For decades, devotees on both sides of the agricultural aisle have debated the benefits of organically grown versus conventionally raised produce. The proponents of organic fruits and vegetables insist that their products are healthier, better for the environment, and tastier than those grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, while conventional farmers swear that their crops are more flavorful, bigger, and more attractive.
So, how can we tell who is right? If you are standing in the produce department of your local grocery store, debating between two nearly identical-looking ears of corn, how do you know which one you should serve your family? They are both similar in size, yellow, and nubby; and neither appears to have any brown spots or resident worms.
The only obvious difference is that one ear is sporting a “Certified Organic” sticker from the USDA – and the price label on the bin is about 20% higher than price of the conventionally-grown corn. So do you go ahead and spend the extra money, assuming that you will be getting better quality, or is someone just having you on? Understanding the true differences between organic and conventional produce can help you decide for yourself.
Conventionally grown crops rely on the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides to ensure a healthy and plentiful harvest. While these practices can keep insects and weeds from destroying a significant percentage of a crop, they can also cause damage to the surrounding environment. Agricultural chemicals can work their way into the groundwater, as well, affecting water plants and animals that are an important part of the ecosystem.
Organic farmers, on the other hand, are focused on sustainability. They use growing methods that utilize natural fertilizers (i.e. animal manure) to nourish the soil, and they typically rely on mulch and hand-weeding instead of chemical weed sprays and insecticides.
Proponents of organic farming often cite the dangers of feeding conventional produce to your children; it is natural to be concerned about chemical contamination from pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Numerous studies have shown that a) the trace amounts of chemicals in conventionally raised crops present only a minute health risk; and b) washing and/or peeling your fruits and vegetables virtually eliminates this risk.
Since organic fruits and vegetables are grown using fewer chemicals and with an eye to sustainability, it makes sense that choosing organic produce is better for the environment, right? Actually, it depends. If you are fortunate enough to live in an area where seasonal produce from local organic farms is available, then purchasing these items is certainly in the best interest of the environment.
However, say you live in New England, and you purchase organic tomatoes that were grown in California or Mexico. The carbon emissions cost of transporting your produce across the country far outweighs any benefit to purchasing fruits and vegetables grown without chemicals.
To date, studies have found little evidence to suggest that organic produce are more nutritious than their conventionally-grown counterparts. While government agencies do certify organic produce (meaning they meet certain agricultural standards), they make no claims that they are superior in food quality.
Since growing organic fruits and vegetables is more expensive than using conventional farming techniques, it is no surprise that organic produce costs more. Depending on where you shop and where the produce is coming from, you can expect to pay from 20% to 50% more for organically grown foods.
When you look at all of the facts concerning organic versus conventionally grown foods, it would seem that the pros and cons balance out. When it comes to choosing the foods you feed your family, the choice comes down to what seems right to you; the most important thing is that you are incorporating plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains into your diet and avoiding unhealthy, processed ingredients in your daily meal planning.