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The debate continues: is organic food better?

The debate over the benefits of organic food reached a new peak this summer as officials continue to discuss whether organically grown food is more nutritious.

Organic food is defined by the USDA as based on minimal use of off-farm inputs, and increases and enhances the biodiversity of the soil and the environment. This means no pesticides are used and crops are rotated to maintain the health of the soil.

“Organic farming is better for the soil, and the soil is what sustains us,” said Earth CORPS member Magee Page, a junior.

The debate continues, however, whether organic foods are also healthier.

The British Food Safety Agency, the British equivalent to the FDA, concluded in a scientific study

published on July 2 that 50 years of research finds no evidence that organic produce has a higher nutritional value.

The study, led by Alan D. Dangour, a researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, goes on to say that no evidence of a difference was found in eight of the 11 crop nutrient categories tested, which included vitamins A, C, and D, proteins and carbohydrates.

Similarly, the research found no difference in the nutritional content of organic livestock products. The organically raised beef had no better quality or higher level of protein than the conventionally raised beef.

Ezra Klein, a Washington Post food and politics columnist, agreed.

“Honestly?… It’s definitely not healthier, at least not according to any study I’ve seen,” Klein said in a column published on July 30 in the Washington Post.

“There’s some argument that it’s more environmentally friendly. But it’s not something that I’m convinced is worth a premium.”

A wide selection of tomatoes at Farmer Joe's. (Tara Nelson)
A wide selection of tomatoes at Farmer Joe's in the Laurel District. (Tara Nelson)

Many people prefer to buy organic food for other reasons than the nutritional value.

“I always buy organic… because there’s still residue from pesticides and fertilizers and it’s more about the health effects of those trace amounts of chemicals,” said campus Sustainability Manager Britta Bullard.

Research published in March 2008 by The Organic Center claims that their review of 97 studies proves the “nutritional superiority of organic food.”

According to their research, many previous studies considered only the major vitamins and minerals, but ignored factors such as protein, potassium and antioxidants. With these new conditions in mind, the study found that the “difference in nutrient levels strongly favored the organic samples.”

Tom Philpott, a food writer for Seattle-based Grist magazine, is not buying it.

“The Organic Center is funded by Big Organic companies,” he said. “Whole Foods [has] an interest in promoting organics as healthier, but I’ve never seen the Center’s scholarship successfully challenged,” he said in a column.


Another study, done by the European Union, found potatoes, kiwis and carrots were among the organic produce found to be higher in vitamin C than their chemically-farmed counterparts. The study also found the organic produce had far higher antioxidant levels, which has benefits ranging from stopping heart disease to decreasing the risk of cancer.

For some, the benefits of buying organic food go far beyond the differences of vitamin or antioxidant levels.

“A horticulturist I met over the summer said, ‘People complain that it’s a little more expensive, but how much does cancer cost?’” said Page, who took an organic gardening class over the summer.

“[Conventional farming] also causes health problems for the famers,” said Gabriela Gebhardt, a junior, citing the example of her grandparents’ small Midwest farming community. Gebhardt explained that the community experienced a large increase of illnesses after switching to more modern agriculture techniques, many of which use a large amount of pesticides and fertilizers.

There are many factors though to consider before deeming any food product as “good” or “bad.” One is the food’s impact on the environment, considering that one of the biggest contributors to air pollution is the food industry. The average food item travels 1500 miles from the farm to consumers’ plates. All this travel accounts for a large portion of the CO2 emissions caused by human activity, according to Hai Vo, who started the Real Food Challenge at UC Irvine.
Because of this, many people are aiming to buy local foods.

Mills Botanical Garden and Greenhouse Coordinator Christina McWhorter believes the Local Food movement “is in a sense ‘competing’ with the organic food movement.”

Local foods may not always be organic, but they may have the advantages of being fresher and having less of an impact on the environment, according to Bullard.

Said Klein in another column, “I’d rather buy from a local farm that uses some pesticides than a major producer who has gone organic.”