Hi everyone! Today I wanted to discuss sustainable eating. In particular, I want to explore the question: “Is organic food more sustainable?” I find that many people are under the impression that organic food is absolutely best for the planet, so I want to unpack how true or untrue that may be. I also want to discuss grass-fed meat, because I keep seeing the narrative that it is better for the planet and for people. Let’s dive in!
So, first of all, what is “organic?”
According to the USDA, certified organic foods are “grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives.
Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible.”
To be considered “certified organic,” a food must meet a certain set of requirements by the government. In the United States, the USDA has defined a list of ‘allowable’ and ‘prohibited’ substances for agricultural crops to be considered Certified Organic.
The rules are pretty strict. For example, for produce to be called organic, it must have been grown in certified organic soil that has had no prohibited substances applied for at least three years prior to harvest.
So, even if a farm is transitioning to organic, plant-foods can’t be labeled as such for at least three years since the farm started following organic agricultural procedures. There are few incentives to support farmers during this transition period; they often have to bare the costs themselves without seeing any payoff for at least three years.
To be clear, organic farms can use some pesticides and fertilizers. The key difference is: organic pesticides must be natural in origin, whereas conventional pesticides may be synthetic.
Organic meat must be raised in “living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100% organic feed and forage, and not administered antibiotics or hormones.”
Organic foods are also not allowed to be genetically modified (no GMOs, even though there is no current evidence to suggest their consumption is detrimental to human health).
Different government agencies have their own sets of rules and regulations surrounding organic certification. It’s also important to note that phrases like “made with organic ingredients” have no real regulation at all.
Is organic food better?
It appears that most consumers think so. A recent review showed that consumers find organic labels to have some sort of health halo around them.
But do organic foods live up to the health hype? This is a complex question with complex answers.
A 2012 review of more than 200 studies showed that there was no significant difference in terms of nutrient values of organic foods compared to conventional foods. The authors did note that publication bias may have played a role in their findings.
A more recent and larger review of 343 studies found that organic and conventional vegetables contain similar levels of most vitamins and minerals, and that convention produce tends to have more protein. The same study also found that organic foods may have higher levels of antioxidants, and expose consumers to less pesticides.
Pesticides, as I’ve written about here, are known to have detrimental impacts on human health. On the other hand, organic foods don’t truly seem to have more vitamins and minerals. In fact, conventional crops may have more protein (though few Americans are protein-deprived).
It’s also important to note that there is no standard comparison of exact organic versus conventional foods, since a bunch of other variables (like soil and water quality, as well as farming practices) may have impacted the results.
Is organic food better for the environment?
There are a lot of factors to consider, and at the present moment, there is not enough comprehensive data available on soil and environmental impacts of all of the various practices involved in both conventional and organic farming to make a precise comparison.
Furthermore, organic farming and conventional farming practices may vary farm to farm, which makes comparing them on their organic status alone even more difficult.
That said, we do have some data that shows that in some ways organic farming has environmental benefits, while in other ways, conventional farming has its own set of environmental benefits.…