Going Organic: The good, the bad, and the honest truth.
Even the most friendly of dinner parties can become instantly divided by the mention of organic vs conventionally grown foods. Your otherwise quiet and timid neighbour becomes a spokesperson for David Wolfe while your distant cousin, whom you thought was ultra-progressive, starts yelling "FAKE NEWS" from across the table. Being even remotely ill-informed can put you in a precarious and vulnerable situation. With all the information readily available, it's hard to know who to believe and how to apply it. So, how is one to referee in such an arena? Well, we're here to help with that!
Is organic actually better for me?
The argument that "eating local, organic produce and livestock is better for your overall health" stands as the most basic platform and the driving force behind this entire debate. Pro-organic advocates state that the use of pesticides is detrimental to one's health due to the high amounts of pesticide residue found on conventionally grown produce. Alternatively, the pro-conventionals state that pesticide use has been around for decades, is necessary to ensure high crop yields and has been deemed by governing agencies to be safe for consumption. Let's start by exploring pesticides a little more so we can understand how they work.
Pesticides, specifically insecticides, are used by farmers to increase crop yield by eliminating the damage done by invading insects. There are two types of insecticides that are most commonly used in conventional farming practices:
- Cholinesterase Inhibitors - interferes with nerve impulse transmission at the synapse gap. This method shuts down brain function and results are immediate. Organophosphate and carbamate fall into this category.
- Insect Growth Regulators - chemicals based on hormones that regulate arthropod development. This method prevents full sexual maturity so the species of insects are eliminated due to an inability to procreate. (1)
The research on the effects of these types of insecticides and how they impact human health is actually quite staggering. With respect to cholinesterase inhibitors, researchers are especially interested in the effects they have on the nervous system, and rightfully so! Recent studies determined that chronic exposure is directly linked to numerous physiological disorders such as cancer, neurotoxic effects, endocrine disruption, and damage to reproductive systems. (2) Not to mention that exposure to this type of insecticide also increases your risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. (3)
Now, to be fair, the governing bodies that-be are making moves to control the use of organophosphates along with a few other household brands of pesticides (We're lookin' at you, Roundup!). What we want you to take away from this discussion is that you ultimately have some control over how much exposure you have to these nasty little extras. While we understand that buying organic isn't always the most economical, putting your money into things you eat the most will still help to reduce your toxic load. Also worth mentioning is the dirty dozen and the clean fifteen. It's a list of fruits and veg that are ranked highest in pesticide use (strawberries, sad day) as well as the lowest (avocados, thank the heavens!). You can find the list here.
The effects of pesticides and insecticides on human health are fairly conclusive and relatively easy to research since there are mounds of research done in this area. What's slightly more difficult to debate is the nutritional content of organic vs conventionally-grown produce due to lack of research and hard-to-control variables. This is where the research falters and flips between conclusions, however, after reviewing over a dozen articles, there is a trend that lends itself towards a higher nutrient content in organic crops vs conventional, specifically in regards to ascorbic acid (vitamin c). Also worth noting is that organic crops have lower nitrate levels and yield higher quality proteins than their conventional counterparts (4). So, what does this mean? Honestly, not much in the way of a solid argument for higher nutrient content. That's not to say the argument is totally unfounded; it just means that more research is required to make more conclusive statements. Animal studies show better growth and reproduction in animals fed organically-grown feed compared with those fed conventionally-grown feed but these results are yet to be duplicated in a human trial. Is this because the results actually fail to duplicate or is it because not enough have tried? We'll have to wait and see!
"So what about livestock?"
This is where the debate truly heats up and the data becomes even more eye-opening. The use of antibiotics and hormones in livestock, again, boils down to profits and the need for these in conventional farming is created by the demand placed on corporate farms by the general population. Without antibiotics, livestock living in overcrowded and unkempt conditions are highly susceptible to disease and with such close proximity, the likelihood of that disease spreading to a large portion of a flock or herd is incredibly high. Not to mention the demand placed on dairy cows for milk production is beyond the capacity of a natural, normal cow so hormones are needed to meet their quotas.
Now, the overuse of antibiotics is a discussion not unfamiliar to most and the implications of resistant bacteria are generally understood. What's not as mainstream are the effects of added hormones and how big of a role they play in our developmental health. Hormones are chemical messengers that provide signals at the cellular level to control normal physical development and many organ functions, as well as the timing of physiological processes such as reproduction. Environmental chemicals that mimic hormones interfere with these signals, leading to problems such as birth defects, feminization of males and masculinization of females. (5) The buying power of the North American population has the ability to impact government policy or, at the very least, a company's policy regarding antibiotic and hormone use. Factory farms are responsive to buying trends and if that trend lends itself to antibiotic and hormone-free meat, then it's not far-fetched to believe that we could see a shift in modern farming practices on a larger scale.
It's important to understand that buying 'organic' meat or poultry does not necessarily mean it is antibiotic and hormone free. This is where buying locally comes into play. Utilizing resources available to you, such as farmers markets and co-ops, it's much easier to have open discussions with the farmers and locate operations that follow farming methods that align with your values.
Ensuring good farming practices is not the only benefit to buying locally grown produce and livestock. Eating foods native to your environment allows for less travel time from farm to table, which results in a higher nutrient content (6). Bear in mind that foods stored and refrigerated prior to eating will still lose nutritional value, however, the methods by which produce is harvested, matured, and transported plays a much larger role than you would expect. Perhaps, even above all nutritional purposes, eating locally allows for communal support and gives smaller farms a chance to thrive in an otherwise cut-throat market. From farms to markets to small shops, supporting those within your community encourages an exchange of knowledge, trust, and quality goods and allows for personable and meaningful relationships to flourish. Bringing those same feelings home with you brings life back into your meals and joy to your food and that's the recipe for a truly happy plate!