“Organic” is a hot buzzword around the grocery store these days. It is taking over the produce section and appears on the packaging of tons of center-of-the-grocery-store products. But what does it really mean? Why does it cost so much more than other products? Is it worth the extra cost? Is it really healthier? I’ll try to explain it without making your head explode!
Organic foods come from an agricultural system that is focused on protecting the environment and everything that lives in it (you included!). The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates Organic farming practices, food production, and product labeling. The USDA defines organic as foods produced with a focus on renewable resources and conservation and no chemicals or bioengineered substances. There are TONS of rules about what can or can’t be used/done/etc.
And not just any farmer can start slapping the “organic” label on their products. It takes at least three years to convert a conventional farm to an organic farm. Before a farm can call itself “organic” it has to be certified by the USDA. The smallest hint of old fertilizer in the ground can delay an organic certification by a year! It’s a huge and expensive process.
Basically, to be organic, food has to be produced using natural products in a manner that supports a healthy environment.
There are a couple reasons that organic products tend to cost more. One reason is the intensive process it takes to even get certified as an organic farm (see above). Another reason is because the process of producing organic food requires more physical labor than conventional farming. The increased cost and work of becoming and maintaining an organic farm also mean that fewer crops are usually produced on an organic farm (remember supply and demand from that econ class you took in college?).
Here’s an example of how organic farming is more labor intensive. Plants need nitrogen to grow big and strong. They absorb nitrogen from the soil through their roots. So, once something is grown on a particular patch of land, the amount of nitrogen left in the soil is reduced. In conventional farming, fertilizers containing nitrogen are added to the soil to replace what was lost. In organic farming, crops that make money, like the fruits and vegetables you buy at the farmer’s market, have to be rotated with crops that deposit nitrogen, like soybeans. This means that less land can be planted with money making crops and more work is required by the farmer every year to rotate the crops.
There are a few other government things that contribute to the high price of organics, but I promised to not make your head explode!
There is still a lot of research in the works to figure out if organic foods are healthier than conventional foods. At this point, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference. Some studies have shown slightly higher levels of vitamin C, minerals, and antioxidants in organic produce, but the difference has not been big enough to really have an effect. If organics were significantly healthier, I probably wouldn’t be writing this because organics would be the only foods available!
Some organic foods may be better for you simply because the conventionally grown items carry more leftover pesticides. At the levels most likely to be seen in your neighborhood grocery store though, it shouldn’t be enough to really concern you…unless you insist on never cleaning your produce…in which case, we need to have a talk about all the other people who have touched that apple! If pesticides still concern you, the Environmental Work Group has put together lists of the foods that have the highest and lowest levels of pesticide residue. Choose organic for the Dirty Dozen and conventional for the Clean Fifteen. Check out their website for free downloads of both lists!
Is It Worth It?
Now that you know what organic foods are and why they can cost so much more, you’re probably wondering, “Is it worth buying organic?” My super useful answer is, “Maybe? Sometimes? It really depends on what’s important to you and what your budget looks like.”
If preserving the environment is a priority to you, then buying organic will support that goal. It reduces the amount of chemicals released into the environment and utilizes land in a way that resembles the natural processes of the environment, before humans came in with their big machines. There is also evidence that conventional farming may be damaging our environment and waterways (save the shrimp!).
If you keep a close eye on your budget but want to eat healthy, then buying conventional may help to stretch your grocery funds. Eating fruits and vegetables of any kind is healthier than not eating them, so save yourself a few dollars and choose whichever cucumber is cheaper when you’re at the store. My grocery store had organic blackberries on sale last week for almost half the price of regular blackberries, so keep an eye out for sales!
At the end of the day, organic has to be a personal choice. Hopefully, you now have the info you need to make an informed decision that fits your goals! Leave a comment to let me know why you choose organic or conventional! Let me know if you still have questions about organics!