Is Organic Healthier? Better?
Lately there have been quite a few articles floating around the internet on the question of whether organic food is better for us. The question is not new by any means, but I’m still shocked at how many do not seem convinced that organic is the healthier option. Often the argument of “science” is used to back up the claim that organic is by no means healthier. It’s like someone being sick, but not believing it until a doctor tells them so.
I’ve always thought that research involving diet and health is difficult to undertake simply because it takes time. In today’s world, science experiments are quick — any study taking more than a month is most likely considered long-term. We have to admit that our culture does not look at things through a long-term lens. We want answers now — not tomorrow! Next week? And surely not in 10 years. Think about how long it took to find out that smoking was dangerous: over twenty years! This is because diseases and illnesses develop over time, not overnight!
The other thing about human health is that it is never black and white. There are so many factors impacting health — and so many unique combinations. Where does someone live? Do they breathe fresh air? Walk? Get exercise? Ok, they eat organic, but what kind of organic food do they eat? Eating organic junk food will likely remove any of the health benefits. Do they drink alcohol (something else we avoid: alcohol consumption has been linked to cancer). Many factors impact our health, making studying human health even more difficult.
My personal opinion is that, like the unfortunate example of smoking shows, just because “science” has not proven something to be true, in no way means we shouldn’t believe something or trust our intuition. I always like to ask people this question: if someone were to hold two apples up in front of you and tell you that the one on the left had been sprayed with a myriad of chemicals by someone wearing a gas mask, and the one on the right had been grown the way nature intended, which one would you want to have? It’s that simple.
Something that I use to guide what I purchase organic is the “Dirty Dozen” list. Created by the U.S.-based Environmental Working Group, the list ranks pesticide contamination of 48 popular fruits and vegetables based on results of more than 35,000 samples tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.
What does the 2016 list tell us? Well, strawberries, apples, nectarines, peaches — a lot of fruit — celery, grapes, cherries, spinach, tomatoes and sweet bell peppers (those big red hothouse ones) top the list for the produce containing the most pesticides. This means that we should buy these items organically when possible to avoid pesticide exposure. See the full list here.
The Group also has a list called the “Clean Fifteen” – produce containing the least amount of pesticide contamination. At the top of this list are avocados, corn, pineapples, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, onions and asparagus. This means that if you don’t want to purchase all things organically, — or if you simply can’t, whatever the reason — filling your shopping bag with conventionally-grown items from the Clean Fifteen list is another way to avoid pesticide exposure.
In 2000, Canada’s House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development recommended that:
the government develop an organic agriculture policy for the transition from pesticide-dependent farming to organic farming. This policy should include tax incentives, an interim support program during the transition period, technical support for farmers, the development of post-secondary organic farming programs and enhanced funding for research and development (R&D) in organic agriculture.
While some of these recommendations have been accomplished in Canada over the past 16 years, many simply have not. We are waiting — but what for, I’m not sure. We do not always need to wait for science to show us the answers. We need to trust our intuition. Yes, technology in agriculture has allowed us to come along way (increase yields mainly), but we also need to be mindful of human health when it comes to food production. And I don’t always purchase organic — but if it were more available and affordable, I certainly would!
Through answering this question, I’ve been once again reminded of the age-old quote by Hippocrates: “Let food by thy medicine, and medicine thy food.”