What you really need to know about organic versus conventional produce. Part 1.

by Paul Tarbath
With the recent and very much publicized study by scientists at the American Stanford University (1) saying that there isn’t much difference ‘health value wise’ choosing between organic and conventionally farmed produce, I thought it a pertinent time to delve deeper into this much debated subject area and try and uncover the real truth. Does eating organic produce just simply cost you more money for the same amount of nutrients and supposed health benefits or is there more to the organic versus conventional debate that we really need to be paying more attention to
The benefits of organic agriculture in a nut shell:

  • More nutrient availability for the consumer, though this has been challenged (see part 2 of this article).
  • Less exposure to fertilisers and pesticides.
  • Support of local/smaller scaled farmers and growers
  • Soil building practices such as crop rotations, inter-cropping, symbiotic associations, cover crops, organic fertilizers and keeping tillage to a minimum are key organic practices.
  • Ground water pollution problems are greatly reduced through the use of non-synthetic fertilisers such as green manure, compost and animal manure (organic fertilisers).
  • Non-renewable energy use is less due to less agrochemical needs (fertilisers and pesticides) which require high quantities of fossil fuel to be produced.
  • Organic fruit and vegetable production can greatly benefit biodiversity on all levels including wild flora and fauna such as birds and beneficial organism’s like pest predators and pollinators.
  • Use of GM organisms is prohibited.
  • Greatly limits or disallows use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.
  • Has overall lower ecological impact compared to conventional farming methods.

The International Organic Standards and methods are based to a large extent on the regulations set by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), which defines the overarching goal of organic farming a
"Organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved…"

Organic does not necessarily mean pesticide free!
As good as organic food production can be, many people do not realise that certain chemicals are allowed in the growing of organic produce. This does not necessarily mean that all organic growers use chemicals on their crops, but they can indeed use ones which are allowed by the relevant governmental authority.
There are typically 5 pesticides that are used in organic farming which include: copper, sulphur, pyrethrum, Bt (bacterial toxin) and rotenone. Controversy does surround the use of pyrethrum and rotenone because they attack the central nervous system, like many conventional insecticides, with rotenone known to induce symptoms in mammals that resembles parkinsons disease (2) and is also extremely toxic to fish. (3) With this understanding it has to be stated that 1.7% of growers admit to using pyrethrum, while 5.3% admit using rotenone. (4
Even with the understanding that organic produce can contain chemical residues that are not beneficial to health it should be noted that going the conventional produce route can mean exposing yourself to significantly more fertiliser and pesticide residues, which has been documented in various studies. (See below
Toxic chemicals found in children from fruits and vegetables
Recent research by The California University in Davis (5) has found that in a study of 364 children – (207 of which were under five years old) that consumption benchmarks were exceeded for various known toxins such as arsenic, DDE, dieldrin and dioxins. They discovered that pesticide exposure was particularly high in the following fruits and vegetables: peaches, apples, tomatoes, peppers, grapes, lettuce, broccoli, strawberries, spinach, pears, green beans and celery.
At the present time, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only measures risk based on exposures of individual contaminants. Study leader Dr Rainbow Vogt said quote: “We focused on children because early exposure can have long-term effects on disease outcomes.”
Studies like the one above clearly remind us, if indeed we need reminding, that how our food is produced is inextricably linked to our health. Even though organic is not completely free of chemical ‘intervention’ the very fact that such toxins are so prevalent in the food chain should make us all focus ever more intently on exactly where our food is sourced from and what methods are being used by the farmers who produce it.
Next time you go to your local farmers market, ask the growers how they produce their fruits and vegetables and get to know the people you are buying from. If they see you are interested you might even be able to visit the actual farm where they grow the produce. If you buy your produce from a store, then ask the manager for more information on where their produce is sourced and how it is grown. Never be afraid to ask as it is your health after all.
In the second part of this article, you will find out

  • Internet resource that can tell you what chemicals are used on different types of produce and what they can negatively affect. (US based)
  • 2 University studies from around the world with their findings on organic versus conventionally grown produce.
  • Conclusion detailing what you need to do with regards to obtaining your own produce including our own personal recommendations.

Click here for part 2 of this article.
(1)     http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2012/september/organic.html
(2)    Panov, A., S. Dikalov, N. Shalbuyeva, G. Taylor, T. Sherer and J. T. Greenamyre. 2005. Rotenone model of Parkinson disease: multiple brain mitochondria dysfunctions after short term systemic rotenone intoxication. J. Biol. Chem. 280: 42026-42035
(3)    Marking, L. L. and T. D. Bills. 1976. Toxicity of rotenone to fish in standardized laboratory tests. U. S. Dept. Interior, No. 72. 11 pp.
(4)    Lotter, D. (2003). "Organic Agriculture". Journal of Sustainable Agriculture 21
(5)    http://www.ehjournal.net/content/11/1/83/abstract

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