Going All in on Organics: Is it Worth it?
After two years playing baseball at the collegiate level, I left the team due to struggles in the classroom and nagging elbow injuries. It was a difficult decision due to the fact that baseball had shaped most of my life outside of the classroom for nearly 15 years. For the next year and a half, I struggled with binge eating and going out in excess, which led to a weight increase of over 40 pounds. As my struggles inside the classroom continued through this time, my situation led me to seriously rethink my priorities and health. After doing some research, I decided to explore a low-carb diet and strict workout regimen in order to promote weight loss and an overall healthier lifestyle. Several months later, after losing nearly thirty pounds, I had developed a strong passion for exercise and clean eating. These lifestyle changes led to improvements in health, confidence, the classroom, and other areas as well.
As I have continued to experiment with various dietary techniques and workout routines, one of the recent trends that I haven’t bought into yet is the organic trend. According to the United States Department of Agriculture USDA organic overview page (2017), demand for organic products has experienced double-digit growth nearly every year since the late 1990s. Furthermore, organic products now represent over 5% of total food sales in the United States and are available in nearly 75% of conventional grocery stores today (USDA 2017). Although farmers have been exploring with the concept of clean, organic food products since the 1980s and 1990s, there is still a fairly limited amount of credible research on the benefits, or lack thereof, of switching to a full or partial organic diet.
Since the organic food industry is still a relatively new topic in the world’s apparent race to clean eating and a greener environment, there are a number of factors that have contributed to the exponential spikes in organic food sales. In an effort to pinpoint reasons for the recent spike in demand for organic products, the USDA conducted a number of studies and surveys. By examining the buying habits and demographics of organic consumers, several patterns emerged. The majority of consumers who purchased organic products did so for three main reasons (in decreasing order of consumer importance): health, the environment, and animal welfare (USDA 2017).
As more consumers buy into the organics, it is essential that data continues to be gathered on this issue. Consider a single mother who purchases organic products in order to ensure proper nutrition for her children, or a health-conscious, low-budget college student. According to the most recent USDA records (USDA 2017), organic food products cost on average, 1.5 times the cost of the same product conventionally grown, with the highest recorded premium being nearly 250% for certain organic dairy products, animal protein, and produce. Since produce (43%), dairy (15%), and animal protein (14%) represent nearly 75% of all organic sales (USDA 2017), organic consumers often pay up to twice as much on groceries compared to their conventional consumer counterparts. Due to the potentially enormous (or non-existent) implications that switching to an organic diet can have on one’s life, it is imperative that the average consumer understands the costs of committing to an organic diet (financial, health-related, environmental, good, bad etc.).
Organic consumers often lack a basic understanding of what makes a product organic. According to the USDA organic labeling page (2017), in order for a product to be certified organic, it must be made without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, genetic engineering, sewage sludge, radiation, and preservatives (USDA 2017). When organic farming and organic foods started to become popular during the 1990s, there were only two options: organic and conventionally grown products. As demand has increased and consumers become more and more health conscious, there are now three different major categories used to label organic products: “100% organic”, “organic” (at least 95% of ingredients are organic), and “made with organic ingredients” (at least 70% of ingredients are organic). (USDA 2017). The terminology used to categorize organic products is often misleading and confusing to the average consumer. “Made with organic ingredients” seems to be equivalent to the classification “organic”, but as seen above, products “made with organic ingredients” can be as low as 70% organic, while “organic” products are at least 95% organic. Without clear knowledge of organic terminology, consumers may be completely deceived by their newfound obsession. Consumers who eat conventionally now technically could be eating products up to 69% organic but will pay a 50% premium for a product labeled “made with organic ingredients” that is barely 70% organic.
One of the leading reasons that consumers switch to an organic lifestyle is for personal health (i.e. nutritional benefits, the absence of pesticides and artificial hormones. However, current studies overwhelmingly suggest that there is little to no difference in nutritional content between organic and conventional products. A number of essential vitamins and minerals were included in nearly all studies and included the following: phosphorus (mineral – bone density, detoxification, energy levels), vitamin C (vitamin – growth, tissue repair and development, immune system booster), calcium (mineral – bone density, weight management, blood pressure levels), and magnesium (mineral – energy levels, digestion, bone density, heart health). Organic advocates claim that these four minerals appear in much higher quantities when foods are grown organically.
However, the research and data analysis done regarding these four vitamins have not yielded any significant evidence to support these claims. According to an analysis of the nutritional content and quality of organic foods by Dr. Michael C. Chen (2005), of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, there was no evidence of any significant nutritional differences between organic and conventional food products, and most differences in nutrient content were mostly due to differences in the production process. (p. 680) In Dr. Chen’s study, the only vitamin or mineral that displayed significantly higher levels in organic products was phosphorus, the second most common mineral found in the human body. The results for magnesium, vitamin c and calcium all showed no difference in concentrations between organic and conventional foods. (p. 684)
In a similar study conducted by Diane Bourn and John Prescott of the Food Science Department at the University of Otago, New Zealand (2002), nutritional value and food safety of organic and conventional products were analyzed and compared. In terms of nutritional differences, no significant differences were found between either of the four vitamins and minerals mentioned above. (p. 26-27) Professor Bourn and Prescott were also able to identify three factors that could potentially influence the nutritional content and safety of organic and conventional products: genetics, environment (soil type, fertilizer type, climate), and post-harvest practices (harvest time, storage, processing, etc.). (p. 7) It is important to identify these outside variables that might influence data. If these variables can be controlled, we could get a better understanding of differences in organic and conventional farming methods.
One study, however, did seem some nutritional differences in favor of the organics. According to a study conducted by renowned nutritionist, Dr. Virginia Worthington, a graduate of international health from Johns Hopkins University (2001), higher quantities of vitamin C, phosphorous, and magnesium were found in organically grown produce. (p 167) Although these results were significant, Dr. Worthington pointed out that other factors and variables could have played a part in the results of her study on nutritional quality of organic versus conventional produce. (p. 170)
Although it is widely acknowledged that pesticides used in the growing of food pose a potentially significant health risk, very few studies offer significant evidence whether or not differences in pesticide levels between organic and conventionally grown food products will cause long-term detriments to overall health. One issue that has arisen in these studies is how long it takes formerly conventional, but now organic farms, to rid itself of pesticide residue from previous harvests. Katherine Barker, a USF professor and nutritionist, suggested in her 2011 article that it can take over 5 years for past pesticide residue to disappear from the soil. (p. 101)
In a meta-analysis of organic studies conducted by David Holzman (2012), a well-known journalist in medicine and science, with multiple publications in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, several studies conducted at Stanford University yielded some alarming results. In one of these studies, 7-year old children who had experienced higher pesticide exposure encountered on average, a deficit of nearly 7 IQ points. These results were confirmed in a number of subsequent studies (p. 458) Furthermore, in Dr. Worthington’s previously mentioned study (2001), there was a 15.1% decrease in pesticide levels amongst organic produce. (p. 166) Unfortunately, due to a lack of long-term data, it will take many more years of collecting data to learn whether or not lower pesticide levels negatively impact long-term personal health.
Ideally, any additional money spent on organic products now will be less than additional medical costs that might have developed due to continuous consumption and use of conventionally grown products down the road. Obviously, this is a hypothetical and impossible to know for sure, especially due to the lack of long-term medical data on organic consumers. Further research should be done on long-term health as we continue to obtain more and more data regarding organic consumption and its effect on personal health. At the moment though, current data suggest that there is little to no difference in the short-term effects of the consumption of organic products versus conventionally grown products in terms of nutritional benefits, pesticide residue, genetic engineering, etc.
Inconsistent standards for organic products and lack of enforcement by accredited organic certifiers can result in the mislabeling of organic products. According to the USDA webpage on organic agriculture (2017), in order to be USDA certified, all organic farmers and food handlers are required to meet all up-to-date standards and requirements. Additionally, for farmers and food handlers with sales exceeding $5,000, certification is mandatory. As of this past year, USDA has accredited nearly 50 state and private certification programs within the United States and has over 30 accreditations abroad (USDA 2017). Certifying agents from these accredited programs and organizations are responsible for reviewing applications from organic farmers and food handlers for certification eligibility. Once an application for organic operations has been reviewed and accepted, certified inspectors are required perform annual onsite inspections of all certified organic operations (USDA 2017).
Due to the recent spike in demand for organic food products and more emerging organic farmers and food handlers, it has become more difficult for certifying agencies, such as USDA, to hire and train enough agents to conduct these yearly reviews effectively. This has led to weak enforcement of organic standards, and lax punishments for farmers and food handlers who fail to follow these regulations and standards. According to Dr. Chenglin Liu (2011), a law professor at St. Mary’s University, lack of regulation in the organic industry can lead to lower quality goods… (p. 377)
Lack of sufficient training, weak enforcement of current standards and regulations, and the dishonesty amongst farmers and food handlers can have far-reaching consequences on the organic industry. When dishonest farmers label their non-organic products as organic, they are able to sell these products at a slightly lower price than honest organic farmers. Since organic products cost more to grow, have smaller yields and a shorter shelf life, organic farmers must charge higher rates in order to meet the same profit margins of conventional products. So, honest farmers are unable to lower their rates due to the additional costs of organic farming and end up losing money to dishonest farmers mislabeling their food products. As a result, honest and reliable farmers are pushed out of the organic industry leaving consumers to deal with a higher percentage of dishonest organic farmers who are selling mislabeled conventional products for the same price as organic. Dr. Liu’s study details a 2005 investigation (2011) where Jiahe Agricultural Technology Development Corporation admitted to mislabeling conventionally grown products as organic in order to meet the increased demand for organic groceries. Since the company was accredited by another company, the USDA was unable to warrant any sanctions, and Jiahe returned to the organic market soon after. (p. 374)
Consumers often have no idea where the food they’re getting from is coming for. At both large-scale grocery chains and smaller-scale farms and farmer’s markets, it is nearly impossible to know exactly where and how your food is being grown. At large-scale grocery stores who make more organic sales, there is a much higher quantity of products that need to be certified. There are a couple of issues that could arise at these larger farms and grocery chains due to the lack of sufficient training and certifying agents. Agents often deal with the same supervisor(s) at each annual inspection. As a result, since certifying agents are accredited, not employed, by the USDA, under-the-table deals may occur to turn a blind eye for mislabeled products in exchange for money and/or deals (Liu 2011).
It is crucial that the USDA does a better job monitoring the organic certification process. Dr. Liu (2011) concluded in his aforementioned study that “the current regulatory framework is not only inadequate to the task of regulating domestic organics but also incapable of ensuring the integrity of imported organics.” (p. 336) Stricter regulations and penalties for unethical deals, improperly or inadequately certifying unqualified farmers and food handlers are necessary in order to increase trust and consumer confidence in the organic industry. Without proper training and a sufficient number of certifying agents to meet the spike in demand for organics, the other factors that go into the consumers’ decision to go organic are meaningless. There are already more than enough issues for consumers to consider when deciding whether or not to go all in on the organics. Mislabeling issues are entirely out of the customer’s control, and shoppers, including myself, shouldn’t have to be questioning whether or not we’re buying an authentic organic product. In order to protect the consumer, Professor Barker (2011) recommends that the USDA and National Organic Program (NOP) hire and train more agents to ensure the proper standards are met. Furthermore, consumers should have full access to all reports of the growing process to protect the integrity of the organic industry. (p. 107-108)
There are a number of key factors consumers need to consider before choosing to make the switch to an organic lifestyle, but ultimately, the decision to buy into the organic trend really depends on what matters most to the consumer. After reviewing data and research accumulated over the past two or so decades, the reasons that factored most into the consumers’ decision whether or not to buy into the organic lifestyle appear to be personal health, environmental concerns, and cost. The decision not to buy into the organics is not an easy choice to make given the cult-like following it has started to develop during the recent health movement. However, current data and ongoing research suggest consistently that there are minimal differences in nutritional content, long-term pesticide levels, and other health benefits. Another consumer concern that intrigues me is animal welfare. I do not condone or support inhumane treatment of animals, however, since the ultimate goal is consuming the animal as food, animal welfare doesn’t appear to be a top priority for consumers. Of the three main reasons consumers choose the organic lifestyle, environmental concerns from organic farming could be a legitimate issue in the near future. Although the consequences of non-organic farming have little effect on our short-term health, conventional farming could play a role in global changes in future generations. In terms of recommendation for future research, a few other studies that would be helpful to the average organic consumer would be to analyze differences between organic and conventional products for different types of food (i.e. produce, dairy, meat, grains, etc.) to determine whether or not some organic products are worth it while others aren’t. Something else to consider would be finding a better way to eliminate outside variables that are out of our control, so we can see the nutritional differences and pesticide quantities due to the farming method alone.
Although issues still with certifications, mislabeling, and integrity among farmers, the consumer will generally still make their decision based on their stance on the personal health, environmental concerns, cost, and animal welfare. The USDA must continue to enforce stricter regulations and penalties, and update training and certification policies regularly in order to ensure safe and authentic organic consumers for customers. Many consumers, including myself, will continue to blindly buy into trends such as the organics, gluten-free, etc., so it is critical for the sake of the organic industry that the USDA to do everything they can to ensure the consumer gets what they’re paying for.