Organic Vegetables: Are They Really Better Than Conventionally Grown?
    By Jane Poynter | August 15th 2007 06:11 PM | 11 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Jane Poynter is one of eight people to live sealed inside the artificial world of Biosphere 2 for two years. The three-acre enclosed terrarium


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    With all the talk of contaminated food pouring in from China and elsewhere, I have to wonder how safe our food supply really is. Let’s face it! It’s not just food coming from outside our borders that contain things not normally considered edible.

    There’s mercury and Prozac (yes Prozac) in our fish; hormones in our meat. And what about that old adage, an apple a day keeps the doctor away? Is it really healthy to eat all those apples? We’re not just eating apple with our apples, you know, but a whole array of pesticides and heaven knows what else.

    I hate to be a neurotic alarmist about what’s in my food, but when a report from the non-profit Environmental Working Group says that conventionally-grown food really does have a load of pesticides on them it gives pause.

    For the record the FDA defines a pesticide thusly:

    "The term pesticide includes many kinds of ingredients used in products, such as insecticides, fungicides, rodenticides, insect repellants, weed killers, antimicrobials, and swimming pool chemicals, which are designed to prevent, destroy, repel, or reduce pests of any sort."

    (I would like to assert that I am not a pest, despite what’s apparently on my food, and what my friends and family may think on occasion.)

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ran nearly 51,000 tests on 44 fruits and veggies between 2000 and 2004. Their data was compiled by the Environmental Working Group, and showed that conventionally-grown apples ranked second worst for pesticide contamination. 94% of all apples sampled were contaminated with an average of 3 different pesticides, at a total average of almost 1 part per million (ppm).

    Potatoes had the highest contamination level – 1.7 ppm on average, with over 80% of the potatoes tested having some detectable levels. I don’t like eating potatoes anyway, so I’m not too non-plused about that. But what about those yummy, yummy peaches we all scoff during the summer if we possibly can?

    All I can say is “Put the peach down!”

    Our fuzzy favorites tested positive for an average of three different kinds of bug killers totaling more than 1.1 ppm on average. 97% of the peaches sampled were contaminated.

    There is some good news for those who have not yet succumbed to eating only organic food. Onions are alright. They showed no contamination. Zip. Avocados and mangoes are OK too. Imported grapes – bad. Domestic grapes – good. And the list goes on. You can get the complete scoop here:

    Unfortunately, we don’t really know what the effects are of eating small amounts of pesticide – if you call 1ppm small. The FDA has a clear limit for methyl mercury, which is often found in fish. The agency considers it unsafe to eat anything containing more than 1ppm of that compound.

    However, trying to make sense of EPA’s pesticide limits – tolerances and exemptions, as it calls them – is like trying to untangle a swimming pool full of angel hair pasta. According to an April 2007 report “There are more than 1055 active ingredients registered as pesticides, which are formulated into thousands of pesticide products that are available in the marketplace.”

    Crikey. It’s enough to put me right off my food!

    Despite the lack of clarity on the subject of health effects, there are a number of diseases correlated with chronic low-dose pesticide exposure. They include prostate, colon and breast cancer, and most recently Parkinson’s Disease. Most of these studies included data from known pesticide exposure, which presumably did not include food.

    However, in 2006, a British group linked child cancer directly with food-borne pesticides. Contamination is particularly bad for fetuses and children, whose organs and metabolic systems that break down pesticides are still developing.

    It’s little wonder that the business of organic food has grown by between 15 – 21% annually from 1997 – 2006. Eating organic really is safer.

    But if you don’t want to pay the extra little bit to get largely pesticide-free fruits and veggies, and don’t mind flavoring your food with a pinch of poison, then keep buying the least contaminated conventionally-grown ones. The list includes: eggplant, broccoli, cabbage, bananas, kiwi, asparagus, mango, pineapple, avocado, and onion. But unless you have a death wish, I’d stay away from some favorites, until you buy organic: peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, imported grapes, pears, spinach, potatoes, and… carrots.

    I guess Bugs Bunny will be going organic.


    The "Related Articles" box above can always flesh out the whole story. That's why we made it. It referencing the article Organic Food Definition Will Soon Contain 38 More Inorganic Ingredients doesn't make me all that keen on organic food either.

    If I had my way I'd cultivate, clean, kill and cook everything myself. But my wife likes that "Sam's Club" place.

    lol Hank, so do you prefer Sea Salt? The thing is people shop (and eat) with their eyes, and organically grown food is hard to make as pretty. But I agree that's no excuse to eat pesticides or additives, and meat certainly has a lot of additives - won't even go into what goes on with chickens, never mind beef or pork. That Oxygen trick sounds good Don't like spuds? boiled in their skin or baked in their jacket, of course if they are organic even after washing they are not as cute as peaches - but tatties just as tasty.
    Jane Poynter
    Thanks for pointing me to the info on the dilution of the term Organic. I read a number of articles about that prior to posting my piece, but could not find any data on residues or pesticides etc. found on or in organic produce.
    Torch, I'm not all that rabid about most things but I am just as suspicious of the organic food labels as I am of big corporations in traditional farming. I was labelled with the term 'granola conservative' a while ago because I am such an irritating mix of positions - but I am betting most of us that read this site are the exact same way.

    So, no, I don't get caught up in sea salt like some of the people in this article by Greg probably do but I really would rather be the only person touching my food. In California, that's not an easy thing so after we have 4 million readers per month and make some money on advertising, I will retire and write science for free full time in the country, with a few acres I can manage myself.

    P.S. That means you have to go tell people about us - we have a ways to go before the 4 million mark.

    Jane,it only shows the 5 articles it thinks are most relevant. So there are 2 from Lee Silver kicking around the anti-GM contingent ( and using organic food to make his point ) 2 supporting organic food, and then 1 criticizing the addition of the new stuff.

    That's a pretty good cross-section of thought, I think. It says in line with our 'let all sides have a voice' mantra.

    I do like your stance Hank. Though however much one wants to be middle of the road in the Sciences, one has to take sides on certain issues: 1) No need for scaremongering on Climate, but deforestation is an issue, as are CO2 emissions and pollution. I guess the way to go is have the finger on the pulse of innovation and promote technological advances, energy saving devices and improvements in fuel efficiencies, and to promote ANY and ALL tree planting and forest management schemes. 2) No need for scaremongering about food, but meat eaters should be thankful to the billions of vegetarians, or we would be paying a higher price for meat, or be forced to hunting 'food on legs' running around the countryside (or birds in the sky or fish in the sea). And if we didn't have hunting seasons and fishing quotas we would be running short of fresh supplies, and be prone to mass extinctions. 3) Organic food is more than just a trendy fad for the middle classes. Any subsidies to promote organically grown food should be encouraged, and any use (or eccessive use) of pesticides, additives & hormones actively discouraged. The benefits could be 'astronomical' 4 million readers per month and you get to retire with a few acres in California, land & life must be cheaper than I thought in the USA. It is good to be informative, and offer arguments from both sides of the fence, but one has to have a direction. Alas, self-interest is hard to walk away from. But there is self interest which can take a lead in improving the world for everyone, and there is the self-interest which says I'm ok jack, sod the rest. This is not an argument of large corporations versus small business per se, after all small businesses can be more selfish and destructive - and large corporations (even globalisation) can provide clear benefits. After all if one could get the CEOs of the top 100 corporations to think green and go organic the battle would be won. PS - I think it is in the style and format one can increase the readership (I'll e-mail some ideas) and of course becoming a must read for university students and the general public in the US, Europe and beyond is achievable. All the best!
    Dear Jane Poynter, Thank you very much for writing this informative article. As a student of agriculture I really like your article very much. However I too also like organic vegetable. During my undergraduate course I performed an organic vegetable cultivation as on of my course assignment. I deals with Mung Bean (Vigna radiata).you can find detailed information about this research section of my website, At this moment to feed up the human of this earth you must increase yield of crops. So, without pesticide, crop production decrease very rapidly! But we can use organic pesticide rather than synthetic pesticide to the crops. I think you should know that farmers can reduce pesticide by using several type control measures such as IPM (Integrated Pest management), apply neem oil, crop rotation etc. but apply or maintain organic cultivation very expensive and time consuming, laborious!! So,I think you should suggest people about using organic method to their field. Please Influence them, who practice kitchen or home gardening to practice organic or eco-friendly management to their garden Thank you again for this article and Wish you all the best.
    The truth is that organic farming is far more costly, and produces less food and fibre per unit of land. Therefore if a significant proportion of farmers converted to growing crops organically we would need to utilise much greater areas of land and water resouces to produce the same quantity of food.

    I try to make sure that I get as many of my calories as possible from the domestic meat industry, just to make sure that there is enough manure to support organic farming.
    Gerhard Adam
    Maybe I'm just cynical, but why is it that we should be concerned about producing more food that will never get to the people that need it?
    Mundus vult decipi
    How about worrying driving up food prices in rich countries due to production costs and supply, thereby increasing the incentive for poor countries to export food to rich countries, thus decreasing supply and increasing prices in poor countries?  Which may not be as bad as driving up prices with farm subsidies and then sending surplus to poor countries thereby driving down their prices so that their farms are financially unsustainable for staple crops, and then not providing consistent relief supplies (as surpluses are variable) causing prices to sky-rocket.
    To all those who support organic farming - do you also support deforestation? Due to inefficiencies, organic farming requires far more land to produce the same amount of food as traditional farming. Which means that the more farmland we switch to organic methods, either the less people we feed, or the more deforestation we cause.

    Another point - some "organic" pesticides have been shown to be carcinogens. Just because something is labelled as organic doesn't necessarily mean it's healthy! Ever heard of hydrocarbons??

    Finally - many of the major produce companies run both organic and traditional farms, so by buying organic you're not necessarily supporting small farmers.