Is organic food worth it?

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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?

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. .

Conclusion

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.

Bon apetit!

 

 

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.