by Hector Mendez

The world is an interrelated system: changes in one part affect the whole. The sun and the earth feed the plants that feed the animals that feed the humans. This ecological universe is a delicate, symbiotic one. Whether we purchase organic or conventional food products has an impact on both our health and the land in which the food is grown.

For U.S. consumers, the terms “conventional” or “organic” refer to how farmers grow and process food. Conventional farming methods differ from organic ones in several ways: 1) Conventional farming uses chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth, while organic farming employs manure and compost to fertilize the soil, 2) Conventional farming sprays pesticides to get rid of pests, while organic farmers turn to beneficial insects and birds, mating disruption, or traps, 3) Conventional farming uses chemical herbicides to manage weeds, whereas organic farmers rotate crops, pulls weeds by hand, or mulch, and 4) When raising animals, conventional farmers use antibiotics, growth hormones, and medications to spur growth and prevent disease. Organic farmers feed their animals organic foods and allow them to roam.

The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements defines organic agriculture as an agricultural system that promotes environmentally, socially, and economically sound production of food, fiber, timber, etc.. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, however, the organic label is a matter of degree: 100% organic means that the product contains only organic ingredients. Certified organic means that at least 95 percent of the food’s ingredients were organically produced, but if the label reads, “made with organic ingredients,” then this tells you that the product is at least 70% organic.

So what should we put in our bodies? Many people believe that there is more to fear from the dangers of molds and insects than pesticides, especially in the amounts that are used; if you wash your produce, as you always should, the problem is solved. This view fails to take into account that pesticides get into the soil that in turn gets inside the food. Admittedly, the risks of long-term exposure to those residues are still undetermined, but several long-term studies support the fact that organic diets lower exposure to pesticides. Chemical fertilizers help promote plant growth by providing the soil with nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Yes, the plants will grow with these chemical in the short term, but this method fails to take into account that the soil is a living ecological system that adds nutrients and antioxidants to the produce it grows. The use of manure and compost revitalizes the soil, which in turn supplies us humans with benefits that are otherwise lost.

Conventional growers believe that there is no meaningful difference between organic and conventional when it comes to nutrition and health. A study at the University of California Davis showed no significant difference between conventional and organic bell peppers, yet the same study demonstrated that organically grown tomatoes have significantly more vitamin C than conventional. Another study, from Newcastle University in England, showed organic milk contained 67 percent more vitamins and antioxidants, as well as more Omega-3s and Omega-6s than conventional milk. Organic foods do not contain any additives or preservatives, antibiotics or hormones and are not genetically modified. Science, in regards to organic vs. conventional nutrition, is in its infancy, but I think we can agree that it is a good idea to bypass the antibiotic and hormone buffet.

The biggest criticism of organic food is its cost. Organic farmers pay more for organic animal feed, and because they do not use chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the farming is more labor intensive. This also means their crop yield is usually lower. Conventional farming also uses every acre of farmland to grow crops, while organic farmers rotate their crops to keep soil healthy. However, when you take into account the true “cost” of food production from conventional farming, including replacement of eroded soils, cleaning up polluted water, health care for farmers who get sick, and environmental costs of pesticide production and disposal, organic farming might actually be cheaper in the end.

Within the organic camp, purists argue that food cannot be organic if it is not local. According to the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, food in the United States travels an average of 1,500 miles before consumption. How can a strawberry shipped from California to New York, requiring 435 calories of fossil fuel yet providing the eater with only 5 calories of nutrition, be organic? John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, referred to both a non-organic local tomato and an organic tomato from California as "an environmental wash," since the nonorganic one was grown with pesticides but the California one had petroleum miles on it. However, he conceded, "The local tomato will be fresher, will just taste better."

For food purists "local" is the new "organic". Probably the most “green” way to acquire your weekly provisions is through a local farmer’s market and/or Community Supported Agriculture programs. The food comes from small farms where the farmers are usually conscious of their impact on the earth and care about the food they’re producing. They also remind you that food originates some place other than a grocery store. It may be romantic, but it’s also effective.

The organic food market has grown 20% on average year over year for the past ten years. This has increasingly attracted agribusiness. As profits get higher the muddier the lines will become between what is organic and what is not. Agribusiness will lobby to gerrymander the distinction, leaving consumers to wade through the ambiguity of the government lexicon. It will then become even more necessary to be armed with food knowledge.

Unfortunately, we consumers can't know for certain about food's authenticity unless we grow it ourselves. When addressing the topic of organic agriculture, Sir Albert Howard, an English agronomist, stated, “We have to treat the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal, and man as one great subject.” This intuitive statement should be embraced as an impetus to propel the continuing debate for food priorities in today’s modern and complicated world.