For most families, food is arguabley one of their most important (and often largest) budget categories. We need to eat to live, yes, but food is also a source of pleasure and has direct links to our health.
Since being on my “extended mat leave” (as I like to call my current stint as a stay-at-home-mom), one of the things that I’ve been reading a LOT about is food. And I’m not the only one – food seems to be a major topic of conversation and focus of a lot of media and social media these days. As a mom and conscientious person, I wanted to find out what kind of food is the best for my family, the environment, the economy. And there is a TON of information, both good and bad, out there.
One of the main food topics out there now is organic food. Now, I’ll admit – I TOTALLY bought into the whole “organic is better” thing for a long time. I would almost always choose the organic option when I could, I had a green basket of organic fruits and veggies delivered to my house…I honestly thought that I was doing the best for my family. I thought – hey, if I can afford it, why wouldn’t I buy organic? Isn’t my family’s health the most important thing? Because one thing that organic food most definitely is, is more expensive.
But when I started to look into it more and learning more about food in general (organic, conventional, GMO, farming methods etc) I started to realize that maybe its not that cut and dry. So I started looking into the reasons that I and others started buying organic to see if they were actually supported by real, scientific evidence.
Reason 1: Organic food doesn’t have pesticides (and we all know that pesticides are bad right? They KILL pests!).
Since I’m Canadian, I went right to the source – the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Here is what is considered organic by them: “An organic product is an agricultural product that has been certified as organic. A product can be certified if it is produced using the methods outlined by the Canadian Organic Standards.”
Hmm…so what IS permitted for food to still be considered organic? Here is what the CFIA says:
CAN/CGSB-32.311, Organic Production Systems – Permitted Substances Lists, includes the following substances lists:
- Crop production including fertilizers, plant foods, soil amendments, crop production aids and materials, and weed management
- Livestock production including feed, feed additives and feed supplements, health care products and production aids
- Processing and sanitation including organic ingredients, non-organic ingredients and with organic ingredients, processing aids, cleaners, disinfectants and sanitizers, and pest control substances.
Oh – so organic farming also allows for pesticides, fertilizers, feed additives, health care products and disinfectants? How is that any different from conventional farming? The fact that they are organic or natural pesticides doesn’t change the fact that they still kill pests. Natural or organic pesticides aren’t safe by default just because they aren’t synthetic.
From my reading I did learn that conventionally farmed food does have higher pesticide residuals than organic (a large study showed that about 38% of conventional foods had pesticide residue vs 7% of organic foods). However, in most cases for both conventional and organic, the residue was negligible.
That said, I decided to look at is how harmful are pesticides in general to people? Yes, they kill pests, but what affect do they have on humans? I came across this pesticide residue calculator which will show you how much you can safely consume. For example, a child could to consume 154 servings of apple in one day without any effect even if the apples have the highest pesticide residue recorded for apples by the USDA (I haven’t been able to find anything similar for organic pesticides so I can’t comment on their relative safety). Even still – there is currently no evidence that people who eat conventional foods have a higher risk of diseases like cancer or that organic foods can prevent it.
And lets not forget that organic foods aren’t without risk – like e.coli poisoning (due to use of cow manure as opposed to synthetic fertilizers) which can – and does – cause death (like for the 5 people who died from eating organic spinach). To be fair, you can get e.coli poisoning from conventional foods as well – I just wanted to point out that just because its organic doesn’t mean it is automatically risk free.
Reason 2: Organic food is more nutritious
Now I always had my doubts about this one, though I guess I can see why some people may think this. But while there have been some studies to suggest that some organic fruits and veggies are marginally more nutritious, the main study that supports this has been criticized for being funded by a group that supports the promotion of organic farming and focused on only the positive results (where they found foods that were more nutritious) and not the negative results of the study (where they found foods to be less nutritious). In fact, most studies (such as this one done by researchers at Stanford University) show that there is very little nutritional difference between organic and conventional produce and meat (though studies have shown that organic chickens have higher levels of Omega-3 than conventionally raised ones).
At the end of the day, most experts agree that just eating fruits and veggies is important and that even if some organic foods are a bit more nutritious, their cost doesn’t make up for that tiny benefit.
Reason 3: Organic food tastes better
This is an argument I hear all the time and I was always a bit sceptical because in general fruits and veggies have a high range of tastes. Some seasons a particular fruit or veggie could be amazing and some poor. Plus taste is subjective.
But people certainly seem to think that food tastes better if they are told its organic (in a Swedish study, almost 50% of people given the same coffee, one labelled organic and the other not, said the organic labelled coffee tasted better). However, no study has been able to definitively prove that organic actually tastes better nor can people tell if they are eating organic or non-organic food.
Reason 4: Organic farming is better for the environment
This was one of my main reasons for supporting organic – hey, if there are no fertilizers, no pesticides, then DUH, it MUST be better for the environment, right?
Except we’ve already established that fertilizers and pesticides (even some with non-organic ingredients) ARE allowed. Now, its true that many are more eco-friendly than conventional. However, organic also doesn’t allow for GMO crops – and one of the whole points of GMO is to use less pesticides, fertilizers, water etc.
What made me question the eco-friendliness of organic was this point: organic farms have lower yields (anywhere between 20-50% depending on the type of crop!) and this means more of our forests, nature reserves and rainforests are being mowed down to meet the demand. And to me that is awful (though it was pointed out to me, which I verified, that the main culprit of rainforest destruction is due to palm oil production). Combine that with growing world populations and overall growing food demand, shouldn’t we be trying to make the most of the farm land we already farm? And this is where I think conventional farming is doing its part.
*** One thing I wanted to add to this section is that organic standards prohibit the use of antibiotics and added hormones to their meat. While this remains the most valid reason for me to buy organic meats (especially the antibiotics which are contributing to our current crisis of antibiotic resistant super bugs), its worth mentioning that in Canada, only beef farmers are allowed to use hormones (and many choose not to) and many conventional meat/poultry farmers opt out of using antibiotics. This is usually clearly labelled. So while this is guaranteed with organic meat, its not the only option.
Look, I’m not saying that conventional farming is amazing for the planet – but when I realized that organic is no better for the most part – and can actually be worse – for the environment due to shunning of GM technology and requiring more land to produce the same yield, it lost a lot of its appeal for me.
Reason 5: Organic farmers treat their animals better
This is also a real reason I would choose organic eggs or meat. For example, I was under the impression that all organic eggs came from free-range chickens (meaning they can run freely inside AND have access to outside), but learned that its actually not a requirement (it really depends on which certification they receive). Yes, some organic eggs come from free-range farms. But most that I’ve seen are only free-run (means they are in one large pen and not locked in cages) and you can buy conventional eggs that are free run or free range anyway. So the only difference is the feed that they get (organic eggs hens are fed organic grains). In general I have found that the whole system of certifying eggs organic, free-range, free-run etc to be very confusing because there are different certifiers and all have different standards. The best advice regarding eggs choice would be to find a brand that meets the criteria you are comfortable with (and can afford) and buy that.
As for meat farming, I think its very unfair to assume that just because an animal comes from a conventional farm they are badly treated. Organic meat requirements are that animals are treated “humanely” – and the requirements are quite strict. However, this doesn’t mean that by default conventional ones don’t treat them that way – their standards are also very strict. Of course there will always be a few “bad apples” and farms exposed for inhumane treatment. With regards to this, the only way to know is by visiting the farms themselves and educating yourself on what humane really means.
Reason 6: Organic food is GMO free
Ok, this wasn’t really a reason for me, but it is a reason I see cited by many people. This is true – organic food is GMO free – but the question is, does it matter? I’ll admit “genetically modified” does sound scary and Frankensteinish, but what does the science say, is it ACTUALLY bad for us to consume?
And the answer is that that there is no documented evidence that genetically modified foods are in anyway harmful to human health. NONE. At most some anti-GMO bloggers (because they are rarely actual scientists, farmers, researchers or doctors – you know, the people who understand and know what they are talking about) make claims that GM foods “might be harmful” or “potentially cause health problems” but aren’t able to show any proof of this. They use the “evil doings” of Monsanto, a company that produces GM seeds and develops the technology, as a reason to avoid GM foods. But whatever their business practices are (and I’m sure they have some questionable/immoral ones) this doesn’t a) mean that the technology behind GM foods is bad nor b) does it in anyway prove that organic is better.
Not only that, but GM technology is helping farmers be more efficient, use less pesticides/herbicides and have their crops less vulnerable to the effects of climate change. To me, this is a huge plus for supporting conventional farming.
So WHY are organic foods sales soaring? How is it that is has become a $30+ billion industry in the US alone? The answer: marketing. Here is an excellent breakdown of how good its been.
Whole Paycheck, Whole Foods alone made $13 billion in sales in 2013. I think that because people are much more concerned about the environment and their health now then they have been in the past, there is a huge appeal in all things natural and the organic idea definitely caters to that.
Also, I feel like there is a lot of food shaming happening – people, especially moms I think, are guilted into thinking that they are being selfish for NOT buying organic for their families and that is ridiculous. .
So what do I think (if you can’t tell already)? Since this is a personal finance blog and I try to encourage people to be smart about and mindful of how they spend their money, I think that at the end of the day, for me, organic foods just aren’t worth it. When all things are considered, I still don’t think that the benefits from organic foods or farming methods justify the premium that they cost, especially since in Canada conventional foods are just as healthy and the industry is constantly working to improve its standards of quality and eco-friendliness.
That said, I’m not suggesting people shouldn’t buy organic. People should have the right to spend their money on whatever they like. I spend a lot of money on designer shoes and handbags compared to some people – but I budget for them and I can afford them. So I’m not going to judge someone for paying $0.87Ib for organic bananas when the conventional are $0.57lb if they can afford to do so. Nor will I judge someone for choosing organic chicken/beef/pork because they like the certain extra effort made to make the animals comfortable. Everyone has different priorities and they should make the choice that best aligns them with those priorities.
Also, while now I do avoid organic (because why pay more?) as a rule, there are some organic food brands I really like and I will continue to buy them. And I will continue to read and learn about both types of farming and will constantly be re-evaluating my choice.
So I hope that who ever reads this, their guilt about not buying organic will subside and those who have been straining to afford to buy organic realize that they don’t have to and that it doesn’t make them bad parents.
***Updated to discuss a point that I forgot to mention before.
Want to learn more? Here are some fantastic resources!
Canadian Food Inspection Agency –> great for learning about Canadian food standards, what they really are and what they mean.
Nurse Loves Farmer -> excellent blog by a farmer’s wife who explains farming processes and has a ton of knowledge about GMOs, pesticides and general farming issue.
Scientific American article on conventional vs. organic farming
Genetic Literacy Project –> great resource for science based health news and current issues
Science Babe –> a blog by a scientist who busts common science and health myths
BC-SPCA –> Good document that shows requirements for SPCA certification of animal treatment in British Columbia and is very similar to Canada Organic standards (for all of Canada – BC is has the strictest requirements compared to the other provinces). I couldn’t find a direct link to Canada Organic.
16 thoughts on “Is organic food worth it?”
Very well said and thanks for the shout out.
I’m pro-food choice: to me, it doesn’t matter what a family or person decides to consume—it’s the fear that is spread *because* of that food choice that makes the difference. We live in a part of the world where all of our food, no matter how it is produced, is plentiful, diverse and safe. We don’t need to shame each other for these choices by spreading fear. Good for you!
Thank you – that’s really what it’s all about. I also feel like conventional food has been vilified a bit in recent times and organic shown as a “can do no wrong” conscious free choice. I just wanted to point out it’s not that black and white but for those (like I used to be) who think that way, to perhaps reconsider what they think they know – both about conventional and organic methods.
Good stuff! Thanks for doing the research into the food options available. I am a livestock producer, and we don’t do organic. The process to be approved is long, and the requirements are sometimes convoluted. I can assure you that conventional farmers still treat their livestock well. : )
Organic farming – we need more land AND more inputs (like fuel). Is it better or WORSE for the environment?
And on the GMO issue… They ultimately allow us to use less chemical overall! If anything, organic advocates should be pro-GMO! 😉
Organic… More land AND more inputs (like fuel). Better or WORSE for the environment?
And on the GMO issue… They will ultimately allow us to use less chemical overall. With that thinking, pro-organic advocates should be pro-GMO! 😉
Hi! I really enjoyed reading your article! I’m an organic farmer, and I am so glad that we are so privileged to have access to all sorts of food choices for all sorts of consumers. I’m most definitely “pro food choice”. However, I’d like to point out a few inconsistencies in the article, and clarify a little, if you don’t mind. I think this would help give your readers some more information to make a decision about what type of food best suits their interests. Please don’t take this as criticism, I’d just like to present a more balanced view of the organic side of the picture.
First of all, ALL organic livestock, including poultry, must have free access to the outdoors, barring any circumstances that could endanger the animals, such as inclement weather. I know that many organic consumers cite this as a reason for choose organic options of meat, dairy and eggs.
Secondly, while I really appreciate you including the link to the Permitted Substances List, your paraphrase leads the consumer to believe there are no significant differences between organic and conventional substances used on crops, etc, in my opinion. For example, fertilizers are permitted for use in organic farming, but these are limited to manure, compost, compost tea, mined minerals, etc. (all natural sources of nutrients.) And feed additives are permitted in both conventional and organic livestock farming, but in organic, these are limited to amino acids, antioxidants, diatomaceous earth, grains and roughages, enzymes, organic milk replacer, minerals, molasses, probiotics, seaweed meal, and vitamins; again, all organic/natural sourced ingredients.
Finally, while I have seen sources claiming that organic farming results in less yield, I’ve spoken to organic farmers who claim to not have noticed a decrease in yields since transitioning to organic. We also, have not noticed a decrease, and actually, have had higher corn yields since farming organically.
I hope this helps to provide a more balanced look at the organic vs conventional picture. I’m not trying to sway anyone’s opinion, but just felt that adding these points creates a more accurate description of organic farming.
p.s. If you’d like, you can head over to my blog to read the piece I wrote detailing why we switched to organic farming, and the differences between conventional and organic dairying. http://inuddernews.com/2014/09/25/why-organic/
Thank you! I love learning new information!
Can you please provide links? I would like to verify everything 🙂
I was aware about fertilizers/pesticides being organic/natural but I guess for me, I was under the impression that NOTHING was being used (I mean, I knew that manure etc was used but was surprise about what was allowed). I have also read that just because they are natural, they aren’t necessarily better for the environment or for consumers because they are often weaker and less targeted to specific pests and more of them need to be used. Salt is a natural mineral but it’s wrecking havoc on our environment in areas where we use it to de-ice roads. So the argument that”it’s natural” doesn’t hold as much weight unless it can be proved that’s it’s less damaging(and I’d like to know how much less) to health and the environment.
And as for yields, I’m a bit skeptical that they are better because that’s contrary to everything I’ve read. But if that’s the case, then why is organic food so much more expensive?
I guess my post may come off as anti-organic but that’s not my agenda. I just feel like conventional farming has been highly criticized and organic gets a pass as this perfect method. If you read my point about organic meat/eggs I’m not saying that organic is bad – but saying just because organic has stricter standards for welfare doesn’t automatically mean conventional farmers are cruel, which is often how the media portray them, and which I don’t believe to be true (though of course I’m sure it happens). That’s all 🙂
In any case, thank you so much for reading and giving your perspective!
Hi 🙂 Here are the links to the permitted substances list and the Canadian Organic Standards. http://www.tpsgc-pwgsc.gc.ca/ongc-cgsb/programme-program/normes-standards/internet/bio-org/permises-permitted-eng.html (see section 5.2 for feed additives, and 4.3 for crop production aids)
http://www.tpsgc-pwgsc.gc.ca/ongc-cgsb/programme-program/normes-standards/internet/bio-org/principes-principles-eng.html (see section 6.8 and 6.8.11 for livestock and poultry living conditions)
In our case, we have no need of pesticides. We are blessed to live in a climate with relatively little pressures from pests. We utilize mechanical cultivation to control weeds. What did you find was allowed that surprised you?
Again, the high yields, like I mentioned, are specific to our farm, and neighbouring organic farms. Again, we can thank our climate for this 🙂 I know that this is not the case all across Canada. Organic products are priced higher because of the higher costs associated with farming this way. Producing organic crops is more labour intensive: it requires more “man-hours”. The certification process alone results in tens of hours of documentation every year. Additionally, especially for smaller organic vegetable farms, weeds are typically removed by farm personnel instead of using chemicals, which also increases the cost of production. For milk, our grain costs are much higher, which is why a higher milk price is necessary for us to be able to continue.
I understand that you weren’t deliberately criticizing organic. I, too, have read articles that are critical of conventional farming. I hate that. Organic farming and conventional farming must co-exist. We both are farming in a manner that we feel best benefits our land and animals. There is no reason for either side to “put down” the other. However, I’ve also noticed a trend lately of conventional farmers retaliating by throwing mud at organics. This is not fair either. And I suppose that’s why I was quick to correct what I saw to be incorrect in your article. My apologies if it seemed as criticism 😦
Reblogged this on Collard Greenz and commented:
I concur entirely. Like you I purchase certain organic products because I happen to like them. Generally though I just tend to get fresh, local and seasonal, not organic. Which I believe is far greater on positively impacting the economy and my carbon footprint….
I totally agree! And I don’t know about the US, but in Canada we import over 75% of our organic food…that’s a big carbon footprint.
Thanks for an interesting post. I especially appreciate your willingness to engage with people with additional information to share, even when it questions some of your earlier statements. I agree with all of Juliane’s statements and wanted to add a couple of other clarifications.
1) Both organic and conventional farms use manure as a source of fertility for their crops. Organic standards contain specific requirements with regard to manure handling that are designed to prevent contamination of crops intended for human consumption. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that organic food poses any higher risk to human health than any other type of food. Farmers of all kinds take food safety very seriously.
2) Before substances (natural or synthetic) are added to the Permitted Substances List they undergo a thorough review that examines the health and environmental impact of their manufacture, use, and disposal, their necessity in food production and/or processing, the available alternatives, and a number of other factors. Nothing gets a free pass just because it is “natural”.
3) The nutritional and environmental advantages and disadvantages of organic foods are complex and multi-faceted. The existing body of research tends to show mixed results; a result, in my opinion, of the diversity of practices in use in all types of agriculture. To say that organic is no better and in some cases worse, is inaccurate, in my opinion. As a farmer, I’m excited by the potential to learn best practices from all types of farmers that can help us grow food in a more sustainable way and I welcome further research that has this goal in mind.
Finally, I cover all of these issues and more (with links to primary sources) on my own blog at http://www.thefanningmill.com Anyone is welcome to check it out and join the conversation.
Again, thanks for sharing your perspective and for your continued willingness to engage in open, honest discussion!
Thanks for reading! I’m glad you’d added some extra info – I love learning the more in-depth details. I didn’t intend for this article to discourage people from buying organic – just to think about why they are doing so (because it is more expensive, I feel buying it needs more justification) and also to defend conventional farming a bit, since I feel like a lot of media seems to focus on how “bad” pesticides, GMO etc are instead of really looking at the science.
The only thing that made me put the “or worse” is that I’ve been reading that rainforests etc are being mowed down to meet the every growing demand for organic food. Though perhaps its unfair to put the blame for that solely on organic food.
As to your other points – while I totally respect Organic Canada, fact is that at the moment we import most of our organic food from countries which may/may not have the same standards and may/may not do a good job of ensuring they are met. I know we import a lot of non-organic too – but since organic so much more important, I want to make sure its worth the extra cost.
Hi again Kasia,
Thanks for the response. I agree that “conventional” agriculture is often unjustly demonized: I grew up on conventional dairy and cash crop farms and still have many connections to the conventional sector. Everyone is trying to do their best with what they have, and deserve our support and respect.
If you could find the source for the claim that rainforests are being destroyed to make room for organic agriculture, I’d be really interested in checking that out. My understanding is that the greatest threats to tropical forests have been the expansion of cattle ranching, which is being pushed out of traditional ranching areas by conventional soybean production, and by palm oil plantations (for those horrible fake dairy products!).
One other clarification: all products imported into Canada and marketed as “organic” must be certified to the Canadian Organic Standard, or one of the other international standards that has negotiated an equivalency agreement with the CFIA (http://bit.ly/1Iu9qZO). This assures consumers that imported organic food is meeting the same standard as homegrown, to the best of our ability (and to be perfectly honest, I do share some of your concerns about the level of oversight in certain countries, so I’ll always advocate in favour of supporting local or Canadian organic products, for the added assurance and additional benefits!)
With respect to imports, actual market analysis shows that 44 to 48 percent of organic products (depending on how you measure it) are “product of Canada”, and a full 30% is imported from the United States. (http://bit.ly/1wXC7ab) It’s also important to remember that a lot of organic sales are of things like fresh fruit and vegetables and coffee, which have limited or non-existent growing seasons here in Canada (I know that apart from the food we grow ourselves, bananas and coffee are two of the most popular organic products in our house!).
There are certainly lots of great opportunities for Canadian farmers to fill organic markets, and I spend a lot of my time trying to help that along. The choice of how to farm, just like the choice of how to eat, is a very personal one, and I totally respect that people have different priorities, abilities, and limitations. I would never, ever want anyone to feel guilt or shame about they choices they make – food should be about nourishment, enjoyment, and celebration. Having access to up-to-date, accurate, and evidence-based information is a really important part of that process, and once again I really appreciate your commitment to exploring all aspects of it.
Rob, thanks so much for the info. I’m glad to be learning more – and great for anyone reading this to see these points. You’ve definitely given me a lot to think about!
My rainforest comment came from the Scientific American (I linked the entire thing at the bottom of my post) which says this: “if we were to switch to entirely organic farming, the number of people suffering would jump by 1.3 billion, assuming we use the same amount of land that we’re using now. Unfortunately, what’s far more likely is that switches to organic farming will result in the creation of new farms via the destruction of currently untouched habitats, thus plowing over the little wild habitat left for many threatened and endangered species.”
However, you are correct that the main destroyer of rainforests is palm oil. I’ll amend that section to better reflect it.