Organic

I was motivated to write this “paper” in 2006 when an allopathic physician told a wellness class my mother-in-law was attending that there were no health benefits to eating organic food.

Disclaimer

Even though I believe in the credibility of the information presented here, I understand that these are not scholarly sources and that I have not cited them in a standard manner. This essay relies heavily on sources available on the Internet and at the local library. For example, I primarily used secondary news sources and Wikipedia.org. I believe that individuals with access to peer-reviewed journals and more free time would report the same evidence and conclusions.

Also, I’m sorry about the Roman numerals in my references. They are regular numbers in my Word document, but they change when I copy and paste them here.

Definitions

Organic farming is a form of agriculture which avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, plant growth regulators, and livestock feed additives. As far as possible organic farmers rely on crop rotation, crop residues, animal manures and mechanical cultivation to maintain soil productivity and tilth, to supply plant nutrients, and to control weeds, insects and other pests.”[i]

Organic food is food produced according to organic standards, which means crops grown without the use of conventional pesticides, as well as artificial fertilizers or sewage sludge, animals reared without the routine use of antibiotics and without the use of growth hormones and food processed without ionizing radiation and without the use of a wide range of food additives. It is produced on all levels without the use of genetically modified organisms… There is evidence that these organic farms are more sustainable and environmentally sound, among other benefits…. However, these claims are subject to dispute and still not settled among scientists.”[ii]

Personal Health

The positive health benefits of consuming organically grown produce and animal products have been documented by scientists around the world. The following is a discussion of some of these benefits.

While many believe that adult humans should avoid milk products altogether, scientists have at least found that organic milk is healthier than milk produced by modern methods. A group of British scientists assert “that organic milk is healthier than the conventional pint, because of its high content of vitamins and essential fatty acids…. organic milk is not only free of antibiotics, but is also much richer in essential fatty acids such as omega 3, said to help brain development in children.”[iii]

In contrast, researchers in the U.S. have stated that no benefit has been found from consuming organic milk.[iv] However, the studies quoted in this specific article did not look at the criteria the British scientists evaluated. This highlights the need to take a broad view of health when considering the organic issue.

Organic produce has also been shown to have higher levels of important nutrients. “A recent article in the Journal of Applied Nutrition gave credence to the notion that organic foods have higher nutrient levels than non-organic food. In this study the mineral content of organic apples, pear, potatoes, wheat, and sweet corn were compared to commercial varieties. Overall the organic foods showed much higher levels of nutrient minerals and much lower levels of heavy metals.”[v]

Nutrients which have been found in higher levels in organic foods include chromium (78% higher; deficiency is associated with the onset of adult diabetes and hardening of the arteries), selenium (390% higher; antioxidant nutrients that protects against cancers and heart disease), calcium (63% higher; needed for strong bones), boron (70% more; helps prevent osteoporosis), lithium (188% higher; used to treat certain types of depression), and magnesium (138% higher; reduces mortality from heart attacks, keeps muscles from spasming, and eases the symptoms of PMS).[vi]

Other studies have looked at vitamin levels of food plants treated with certain pesticides. They showed that application of some pesticides would significantly lower the vitamin levels in the plants they were applied to. This is different than the notion that plants raised with chemicals are low in nutrients because the soil is depleted. This shows that chemicals actually reduce the amount of nutrients in plants after application. The nutrients most often affected are vitamin C, beta carotene, and the B vitamins. These nutrients are vitally necessary for the body to withstand the onslaught of chemical toxins. Vitamin C has been well documented by two-time Nobel laureate Linus Pauling to prevent and treat cancers. Beta carotene has been shown to be a stimulant of the immune system, and is sometimes able to prevent lung cancer.

When they studied organic food for mineral levels, the researchers also looked for the amount of the heavy metals aluminum, cadmium, lead and mercury. Aluminum has been implicated for years in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s content in organic food averaged 40% less that in commercial foods. Lead toxicity, which has been in the new [sic] a lot lately, can adversely affect our children’s’ IQ. It averaged 29% lower in organic foods. Mercury, which can cause neurologic damage, averaged 25% lower in organic foods.[vii]

Rather than looking at specific organic products, the consideration of a broad organic diet is informative. “A study published by the National Research Council in 1993 determined that for infants and children, the major source of exposure to pesticides is through diet. A recent study in 2006 measured the levels of organophosphorus pesticide exposure in 23 school children before and after replacing their diet with organic food. In this study it was found that levels of organophosphorus pesticide exposure dropped dramatically and immediately when the children switched to an organic diet.”[viii]

It is reported that “many EPA-approved pesticides were registered long before extensive research linked these chemicals to cancer and other diseases. Now, the EPA considers 60% of all herbicides (weed killers), 90% of all fungicides (mold killers), and 30% of all insecticides (insect killers) as potentially cancer causing. Organic farming keeps harmful chemicals and pesticides out of the food we eat and beverages we drink.”[ix]

In addition to consumers’ health, it is worth noting that organic farming avoids many of the health risks that farm workers face. “For those who work on farms, there have been many studies on the health effects of pesticide exposure. Even when pesticides are used correctly, they still end up in the air and bodies of farm workers. Through these studies, organophosphate pesticides have become associated with acute health problems such as abdominal pain, dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, as well as skin and eye problems. In addition, there have been many other studies that have found pesticide exposure is associated with more severe health problems such as respiratory problems, memory disorders, dermatologic conditions, cancer, depression, neurologic deficits, miscarriages, and birth defects. Summaries of peer-reviewed research have examined the link between pesticide exposure and neurological outcomes and cancer in organophosphate-exposed workers.”[x] For full documentation, see the Wikipedia.org article.

Walter J. Crinnion N.D., a Naturopathic Physician who teaches Environmental Toxicity and Clinical Ecology at Bastyr University in Seattle, states that “after 50 years… scientists have finally shown that breast cancer is associated with pesticide residue, They have yet to prove that it causes numerous other maladies. I am not waiting for them to prove it before I change my eating habits. As a clinician who sees numerous environmentally poisoned people with health problems, I am convinced of an association between chemicals and disease. The biggest source of exposure for many people is their workplace, then their homes, followed by air, food and water. Of these the easiest to control are our home environment and our diet.”[xi]

Planetary Health

A wider view of the organic issue reveals even further reasons to return to natural systems of survival. We need to understand the connection between the health of the planet and our health as a species living on its crust.

The modern method of farming utilizes great amounts of artificial fertilizers. These fertilizers run off the land and pollute our water sources. The result is large “dead zones” where there is not enough oxygen to support aquatic life. For example, the Gulf of Mexico has an increasing large dead zone that is approximately half the size of Maryland in an area that has historically offered some of the most productive fishing in the U.S.[xii]

From a scientific viewpoint, how does this occur? “Nitrogen and phosphorus from farms and urban runoff deep in the continent’s interior eventually feed algae in the Gulf. The algae die, fall to the bottom and decompose, consuming oxygen. If decomposers on the bottom consume oxygen faster than it can be replenished, any finny fish or crustacean that can’t outswim or outscamper this ‘hypoxic’ zone as it builds gets smothered.”[xiii]

Did these dead zones exist before modern farming methods? Wikipedia reports that “Remains of organisms found within sediment layers near the mouth of the Mississippi River indicate four hypoxic events before the advent of artificial fertilizer…. The periods indicated by the sediment record correspond to historic records of high river flow recorded by instruments at Vicksburg, Mississippi.”[xiv] Only four similar events are recorded in the layers on the Mississippi coast, but they have been found in increasing size since scientists began observing them in the 1970s.

Dead zones are not just occurring in the Gulf of Mexico. “Dead zones are common around the world, with the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Erie, Narragansett Bay and Long Island Sound experiencing them on occasion. But most often they are caused by local pollution problems, including runoff containing fertilizer or sewage.”[xv]

One solution is “inducing [farmers] to use farming techniques that require less fertilizer.”[xvi] Organic farming results in significantly lower levels of fertilizers seeping into rivers and groundwater supplies. One study published in the March 6, 2006 online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that apple trees grown with the commonly used synthetic fertilizer, calcium nitrate, resulted in 4.4 to 5.6 times more nitrate runoff than trees fertilized with chicken manure.[xvii]

Excessive nitrate pollution is serious because it contaminates drinking water in addition to creating dead zones in lakes and oceans. “High nitrate levels in drinking water can cause serious illness in people, particularly small children. Nearly one in 10 domestic wells sampled between 1993 and 2000 had nitrate concentrations exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water standards.”[xviii]

Hope

When faced with evidence of devastation on such a large scale, it can be easy to become discouraged and believe that nothing can be done. However, simple steps like supporting organic farming can have significant results. As more and more farmers switch from modern techniques to more sustainable ones, we will see these dead zones decrease.

Wikipedia reports that, “dead zones are not irreversible. The Black Sea dead zone, previously the largest dead zone in the world, largely disappeared between 1991 and 2001 after fertilizers became too costly to use following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of centrally planned economies in Eastern and Central Europe. Fishing has again become a major economic activity in the region.”[xix]

Do not underestimate the effect of buying organic produce at your local grocery store. Each time you purchase them, you vote with your dollars for more farmers to switch to organic production.

True Cost vs. Price

Organic produce may seem more expensive than that grown with pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers. However, I consider this a marketing slight-of-hand. The hidden costs of modern farming make grocery store prices appear artificially low. We don’t pay for the environmental damage at the cash register, so these products seem cheaper.

In truth, we will pay in the long run for damage that we inflict on the planet. In the case of dead zones, the long-term cost of cheap apples and potatoes will be higher prices for scarce fish plus all other destruction that is not as readily obvious.

Walter J. Crinnion N.D. shares the following anecdote about the true cost of eating organic food. “My friend Steve, who has now gone through an extensive protocol to remove the pesticide residue from his body and had regained his health, will back me up on that. When he added up the costs of his illness in time off work and medical expenses, he found that eating organic food was much less expensive than eating non-organic foods.”[xx]

A summary of the benefits of organic farming is reported at Wikipedia.org. Surveys of multiple studies show that “Organic farms do not release synthetic pesticides or herbicides into the environment – some of which have the potential to harm local wildlife. Organic farms are better than conventional farms at sustaining diverse ecosystems. That is, populations of plants and insects, as well as animals. When calculated either per unit area or per unit of yield: Organic farms use less energy and produce less waste – waste such as packaging materials for chemicals.”[xxi]

Organic Non-food Production

Organic food is not the only important aspect of organic farming. Patagonia, an environmental leader in the outdoor apparel industry, was surprised by a commissioned study of its production practices. The following quotes are taken from Patagonia and Organic Cotton: A Case Study.[xxii]

In 1991 Patagonia had commissioned an environmental impact study on the four major fibers we use in our products. We expected the synthetic, petroleum-based materials to be the worst, but we were surprised to learn that conventionally grown 100 percent cotton, which we had always thought of as a “natural” product, was just as bad as the rest of them.

The process of growing conventional cotton involves the heavy use of chemicals that poison the soil, air and ground water. And, since many of these chemicals were originally formulated as nerve gases for warfare, it’s no surprise that where spraying occurs, health problems follow. Higher rates of birth defects and cancer in both humans and wildlife surround the cotton fields. This is an outrageous cost to pay for the battle against bugs, and it’s a battle we’ll never win. While the bugs quickly adapt to the chemicals, some of which cost $500 a gallon, the rest of us sustain long-term damage.

To encourage others to use organic cotton and to help make organic cotton farming a sustainable business, we organized busloads of employees, journalists and representatives from other clothing companies to go to the Central Valley of California to see for themselves that “factory farming” isn’t a metaphor, but a simple, stark description of a once-beautiful landscape. In the San Joaquin’s cotton fields, for miles around no birds sing or insects hum; the air stinks, the eyes burn, toxins stain the irrigation ditches. Hired men with shotguns sit in lawn chairs by the “lakes” in order to scare off waterfowl and shorebirds before they land in the toxic soup.

Our organic cotton program is a success because our customers are making the same choice we made – to pay more now for organics rather than pay the hidden environmental costs down the road.

Conclusion

We have seen that organic farming methods are beneficial. These sustainable practices grow foods with more important nutrients inside and fewer harmful chemicals outside. Organic methods also reduce the toll of farming on the earth. This is true whether the crop is for food, clothing or fuel.

References


[i] Wikipedia.org. Organic farming. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organic_farming)

[ii] Wikipedia.org. Organic food. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organic_food)

[iii] The Observer, Guardian Unlimited. Scientists say organic milk is healthier (Aug. 27, 2006).(http://observer.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,,1859485,00.html)

[iv] MSNBC.com. Organic milk: Are the benefits worth the cost?

Price can be twice as much, but research doesn’t show added advantage (Aug. 25, 2006). (http://msnbc.msn.com/id/14458802/)

[v] Rebecca Roth. “Organic or not Organic?” (http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/biology/b103/f01/web1/roth.html)

[vi] WellnessWeb Homepage. Are organic foods really healthier for you? Walter J. Crinnion N.D. (Published in Organic Gardening Almanac, 1995; Llewelyn Pub.). (http://lookwayup.com/free/organic.htm#)

[vii] Ibid.

[ix] Nutiva.com. Organic Food Benefits. (http://www.nutiva.com/nutrition/organic.php)

[xi] WellnessWeb Homepage. Are organic foods really healthier for you? Walter J. Crinnion N.D. (Published in Organic Gardening Almanac, 1995; Llewelyn Pub.). (http://lookwayup.com/free/organic.htm#)

[xii] Spotts, Peter N. The Christian Science Monitor. A bigger ‘dead zone’ this year than usual (July 28, 2006). (http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0728/p02s01-usgn.html)

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Wikipedia.org. Dead zone (ecology). (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_zone_%28ecology%29).

[xv] The New York Times. ‘Dead Zone’ Off Oregon Creates Alarm, and Skepticism (August 23, 2006). (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/23/us/23deadzone.html?_r=1&ex=1156478400&en=99dad0ea953ad56b&ei=5087&oref=slogin)

[xvi] Spotts, Peter N. The Christian Science Monitor. A bigger ‘dead zone’ this year than usual (July 28, 2006). (http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0728/p02s01-usgn.html)

[xvii] Environment (May 2006). Organic Fertilizer and Nitrogen Pollution (p. 5).

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Wikipedia.org. Organic food. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organic_food)

[xx] WellnessWeb Homepage. Are organic foods really healthier for you? Walter J. Crinnion N.D. (Published in Organic Gardening Almanac, 1995; Llewelyn Pub.). (http://lookwayup.com/free/organic.htm#)

[xxii] Patagonia.com. Patagonia and Organic Cotton: A Case Study. (http://www.patagonia.com/web/us/patagonia.go?assetid=2066)

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