Why Organic is Better

by Sophie Egan

In her new book, How to Be a Conscious Eater, the author shares why it’s so important to choose food that’s good for people and planet

Being a conscious eater means, of course, that you care not only about your own health and that of your family, but also about the impact of your food choices on others and the planet. 

Dozens of third-party certifications are used on food products, so depending on your budget and the things you care most about supporting, certain ones may be worth the extra cost. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s organic label is arguably the most rigorously backed certification on the market. It’s not perfect, but it checks a lot of boxes.

WHAT’S AT STAKE FOR THE PLANET

According to the USDA, the practices that distinguish organic agriculture include “maintaining or enhancing soil and water quality; conserving wetlands, woodlands and wildlife; and avoiding use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering.” Organic processes “contribute to soil, crop and livestock nutrition, pest and weed management, attainment of production goals, and conservation of biological diversity.” 

Among a portfolio of practices, managing pests and weeds is a major difference between conventional and organic production methods, so pesticides, insecticides and herbicides are top-of-mind considerations in deciding between the two. Conventional industrial agriculture is characterized by maximizing the yield of crops above all else—doing so through energy-intensive farming practices and synthetic chemicals as fertilizers, at the expense of the surrounding environment.
By contrast, rather than using chemicals with abandon,
organic farmers first work to prevent and avoid pests, insects and weeds and then, if need be, suppress them through approved substances. 

As a general rule, substances that are naturally derived are allowed, whereas synthetic substances are prohibited, though there are exceptions in both directions. Not that being made by humans automatically makes something bad, but it’s worth noting that conventional agriculture has at its disposal at least 900 approved synthetic pesticides, whereas organic agriculture has only 25. All told, organic farms host more biodiversity (from bees to butterflies), release fewer greenhouse gases into the air, and enhance the quality of their soil and water. Yields vary but can certainly be less than nonorganic. This can lead to the need for more farmland to grow the same amount of food, which may be a potential drawback.

WHAT’S AT STAKE FOR OTHERS

Organically grown produce means significantly less exposure to pesticides, and therefore far lower risk of the long-term reproductive, cognitive or cancer-related health problems that have been tied to the chemicals. The health problems associated with certain toxic agrochemicals are especially concerning for farmworkers, whose exposure is higher and more direct than that of consumers, often through skin contact or breathing the chemicals, rather than by ingesting food with chemical residues.

The same goes for rural communities that may be exposed because of pesticide drift, which occurs when chemicals get carried through the air after being sprayed on a given plot. This issue disproportionately affects low-income communities of color, who often lack the political capital to earn the environmental justice protections they deserve.

Economic development—boosting rural communities and helping to lift farmers living on the margins out of poverty— may be another benefit of supporting organic practices. Some research suggests that because farmers earn a premium on organically grown food, it provides higher incomes to help run small- or medium-sized family farms. By one estimate, organic farmers earn about 35 percent more than conventional farmers, at least those in North America, Europe and India. That said, actual wages and labor conditions for farmworkers are by no means necessarily any better under organic standards. On farms of all types, some alarming conditions have been reported, such as backbreaking repetitive motions, heat exhaustion and dehydration, forced labor, withheld pay and lack of breaks. For assurance of fair labor practices, a handful of farms from California to Florida and New York have earned Food Justice Certification from the Agricultural Justice Project. The certification earns Consumer Reports’ “highly meaningful” designation; see greenerchoices.org.

WHAT’S AT STAKE FOR YOUR OWN HEALTH

Overall, the risks to human health are fairly low from most pesticide residues, or so it appears thus far, and at least according to the USDA and the EPA. That said, certain pesticides are more hazardous than others.

  • The type of chemicals that appear to be the most toxic are called organophosphates. A 2016 investigation by the EPA led to the conclusion that one such chemical, chlorpyrifos—which is commonly used on more than 50 crops, from broccoli and cauliflower to apples and oranges, and has been linked to acute illness among farmworkers and rural residents exposed to it, and to more severe long-term problems for babies and children, such as lower IQ, low birth weight and developmental delays—was not safe and should be banned. But that ban has since been rejected. It remains to be seen what happens policy-wise, but regardless, we’ll all want to steer clear of it. Thankfully, use of these chemicals has already declined, so their prevalence is not as high as it once was.
  • The most widely used herbicide in conventional agriculture is called glyphosate. In 2015, it was dubbed a probable human carcinogen by the International Agency on Cancer Research. More recently, in a very public court case against Monsanto, a giant chemical company that produces herbicides containing glyphosate (Roundup and Ranger Pro are the trade names), a San Francisco groundskeeper won nearly $300 million by demonstrating that exposure to these chemicals from spraying them in his job significantly contributed to his life-threatening non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • When it comes to exposure through food, the people at highest risk are women and men trying to conceive, pregnant women and children. A few studies suggest some compromised fertility, and in utero or early childhood exposure to organophosphates has been associated with damage to the brain and nervous systems, as well as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

There’s a lot we don’t know yet about pesticides and health. This is especially true of the long-term, cumulative effects of exposure to residues in food even if they’re present at low levels 
at a given time. Plus, questions abound from many environmental groups and farmworker advocacy groups about the synergistic effects of pesticides used together, and how that could affect health risks. Given the historical track record in the United States of finding out only years later that things long-allowed in the food supply are bad for us, I argue for the better-safe-than-sorry approach—while keeping a level head.

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