Organic vs. Conventional


In general terms, the word organic applies to any produce or other ingredient that is grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products must not consume antibiotics or growth hormones. However, there are plenty of gray areas when it comes to what it really means when food is organic, so hopefully this article helps clarify the distinction between both organically and conventionally grown foods.

In the United States, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines organic as food that is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. 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; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.

Although there have been studies indicating higher antioxidant count in organic foods (notably, this research published in The British Journal of Medicine in 2014) the nutrient density of organic foods in comparison with conventional foods has not been thoroughly researched the main argument to be made in favor of eating organic food rather than conventional (non-organic) food is the lack of harmful pesticides used in the harvesting process. So what exactly are the differences between conventional and organic pesticides and why does it matter? 

Conventional farming practices employ the use of synthetic chemical pesticides such as glyphosate with genetically modified crops. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the chemical giant Monsanto’s weed-killer, Roundup, the most heavily used pesticide in the U.S. Glyphosate is a cancer causing pesticide that has been linked to the development of Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma in individuals with prolonged exposure to the chemical. Other pesticides used in conventional farming include but are not limited to Chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxic chemical that is exceptionally harmful to brain development in children. 

On the other hand, organic farming practices rely on pest control techniques that are allegedly not harmful to human health or the environment. This translates to employing naturally occurring chemical compounds to kill or deter pests, using nets, fabric covers, sticky traps, and hot pepper mixes as pesticides. It’s also important to note that organic farming has been proven to maintain the biodiversity of its surrounding ecosystem. While conventional farming has led to harmful runoff and disruption of surrounding biospheres, organic farming offers a less disruptive method. So, organic farming generally sounds like a better option, but we all know that organic foods can be expensive. 

That begs the question: what options, if any, do we have as consumers? Thanks to the research done over at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), all hope is not yet lost. As an up and coming professional with student loan debt, bills, and everything else under the sun (which I’m sure you all can relate to) I simply cannot afford to buy everything organic. Even though I’m on a budget, I want to avoid pesticide consumption when possible, so I use the EWG Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists as a guide. The lists make it easy to determine which fruits and vegetables have the most and least residual pesticides. As EWG senior analyst Sonya Lunder states, “buying organic versions of the dirty dozen helps you skip the toxic chemicals,” while buying conventional versions of the clean fifteen helps your wallet. In case you’re wondering, the EWG uses produce pesticide sample test data collected by the USDA and establishes guidelines based on the form in which the produce is typically eaten. In practice, the list takes into consideration whether produce is washed or peeled in order to determine whether consumers should buy organic or conventional. 

Want to know what groceries I buy organic and conventional? You can check out my Top 10 lists here. Feel free to leave any questions in the comments section below. Also, I definitely recommend checking out an awesome video on the topic from Kurzgesagt - In a Nutshell on YouTube, Is Organic Really Better? Healthy Food or Trendy Scam? Happy Eating!