Is Organic Food Better Than Conventional Food? Here’s The Deal.
“You’re lying,” the woman raised her voice at me as I stood at the front of the room, in front of cancer patients and their caregivers who had come to hear my diet and cancer talk at a local hospital. “There are hundreds of studies that prove that GMOs cause cancer!”
I saw several other attendees nod in approval of what she was saying.
For years, the organic versus conventional argument has fuelled twitter wars, marketing schemes, and a hell of a lot of doubt in the minds of consumers.
But is organic better? What does ‘organic’ even mean?
Organic food is food that has been grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. It’s certified organic by the USDA or another regulatory body, depending on where you live.
Anything that’s certified organic can not be genetically modified, either. Or, at least, not in the ‘typical’ way that plants are genetically modified. We’ll get into that later.
In my experience, the two main reasons why people choose organic over conventional are:
- They believe that organic food is higher in nutrients and therefore healthier than conventional food. Also: GMOs are SCARY!
- They are concerned about the pesticides that are used on conventional crops, for both health and environmental reasons.
Let’s look at the first reason: is organic food healthier?
Organic produce has shown to be higher in antioxidants than conventionally grown crops, but not by a significant amount.
The nutrients in organic food – and food in general – vary widely depending on where the food was grown, what variety is being tested, and when the food was harvested. So consistent reads of which antioxidant is in what amounts in fresh foods, is extremely hard to do.
There is some proof, however, that actually eating fruits and vegetables will do that…but most of us don’t get enough of them. Maybe that should be the focus instead of further confusing and dividing people with fear tactics?
Speaking about fear, some studies use that fact to try (unsuccessfully, I might add) to establish a link between eating organic and antioxidants and health.
For example, the media went nuts over the recent Nutrinet Sante study out of France, which appeared to conclude that organic food consumption is linked to a lower risk of cancer.
But like always, the media only told part of the story.
What the headlines did’t say is that people who choose organic food tend to eat more fruits and vegetables overall, tend to be more active, and have different social determinants of health (like socioeconomic status, education, and access, for example) than people who eat conventionally-grown food. These determinants of health are significant predictors for the risk of disease that a person faces.
Someone who can afford to buy organic food all the time, probably knows more about nutrition, is more likely to have time in their day to be active, and likely has better access to medical care and preventative treatments than someone who is forced to eat ramen every day because they don’t the money for healthier food.
Right? So it might be the antioxidants, but more likely, it’s everything else about the organic food eaters’ lives.
Scientist and anti-GMO activist Giles Seralini is responsible for plenty more confusion and fear around conventional crops and GMOs. His paper, published in 2012 by Food and Chemical Toxicology, purported to prove that GMO corn caused huge, horrible tumors in rats. And because nothing sells media more than a cancer-food connection, it made major headlines. But the study was full of flaws, and was eventually retracted by the journal because it was so shit. Seralini has plenty more studies, all flawed.
Seralini is the perfect example of ‘confirmation bias.’
I’m convinced, though, that the attendees who were questioning me at the event were talking about the Seralini studies. No doubt.
The truth is that a causal relationship between organic food and health has never been proven. Probably in part because it would be a really tough thing to prove, but also, probably in part because although organic foods just don’t have a significant benefit in terms of health or lifespan. As much as some companies want you to believe that they do, they aren’t entitled to their own science. Opinions, maybe, but not science.
The overwhelming consensus in the scientific community is that GMO foods are not harmful to human health. Period.
Unfortunately, a lot of people believe that organic is better. Organic is healthier. Conventional causes disease and stunts kids’ growth. GMOs cause food allergies.
All of that is wrong. So where is this information coming from?
Faulty sources. The wellness industry. People like Dr. Mark Hyman and organizations like the Environmental Working Group. They all tout organic food as though it’s the only option for a person to be healthy, but like with many, many other things, They’re wrong. They’re also elitist and obnoxious, but I digress.
The EWG and other activist organizations like ‘Right To Know’ do an amazing job of stoking fear and confusion about non-organic food. Whether it’s the Dirty Dozen list (I reviewed it here, please read if you’re afraid of ‘dirty’ produce) or telling people that Cheerios have glyphosate (I also reviewed that here). From the outside, the Environmental Working Group looks like an official government agency or at least something legit – but its tactics are disgusting and disingenuous.
Here’s the thing:
According to my friend Food Science Babe (who actually knows her shit) even non-GMO products may very well be genetically modified in some way.
Mutagenesis, developed in the 1930s and still used today as an “acceptable” alternative to genetic engineering, involves radiating or chemically dousing seeds in laboratories to create thousands of unknown random mutations in the hopes of finding beneficial traits. More than 3,000 plants have been produced this way, including the sweet Ruby and Rio Red grapefruits (irradiated with thermal neutrons), versions of durum wheat used in premium Italian pasta, Calrose Rice and the Osa Gold pear.
The food products of these random gene alterations can be sold as organic despite their “unnatural” origins.”
I know. Crazy.
And another observation she had was that people who don’t trust the USDA to oversee the conventional food supply, will often trust organic food, which is ALSO regulated by the USDA.
The only GMO foods available are papaya, Arctic apples, soy, canola, cotton (which you don’t eat), corn (most of which goes towards animal feed), alfalfa (which you don’t eat), potatoes, and sugar beets. So all of the organic foods you’ve been buying to avoid GMOs – like strawberries, wine, and bread – have never been GMO in the first place. Ooof!
If you’re worried that the animals you eat are eating GMO feed, don’t be. The very concept of this is faulty. As the FDA explains, GMO DNA doesn’t transfer to the animals that eat it. If it did, then DNA from anything the animal ate would become a part of the animal’s DNA. I have yet to hear of an animal having the DNA of corn or alfalfa.
But how about the environmental effects of GMOs?
Glyphosate, a herbicide that everyone talks about when they talk about GMOs, has been implicated in the death of honeybees. Several recent studies, though, including this one from 2017, have shown that glyphosate does not affect bees. Research on other pesticides suggests that certain mixtures of common herbicides used in conventional farming can be detrimental to honeybees, but this may be avoided by the use of different combinations of herbicides.
Organic farmers aren’t the only farmers who care about their land and about the planet. All farmers have a vested interest in keeping their land productive and arable, and bees aren’t pests to be killed – they help pollinate crops. Modern herbicides and pesticides are used in lower amounts now than in the past, and this also benefits the farmer, who doesn’t want to spend extra money drenching their crops in unnecessary additives. They’re using as little as possible, trust me there.
And it has to be said that organic farming uses pesticides, some of which are extremely toxic. It’s not as though organic farms are pure and sunshiny places where a chemical never touched the soil. Please.
I don’t currently work for any agencies that promote organic over conventional or the other way around. I just want you all to have a balanced view of this topic.
And while I appreciate people’s right to know what’s in their food, slapping a butterfly logo on packaging – even on foods that never have been GMO to being with – and preaching about how organic food is so natural and pure causes lingering doubt in consumers that non-organic food is somehow ‘bad.’
The bottom line is this:
A lot of people can’t afford to buy everything organic (or anything organic), and
There is nothing ‘bad,’ toxic, or harmful about conventionally grown food. If you prefer to buy organic, that’s fine! But know that you’re not harming yourself by buying conventional.
The studies that appear to prove that GMOs are not fit for human consumption, are more often than not very poor in their methodology, biased, and small. Or all of this, plus they’ve been done on rats. There are just as many, if not more, studies, – along with the consensus of most of the scientific community – that show the harmless nature of GMOs and that organic food just isn’t superior to conventional.
Organic food farmers still use deadly pesticides, and some ‘organic’ food is genetically manipulated.
Many of the people, companies, or groups *ahem EWG* who want you to believe that organic food is superior, have an agenda to push. Their tactics suck and their information is shit.
It’s your choice. Make it an educated one.
Is soil depletion making our food less nutritious than it used to be? Read about it here.