showed that the US-grown food was lower in most nutritional elements. The answer by proponents of chemical farming methods, to this type of result, is often that people should just take supplements to get the extra vitamins, minerals and trace elements they need for optimum health.
To quote Michael Pollan, from his book, ‘In Defense of Food’ that:
USDA figures show a decline in the nutrient content of the forty-three crops it has tracked since the 1950s. In one recent analysis, vitamin C declined by 20 percent, iron by 15 percent, riboflavin by 38 percent, calcium by 16 percent.
I find this quite alarming as these crops form the basis of what we eat.
What Our Taste Buds Say
What about the difference in the taste of foods grown by the two methods. Seeds used by commercial farmers may be treated or modified to ensure produce is all the same size, to satisfy the big supermarkets, as well as producing crops that are picked green and have special properties to extend their shelf life. These properties are usually at the expense of taste. Organic produce is ripened on the plant to allow the full flavors to develop. You might get a few blemishes and all your apples may be different sizes, but they will taste superb. Grazing animals that feed on natural pastures have less fat, are higher in healthy Omega-3s and have better taste and texture than those raised in feed-lots.
Let’s consider the cost comparison. Organic food tends to cost more than the commercially-farmed foods we find on the supermarket shelves, although the price gap has been closing in recent years, as more people are looking for the health benefits of organic produce. The best place to buy organic foods, whether certified organic or simply grown in an organic way, is local farmers’ markets. You often get to talk to the farmer and learn how the food was produced. Prices at these outlets tend to be very similar to those of commercially-farmed foods.
What About Nutrition? Is There a Difference?
The final word goes to the health and nutrition of the two farming methods. More and more people are deciding that they don’t want to feed their families chemically treated food, with the proven residues present in or on the produce. Others have found that organically grown food is so much more nutritionally-dense that they need to eat less. Most people who switch to some organically-grown food notice an improvement in their general health and resistance to common diseases like colds and flu.
Dr. Virginia Worthington out of John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland studied the nutrient profiles of commercially grown produce in comparison to organically grown produce. Her conclusions were:
Organic crops contained significantly more vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus and significantly less nitrates than conventional crops. There were non-significant trends showing less protein but of a better quality and a higher content of nutritionally significant minerals with lower amounts of some heavy metals in organic crops compared to conventional ones.
With all of this evidence, it is safe to say the greener choice would be organic. The cost saving may not be in dollars but what price do you put on your health? For me, my life is precious and I want to live a long time so feeding my body with quality nutrition is very important to me.
What about you? What’s on your plate?
Most of my food comes from local farmers who I think could be considered organic, but that is not a health choice or anything, just what is there. The “greener” option may be to eat commercial since you use less land to produce one tomato. I am pickier with meat, having seeing some extensive meat farms in the US, I try to get better quality meat, and eat less of it.
Glad to hear you are buying local when you can. That helps too. I wouldn’t agree with organic crops taking up more land space. It is the same or less actually.
A farmers market is going up right across the street from our supermarket. We are so excited to check it out!!! What a level-headed and fun to read article. Thanks Miss T!!!
That is awesome. I hope you like it. Once it starts, get to know the farmers and talk to them about how they do things. You will be able to find out who is organic and who isnt’.
The more I eat of something, the more likely I’ll buy organic. Price must still play a role for me too, but my top priority is healthfulness, so I choose organic when I can.
Glad to hear Kurt. I try to buy as much organic as I can but where I live there are limited options sometimes.
Mostly commercial I must confess. I should really try getting out to the farmer’s market this summer – that’d be a good start!
You should. They are a lot of fun and can really grow on you. There is something really empowering about buying food directly from the supplier and having a choice in what you take home.
Organic food in grocery stores isn’t more likely to be grown by a small farmer or ripened on the vine. (Organic tomatoes are still picked green; they are simply ripened in their own ethylene gases rather than in artificial ethylene, which takes a couple of days rather than a few hours.) And in blind taste tests, people CAN’T tell the difference between conventional and organic produce. However, if something is misidentified as organic, people claim it tastes better than a “conventional” alternative…even if the samples came from the exact same vegetable. People fool themselves into believing that the premium product is better because of the label.
Also, there are plenty of studies that have found that, for a particular trace element, conventional foods are superior. Why? It has to do with statistical significance. If you run 20 tests, chances are you will get 1 statistically significant result that actually means nothing because of the confidence interval used for statistical significance. That’s why you can’t pick and choose studies. If you look at the high quality meta-studies, you’ll find that there is NO difference between conventional and organic produce, nutritionally.
Seeds aren’t “treated or modified” to make uniform produce, either. If only it were so easy! 🙂 Hybrids are formed by breeding, and a plant’s hybrid, open-pollinated, or heirloom status has NO relationship with whether it is organic or not. Only GMOs are by default non-organic, and that doesn’t apply to the vast majority of fruits and vegetables in the supermarket, anyway. Most seed treatments, done for a few veggies, are actually bacterial inoculations, which are organic. Some encapsulations for better germination aren’t organic, but commercial farmers don’t use those, anyway, because it doesn’t scale. That’s a backyard gardener thing.
I’m not saying that conventional produce, especially fruits, taste good. I’m just saying that organic tastes no better. Organic blackberries in the grocery store taste just as bad as conventional blackberries because the concerns of the growers are the same–storage, robustness in transport, firmness, good color, etc. Plums are in an even sorrier state–rock hard and tasteless. A TRULY ripe plum is so juicy you have to eat it over the sink and will only keep a handful of days. But I don’t think that most Americans know what these fruits should taste like, sadly, because even at farmer’s markets, plums are often picked not fully ripe. Even so, the best chance at getting decent-tasting fruit aside from growing it yourself is a farmer’s market.
I actually sometimes wish I didn’t know what good fruit tastes like. Then I wouldn’t be so disappointed with what the grocery stores have to offer–organic or non!
Thanks for such a great comment Jenny. I guess it depends on where you live. A lot of the organic produce here is local so it is picked very close to being ripe. At our farmers markets the stuff is picked the day before which is very fresh and you can taste that it has been ripened properly.
I am not a fan of modifying plants or seeds in any way whether it is organic or not. I really don’t think you should mess with nature.
You are right though about people’s tastes. Most don’t know what things are supposed to taste like so they can’t tell. I think that is partly due to the fact that most people eat very little produce and when they do, they eat the bad versions and get turned off.
Usually the only time I get access to organic foods is when the local farmer’s market is open for the season, which should be in the next couple of weeks. We go to a PYO place for strawberries to make jam and I have talked to the farmer that owns the place… He’s not exactly organic but he uses as little as possible and I am good with what he has said about his practises. I get sausage from a vendor at the market that raises ethically raised hogs that are pasture fed and they run around the field. As she has said … “They live a good life and have one bad day…..” Very tasty sausage……
Glad to hear. Here is a tip. If you have some freezer or shelf space, buy extra at the farmers markets and save it. We freeze, can or dehydrate and then we have produce for a long time, way past the season.
We’re big organic fans and are lucky to have a farmer’s market very close to us. It’s always hard to quantify things like health, but it doesn’t take much thinking to realize something grown in the ground without chemicals will be better for you.
Well said Nick. You would think it would be common sense but I have learned common sense isn’t so common. I really wish governments made more of an effort to educate people about things like this.
If the organic is a decent price at the shops or I find it on the reduced rack I’ll pick it up otherwise it’s too pricey. Organic doesn’t always mean organic either so I always am on the cautious side and just stick to commercial. In the summer I grow all my own organic herbs and veg and then store it in the freezer for the winter as well to get us through which helps. I’d eat organic any day as long as it really is organic.. you can’t beat the taste that’s for sure.
It is true, you do have to watch the labeling. I try to stick to the dirty dozen and clean 15 list. In Canada our options are limited so these lists make it a bit easier.
I used to eat the cheapest food I could find, and that, combined with some other issues, caused health problems. I switched to an all organic diet and try to eat mostly grass fed beef, and I’m feeling better. Even though it’s more expensive, I won’t go back, especially after all of the books I’ve read and films I’ve watched about how our conventional food is grown.