What is the True Value of Buying “Organic” Foods?

Thu, 27 Oct. 2011 - 4:51 p.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

The term "organic foods" refers to the methods used to produce the foods rather than to the characteristics of the food themselves. The most common concept of "organically grown" food was articulated in 1972 by Robert Rodale, editor of Organic Gardening and Farming magazine, at a public hearing:

“Food grown without pesticides; grown without artificial fertilizers; grown in soil whose humus content is increased by the additions of organic matter, grown in soil whose mineral content is increased by the application of natural mineral fertilizers; has not been treated with preservatives, hormones, antibiotics, etc. ”

In 1980, a team of scientists appointed by the USDA concluded that there was no universally accepted definition of "organic farming." The USDA began to develop an official definition. The original proposed rules, from 1997, applied to all types of agricultural products and all aspects of their production and handling, ranging from soil fertility management to the packaging and labeling of the final product. The proposal included a national list of approved synthetic substances, labeling requirements, enforcement provisions, and rules for importing equivalent products.

Organic farming and handling was defined as “a system that is designed and managed to produce agricultural products by…using, where possible, cultural, biological and mechanical methods, as opposed to using substances, to fulfill any specific function within the system so as to: maintain long-term soil fertility; increase soil biological activity; ensure effective pest management; recycle wastes to return nutrients to the land; provide attentive care for farm animals; and handle the agricultural products without the use of extraneous synthetic additives or processing in accordance with the Act and the regulations in this part.”

While organically approved weed and pest control methods included crop rotation, hand cultivation, mulching, soil enrichment, and beneficial predators and microorganisms, the USDA indicated that if these methods were not sufficient, various (non-cytotoxic) listed chemicals could be used. The proposal did not call for monitoring specific indicators of soil and water quality.

For raising animals, antibiotics would not be permitted as growth stimulants but would be permitted to counter infections. The rules permitted up to 20% of animal feed to be obtained from non-organic sources. This was done because some nutrients are not always available organically. Irradiation, which can reduce or eliminate certain pests, kill disease-causing bacteria, and prolong food shelf-life, would be permitted during processing. Genetic engineering would also be permissible.

The USDA received more than 270,000 comments on the proposed rules. The vast majority of the objections pertain to the provisions that permitted irradiation, genetic engineering, and the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer. The final regulations, published in December 2002, eliminated these three provisions.

The organic rules are intended to address production methods rather than the physical qualities of the products themselves. So are we getting what we pay for, when we pay more for organic?

Many consumers who pay more for organic believe that the foods themselves are more nutritious, safer, and tastier. But the USDA proposal itself noted that, "No distinctions should be made between organically and non-organically produced products in terms of quality, appearance, or safety." In other words, no claim should be made that the foods themselves are better—or even different.

Organic foods are not more nutritious. Think of it this way: If essential nutrients are missing from the soil, the plant will not grow. If plants grow, that means the essential nutrients are present. Experiments conducted for many years have found no difference in the nutrient content of organically grown crops and those grown under standard agricultural conditions.

Many "organic" proponents suggest that their foods are safer because they have lower levels of pesticide residues. However, the pesticide levels in our food supply are not high. In some situations, pesticides even reduce health risks by preventing the growth of harmful organisms, including molds that produce toxic substances. To protect consumers, the FDA sets tolerance levels in foods and conducts frequent "market basket" studies wherein foods from regions throughout the United States are purchased and analyzed. Its 1997 tests found that about 60% of fruits and vegetables had no detectable pesticides and only about 1.2% of domestic and 1.6% of imported foods had violative levels. Its annual Total Diet Study has always found that America's dietary intakes are well within international and Environmental Protection Agency standards.

Manfred Kroger, PhD, Professor of Food Science at The Pennsylvania State University, puts it this way: “Scientific agriculture has provided Americans with the safest and most abundant food supply in the world. Agricultural chemicals are needed to maintain this supply. The risk from pesticide residue, if any, is minuscule, is not worth worrying about, and does not warrant paying higher prices.”

"Organically grown" foods are not inherently tastier than conventionally grown foods. Taste is influenced by freshness, which may depend on how far the products must be shipped from farmer to consumer. Tastiness has a lot to do with how long a fruit is allowed to hang and ripen before picking. Therefore locally grown foods are tastier because they endure shorter shipping distances (which affect the moment in a food’s growth at which it must be picked), and not because of organic practices.

Many buyers of "organic" foods believe that the extra money they pay will ultimately benefit the environment by encouraging more farmers to use "organic" methods. But doing this cannot have much effect because "organic" agriculture is too inefficient to meet the world's food needs. Moreover, the dividing line between organic and conventional agriculture is not sharp because various practices are not restricted to one or the other. For example, "organic" farmers tend not to use pesticides, but faced with threatened loss of crops, they may change their mind—yet can still consider their farms organic.

(Adapted from “‘Organic’ Foods: Certification Does Not Protect Consumers,” by Stephen Barrett, MD, Quackwatch, Inc., July 17, 2006, www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/organic.html)


USDA Agricultural Research Service, Resource Economics Division, Information bulletin No. 770, June 2001.

Data: Organic production. USDA Economic Research Service, Oct 18, 2002.

USDA Study Team on Organic Farming. Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming. USDA, July 1980.

 National Organic Program; Proposed Rule. Federal Register 62:65850-65967, 1997.

National Organic Program: Final rule. Federal Register 65:80547-80684, 2000. (Dec 21, 2000)

Newsome R. Organically grown foods: A scientific status summary by the Institute of Food Technologists' expert panel on food safety and nutrition. Food Technology 44(12):123-130, 1990.

FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Pesticide Program: Residue Monitoring 1999, August 2000.

Organic produce. Consumer Reports 63(1):12-18, 1998.

Organic food standards and labels: The facts. USDA Web site, accessed Oct 21, 2002.

Boume D, Prescott J. A comparison of the nutritional value, sensory qualities, and food safety of organically and conventionally produced foods. Food Science and Nutrition 42:1-34, 2002.

(RUNNING & FITNEWS® September / October 2007 • Volume 25, Number 5)

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