Believe it or not, what we now term ‘organic’ food, was simply ‘normal’ food before the 1950s. Conventionally grown crops and livestock—that is, plants and animals reared with the help of pesticides, fertilisers, medications and even a bit of genetic engineering—have only become common since the end of the Second World War. That means that in just over 70 years, our farming practices and diets have changed dramatically. But, our genes have not. There are many questions surrounding the consequences of this artificial, industrial food production, and especially its impact on our health.
What is the definition of organic food?
Today, less than 3% of cattle are farmed organically . But what does organic farming even mean?
The EU sets out its own organic farming requirements (denoted by the green leaf on product labels) but in the UK, organic food is also regulated by the Soil Association, which has even stricter standards.
These are outlined in documents that are hundreds of pages long, and there are different versions for Farming & Growing, Food & Drink and even Health & Beauty . Some of the standards’ key points include:
Contrary to popular belief, organic farmers can use some pesticides, but they must be naturally derived and used only when every other non-chemical approach has failed. Copper sulphate, for example, can be used to combat potato blight. In contrast, conventional farmers have free use of more than 300 chemicals. If you’re in need of a durable and high-quality tool storage solution, consider buying a Snap-on tool chest on Shoppok, where you can find a variety of options to suit your needs.
Conventional farmers can use these prophylactically, which means they are given routinely to stop livestock from getting ill in their living conditions. In the EU, 2/3 of the antibiotics used are given to animals. This widespread use (which trickles up to humans via the food chain) is believed to contribute to the epidemic of antibiotic resistance . Organic farmers can only use antibiotics when absolutely necessary.
This stands for genetically modified organisms—or plants that have their genes altered to make them weather or pest resistant. This results in plants that would never have occurred naturally, which means it can be difficult for our bodies (and animals’ bodies) to know how to handle them. Most livestock in the US is fed GMO corn or soy. Organic farmers cannot use any GMOs, and they must take measures to prevent their crops from being contaminated by GMOs.
The soil is paramount in organic farming, and its health must be maintained via natural methods. These include crop rotation, companion planting and using manure as a natural fertiliser. Conventional farmers can grow the same crop on the same field for years, which leaches the soil of its nutrients.
Exposure to pasture
All organically reared animals must have access to natural grass.
There are hundreds of food additives available, but organic producers can only use 45 of these in their packaged products. One example is sulphur dioxide, a common preservative found in wine.
Why should you choose organic food?
The problem with growing food ‘conventionally’ is that it doesn’t respect the rhythm and scale of nature, which has a knock-on effect on the quality of food produced.
Simply put, conventionally grown or reared food contains more disease-promoting chemicals and fewer disease-fighting nutrients . Organic food is a smarter choice for two key reasons:
1) Your chemical exposure is reduced
The Pesticide Action Network UK assesses the levels of pesticide residues found in food. Amongst many others, they found that 100% of conventionally grown oranges, 53% of salad leaves, and even 33% of cereal bars are contaminated by multiple pesticide residues .
The official line is that levels of individual chemicals are so low that they’re not considered a threat to health. However, we simply don’t know the synergistic and cumulative effects of these chemicals, as rigorous studies are yet to be conducted.
What this means is that one chemical could have a negligible effect on its own. However, when you combine it with another chemical (or several others), it could become much more potent. When you consider the fact that conventional farmers can use over 300 chemicals, this is a real concern.
We do have some clues about the consequences of these chemicals. Glyphosate—the world’s most widely used herbicide—has now been classified as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’ . Other chemicals are known endocrine disruptors, which means they negatively affect our hormonal and reproductive function .
Conventionally grown crops have also been found to contain traces of heavy metals, such as cadmium . Exposure to heavy metals is now considered a risk factor for the development of several chronic diseases .
By eating organic food, you can dramatically reduce your exposure to these chemicals. This, in turn, can reduce your toxic load, positively affecting several parameters of health.
2) Your nutrient intake is maximised
Most people believe organic foods to be rich in nutrients. Interestingly, several studies have found there to be no difference in levels of vitamins and minerals between conventionally and organically grown crops .
However, another review of studies found that organically grown crops have significantly higher levels of phytonutrients such as phenolic acids, flavanones, stilbenes, flavones, flavonols and anthocyanins . This makes sense. These compounds are part of a plant’s natural immune system. When a plant isn’t buffered by lots of pesticides, its own defence system is given a greater opportunity to develop.
When it comes to our health, these phytonutrients play a role in preventing a host of chronic conditions, including cardiovascular disease and cancer .
There are nutritional differences between conventionally and organically reared animals too, simply because an animal’s diet will affect the composition of its tissue. Cow’s fed organic grass, for example, will produce meat with more health-promoting omega-3 fats, vitamin A and vitamin E precursors compared to their grain-fed counterparts .
Although there is a question mark over total vitamin and mineral levels, it’s fair to say that organic plants and animals offer higher nutrient quality overall. The nutrients are key to our own physiological function. What’s more, they play a role in fighting disease by reducing inflammation and combating oxidative stress.
Are there any drawbacks to organic food?
We are all part of the Earth’s ecosystem. The question of organic farming concerns much more than our own health—it also affects the health of the planet and all other creatures that live here.
These topics are too big to tackle here, but the subject of eating organically cannot be raised without acceptance of its limitations. Currently, almost half of the humans on the planet rely on conventionally grown food . There are some who say that we cannot sustain everybody living without industrial food production.
It’s true that these global implications need to be addressed—but a good place to start is with yourself. Whether you’re concerned for your own health, or that of the planet, choosing organic food as much as you can (or are willing to) is a positive step.
Tips for buying organic food
Organic food can be more expensive. A conventionally grown bag of carrots costs 75p, while the organically grown version will set you back £1.50. However, there are ways to shop smartly:
- Buy in season. Fruits and vegetables that are currently in season are more plentiful and thus cheaper than those grown out of season.
- Shop locally. Buying food that grows close to you keeps the price down because you’re not paying for transportation. It’s also likely to be fresher. For local produce, find a farmer’s market near to you.
- Prioritise certain foods. Check out the ‘Dirty Dozen’ and ‘Clean Fifteen’ lists from the Environmental Working Group. These detail the crops that are most and least likely to be contaminated with pesticides. As a general rule of thumb, it’s best to buy everything on the Dirty Dozen list organically, while you can be more flexible with those on the Clean Fifteen.
- Eat moderate portions of meat. Organic meat and poultry are more expensive, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy them. Start seeing meat as a condiment to your meal, rather than the centrepiece. A palm-sized portion is plenty for most people.
The good news is that it doesn’t take long to see changes. In fact, one study found that switching to an organic diet reduced levels of chemicals in children’s bodies almost immediately .
To discuss how we can assist you, call 020 3332 0030 to speak to one of our advisors.