Are organically produced foods a healthier personal choice? How about an ecologically superior one? In this Natural Truth post, we will explore both questions.
On the first question, we want to begin by highlighting a recent meta-analysis by Stanford University medical researchers of 240 prior studies investigating organic foods – published at Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier and summarized in Little Evidence of Health Benefits – which called into question beliefs about the personal health benefits of organic foods, notably in both absolute terms and in light of their generally higher cost.
The Stanford survey findings, spanning a significant and varied body of research, are consistent with other research surveys that have found little immediate personal health benefits from consuming organic foods, at least in the developed world. In this Natural Truth post, we will consider whether organic foods are actually better than conventionally raised ones, and notably in terms of both their personal or physiological health effects and ecological health or sustainability impacts.
The Scientific Evidence
Wikipedia defines organic food as “foods that are produced using methods that do not involve modern synthetic inputs such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Organic foods are also not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives.” Importantly, in this definition, organic methods do not require sustainable or renewable inputs, only ones that are organic or not synthetic. Organic farming, as described, therefore allow inputs that are external to the food growing process, and therefore ones that are potentially depletable or non-renewing, again as long as they are organic.
By contrast, and reflecting a common understanding today, Wikipedia defines sustainable agriculture as “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices…that will last over the long term.” Put another way, sustainable agriculture in an important sense involves self-sustaining, self-contained, or closed ecological systems, aided perhaps only by sunlight and rainfall, and otherwise functioning in fully repeatable ways – via ecological reciprocity, cooperation, or symbiosis between its contributing species (including human farmers and consumers).
Given this, and as you may immediately understand, organic food and agriculture may or may not be ecologically sustainable, but sustainably created food almost always will be organic, even if novel production methods are used. This is because, today at least, synthetic inputs are typically depleted when used and their use is therefore naturally unsustainable, or unable to be continued indefinitely or over long periods of time. Crucially, we say this while understanding the potential for closed-loop or circular and thus sustainable synthetic processes of all kinds, a practice that is still rare but could become the norm in time.
Importantly, the above definition of organic food not only clarifies the term, it also outlines the needed scope of considerations to assess the personal health effects of organic foods against synthetically augmented ones. And already, by contrasting this definition of organic food with sustainable agriculture, we have begun to frame its potential ecological health benefits.
Here is a brief summary of our reading of available science and research related to the personal and ecological health benefits of organic foods. Please note that this summary focuses on widely applicable food production and consumption considerations, and leaves aside lower-probability risks (such as industrial accidents or suicide and homicide, each involving high, unintended, or unusual exposure to concentrated pesticides and agricultural chemicals):
> Earlier versus newer pesticides & additives – any fair comparison of organic and conventionally raised foods today must account for the fact that pesticides, fertilizers and other additives are now more intensively studied and regulated for safety across the much of the world. While earlier pesticide, hormone, antibiotic, and additive practices (still potentially in use in parts of the developing world) were arguably unsafe or poorly examined, the same cannot be said categorically of newer practices in these areas, though some questionable practices clearly remain – see pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, and additives for a fuller discussion. For example, many new pesticides act narrowly and rapidly break down into inert compounds. Still, while these inorganic inputs may be less harmful than in the past, these practices are still less undesirable in many cases and also should be understood as largely unsustainable or involving depleting resources.
> Political risks of weakened health protections – similarly, while it is plausible to suggest that private interests could attempt to suppress or dilute scientific findings and weaken relevant food supply protections in any country and at any point in time, as has occurred in the past, there is less evidence suggesting that such efforts are either occurring or succeeding on a significant scale in the developed world today. That said, the rise of GMO farming and the broader persistence of agriculture heavily dependent on non-renewing synthetic inputs suggests that the problem of unsustainable food production remains greatly underappreciated or discounted in much of the world (notably, even as information about these issues is widely available).
> Health impacts on humans – as outlined above, a broad and increasing body of research suggests that there is, at best, limited evidence of a significant personal human health benefit from choosing organic foods over modern conventionally raised foods, at least in the developed world, especially when focusing on effects from modern pesticides, and when various, well-understood harmful effects from food processing are set aside.
> Health impacts on other species – excluding the intended targets of modern pesticides, there is considerable and indeed growing evidence and appreciation of injury to non-targeted species via modern pesticide use, most notably bee populations, though again perhaps not to the extent with earlier pesticides, their largely unregulated use, and their immediate and often wanton unintended effects on neighboring species (the widespread application and ecological effects of DDT in the 1950s remain our perhaps most vivid historical study in this). Still, organic farming methods can be expected to have far lower negative health effects on neighboring species than conventional pest control methods. In addition, application of inorganic fertilizers are also clearly associated with the potential for disruption of whole ecosystems and their member species, and in ways that appear far less likely (though not impossible) with organic soil and plant fertilization methods.
> Sustainability & soil preservation – there is significant evidence that organic farming can result in improved soil preservation and fertility, and, by its nature, is likely to be more sustainable on average than inorganic methods – both by fostering better soil quality and retention, and from reduced reliance on non-sustainable inputs.
> Organic farming & food quality – related to overall soil quality and superior natural mineral balancing in organic soils, there is some evidence that organically grown foods may contain higher levels of selected nutrients and superior overall nutrient profiles in some cases than conventionally raised foods, though research in this area is limited and controversial.
Our Natural Truth Rating
Given this pattern of evidence, HumanaNatura rates the proposal that organic foods are healthier a 6/10 (Notable Evidence) in our Natural Truth rating system.
We base this rating first on widespread and increasingly time-tested evidence, showing little or only modest personal health benefit from choosing organic foods over conventionally raised ones, especially in the developed world and using current farming methods. However, the ecological health benefits of organic farming significantly offset these limited findings, in our view, and necessitate a markedly higher rating than when considering personal health effects alone. While organic farming may not guarantee ecological and food supply sustainability, it clearly can aid this goal and have a number of important environmental benefits, including potential economic benefits to local farmers and farm economies.
We hope this discussion of organic foods is valuable to you, and that it helps you to make more informed and optimal decisions about how you grow, purchase, prepare, and consume food. In addition, we hope our discussion of food supply sustainability has raised your awareness of this superior, and more natural, standard for modern food production in all areas.
You can click to learn more about our Natural Truth health information campaign and evidence-based 1-10 rating system. And we always welcome your comments and input on this or any other HumanaNatura Natural Truth review.
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