We’ve all seen the labels. But what, exactly, does organic mean? Is it really any better, and is it worth the extra cost? Let’s dig in.
What Does Organic Mean, Anyway?
Simply put, organic food is grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or GMOs. Up until the 1950s, organic wasn’t much of a thing—because all food was organically grown. But the vast majority of our food now comes from non-organic farms.
Organic vs Conventionally Grown Food
As was the case for thousands of years, organic crops are raised using only organically approved fertilizers, manure or compost. Weeds are controlled through crop rotations, hand weeding or tilling, or with a small number of organic-approved herbicides. Organic livestock are fed organically grown feed and never given antibiotics or growth hormones. Also, they’re raised in ways that accommodate natural behaviors—like grazing in a pasture. Organic foods exclude genetically modified organisms (GMOs), too.
Contrast this with conventional industrial agriculture, which produces most of the food on the planet. Conventional farms are allowed to use hundreds of synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides, as well as GMOs. Conventional livestock operations finish raising their animals in crowded feedlots, dosing the animals regularly with antibiotics to keep diseases at bay.
What Does Non-GMO Mean?
Basically, non-GMO foods have evolved on their own or through selective breeding over time. GMO foods are plants and animals created through genetic engineering in a laboratory. The most common GMO crops are corn and cotton (engineered to resist pests) and soybeans (engineered to resist weed killers like Roundup).
Genetically modified foods have plenty of benefits, like higher yields and resistance to viruses. But because they don’t have a long track record, it’s hard to say what effects they may eventually have, and many countries—including most of Europe, Australia and New Zealand--require genetically modified foods to be labeled.
That now includes the United States. The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, in effect since January 2022, requires a “bioengineered” label or symbol on any genetically engineered foods. The catch is, it still allows for 5% GMO content. If you want to eat totally non-GMO, look for the Non-GMO label, a certification from the nonprofit Non-GMO Project. But the simplest way to eat non-GMO is to just eat certified organic food.
The Benefits of Eating Organic
Where to start? In a nutshell, organic foods are better for you, better for farm workers and nearby communities, and better for our home planet.
Better for You
Research shows that long-term pesticide exposure is linked to all kinds of health problems, including increased risk of cancer, Parkinson’s disease and neurodevelopmental problems. Some pesticides are more problematic than others, especially organophosphates (used on more than 50 crops, including broccoli and oranges) and glyphosate (the main ingredient in Roundup). Eating organic means you won’t be ingesting pesticide residues along with your food.
What about nutrition? Studies are promising: So far, some of the science shows an uptick in nutrients and antioxidants in organic produce compared to conventional, and higher levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids in organic livestock. There’s evidence, too, that eating organic produce benefits our gut microbiome. As organic agriculture continues to expand, you can bet we’ll be hearing more on the topic of nutrition.
Better for Farm Workers
Agricultural workers bear the brunt of toxic agrochemicals, ingesting them directly by breathing and through their skin. Communities near industrial farms also get hit when pesticides drift off the farm and toward towns. One of the easiest, most effective ways we can support a shift toward a safer system is to buy organic.
Better for Our Home Planet
Industrially produced non-organic food might be cheaper, but it’s our planet that’s paying the price. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides dramatically affect soil and water quality for miles around and even further downstream. Pollinators suffer; the recent, rapid decline in bee populations is thought to be directly related to glyphosates. Even worse, the use of pesticides can encourage pesticide- resistant weeds and insects. To fight these new super-pests, growers use even more pesticides. This pesticide treadmill can only lead to a more toxic world.
By contrast, organic farms often have greater biodiversity than conventional farms and improve soil and water quality. When well managed, they may draw down more climate-warming carbon, too.
How to Eat More Organic Food
Going organic costs more, so if you can’t swing buying all organic all the time, you might want to consider the “Dirty Dozen.” This list, compiled annually by the Environmental Working Group, tracks which conventionally grown foods have the most pesticides.
- Kale, collard and mustard greens
- Bell and hot peppers
Organic Food and Flavor
Organic foods don’t necessarily taste better, especially if they’re coming from far away. Long- term storage and shipping means food isn’t as fresh and probably wasn’t picked when fully ripe. Going for organic food that’s locally grown means all the flavor factors come together. An organic tomato grown in healthy, living soil, picked at its peak and on your plate a day later, will be the most delicious tomato you can eat.