by Trisha Shea
(originally published in 2020 as part of the foodnerd blog, and adapted with permission)
If you were given the choice between an organic apple and a conventionally grown apple, which one would you choose?
You might be thinking, "Is there really a difference between organic and conventionally grown foods or is it just a marketing ploy to make us spend more at the grocery store?"
The simple answer is that YES, organic foods are different, and NO it is not a marketing gimmick.
Read on to learn how organic farming became a thing and why it is an important step in the right direction towards our future health and the health of the environment.
Before we get into what organic means, it is helpful to understand how it came about.
How Organic Farming Started
Synthetic (man-made) pesticide use began in the 1930s and became more widespread after World War II. Just as pesticides were becoming popular, the organic farming movement started gaining traction.
By the 1970s, there were no standards or regulations that defined organic agriculture and States began to pass their own laws regulating organic farming.
In other words, requirements for organic farming in California were probably different from those in New York State.
The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA)
The U.S. government responded by passing the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990, which served to establish uniform national standards for the production and handling of organic foods. The act:
Established that in order to be organic, foods must be produced and handled without the use of synthetic chemicals
Required all products labeled organic to be produced on certified organic farms and handled solely by certified organic operations
The National Organic Standards (2001)
In 2001, another regulation was passed. The National Organic Standards, which made USDA organic standards into law:
Authorized a new USDA National Organic Program (NOP) to set national standards for the production, handling, and processing of organically grown food. NOP was also set to oversee mandatory certification of organic production
Established that producers who met NOP standards could label their products as “USDA Certified Organic” aka birth of the organic food label.
What Does Organic Mean Today?
If you notice the USDA organic seal on a food product, this means that:
All of or a portion of the food ingredients (see below) were not irradiated, grown with sewage sludge, made from genetically engineered seeds, or grown with one of the thousands of highly toxic pesticides allowable in chemical agriculture.
But… Be aware that there are 3 types of organic labeling:
100% Organic: Product contains 100% organic ingredients & shows USDA organic seal
Organic: Product contains ingredients that are at least 95% organic & shows USDA organic seal
Made with Organic Ingredients: Product contains ingredients that are at least 70% organic, but does not show organic seal. “Made with organic ingredients” may appear on the packaging.
Why Do We Care About Pesticides?
Did you know that the United States uses over 1 billion pounds of pesticides each year?
The overuse of toxic pesticides in the U.S. could have hazardous effects on both people and the environment.
Made to Kill. Pesticides are man-made chemicals that are toxic by design and are used to kill or repel insects, weeds, rodents, fungi, and more. If the chemicals that we put on our food are designed to kill other living creatures, what does that mean for us when we ingest small amounts of them daily?
People are exposed to these chemicals on a regular basis. The use of pesticides is widespread in agriculture and are used on fruits, vegetables, wheat, rice, olives, and canola pressed into oil. Even washing and peeling produce cannot completely remove pesticide residues. This means that people are exposed to low levels of pesticide residues on a regular basis through their diets.
Low levels of exposure may harm human health. The science behind pesticides is becoming increasingly clear that even low levels of exposure may harm human health, particularly the health of children who are more vulnerable.
Negative Health Effects of Pesticide Use
Many pesticides have been linked to negative health consequences.
Exposure to pesticides has been linked to:
Neurological Diseases. Exposure to certain pesticides is associated with the development of neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s, Autism, and Alzheimer’s. High exposure to pesticides may be associated with cognitive decline (when the functioning of the brain decreases so that memory and thinking skills become impaired).
Endocrine (hormonal) disruption. Low doses of certain pesticides may mimic or block hormones or trigger inappropriate hormone activity. This may cause negative effects on development, growth, and reproduction.
Respiratory disorders such as chronic cough, dyspnea (shortness of breath), and asthma.
Reproductive disorders such as decreased sperm count in men, decreased fertility, and birth defects.
Cancer. Some pesticides may cause cancer in humans. For example, glyphosate (herbicide that kills weeds) is associated with the development of breast cancer.
Oxidative stress. Exposure to pesticides may induce oxidative stress or damage to our DNA, which is associated with several diseases and aging.
More research needs to be done to determine how long-term, low level exposure to pesticides can affect a person’s health and longevity.
Benefits of Organic Farming
Helps to enhance soil and water quality.
Fosters the cycling of resources, promotes ecological balance, and conserves biodiversity.
Reduces pollution and the detrimental effects that chemical fertilizers have on the environment.
Are grown without the use of most synthetic pesticides or artificial fertilizers. Therefore, protects our health from the harmful effects of pesticides.
Organic produce may have higher antioxidant content (more research needs to be done to confirm this).
Pesticide use is associated with detrimental effects to the health of our bodies and the environment.
Remember, eating organic is great, but don’t fret if you cannot afford it. If eating organic is important to you, but you don’t want to break the bank buying all organic foods, check out the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Dirty Dozen, which lists the top 10 pesticide laden fruits and veggies (buy organic). EWG also has the Clean Fifteen, which lists the top 10 fruits and veggies that contain the least amount of pesticides (can buy conventionally grown).
Bottom Line: Invest your money in organic foods when you can, which will surely have a positive impact on your health and the environment (even if very small, it adds up over time!).
Asp, Karen. “Is the Organic Label as Valuable as You Thought?” NYC Food Policy Center, 7 Dec. 2018, www.nycfoodpolicy.org/is-the-organic-label-as-valuable-as-you-thought/.
Nicolopoulou-Stamati, Polyxeni, et al. "Chemical pesticides and human health: the urgent need for a new concept in agriculture." Frontiers in public health 4 (2016): 148.
“Organic Production & Handling Standards.” USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, 2016, www.ams.usda.gov/public ations/content/organic-production-handling-standards.
“Pesticides.” National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020, www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/pesticides/index.cfm.
Sabarwal, Akash, Kunal Kumar, and Rana P. Singh. "Hazardous effects of chemical pesticides on human health–Cancer and other associated disorders." Environmental toxicology and pharmacology 63 (2018): 103-114.
“Synthetic Pesticides .” Synthetic Pesticides, University of California San Diego, www.bt.ucsd.edu/synthetic_pesticide .html.
About the Author: Trisha Shea, M.S., R.D., C.D.N.
Trish works as a Dietitian Nutrition Educator for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Education Program (SNAP-Ed). SNAP-Ed is an evidence-based program that helps people lead healthy, active lives. She graduated from D’Youville University with a Masters of Dietetics and from the University at Buffalo with a Bachelors of Exercise Science. She also served in the Army National Guard as a Healthcare Specialist. Trish is passionate about using food as medicine to heal and feel our best.