Demand for organic produce has jumped substantially in the past few decades. Increasingly, more supermarkets dedicate a section to solely organic produce and business at farmer’s markets, where local and fresh produce flourish, is blooming. Sales data quantify the popular demand of such produce – in fact, “organic sales increased from $3.6 billion in 1997 to over $39 billion in 2014” (1), and a 2015 publication states that “51% of families are buying more organic products than a year ago” (2). This “organic movement” has gained momentum on an international scale as well. As a whole, the U.S. exported more than $550 million worth of organic products in 2014 and imported over $1.2 billion (3).
What fueled this “organic movement”?
The move to organic produce by consumers has partly been fueled by beliefs that organic produce may be better for health than conventional produce, concerns over health hazards potentially associated with pesticide usage, or that organic farming methods have a lesser environmental impact.
Agricultural pesticide usage and public perception
Before the 1920s, farming methods were largely pesticide-free (5). It was not until WWII that scientists discovered “chemicals designed as nerve gas…were also capable of killing insects” (5) and chemical pesticide usage in farming methods were not used until after WWII (4), when synthetic pesticides like DDT were made available to the public. Touted as a “fix all”, agricultural workers were ecstatic about its success in improving crop yields, reduction of pests, and its inexpensive price.
Not much about the adverse effects were known at the time, but the dangers of some chemicals, notably the pesticide DDT, were later espoused by conservationist Rachel Carson in her book called “Silent Spring” in 1962. Carson had been researching the effects of pesticide exposure on “non-target creatures (organisms other than those that the pesticide is intended to kill)” in areas where the pesticide had been applied (4). Her publication included sound evidence of the death of animals in those regions and the persistence of the chemicals in the environment, which would continue to harm wildlife over time. She also noted that these chemicals could accumulate and reside in the tissue of the exposed being, including humans, and contribute to cancer or genetic damage in certain cases (6). Carson’s book was monumental in its broadening of public knowledge and shaping of perception towards pesticide usage and the potential damage it carries.
Within the following decades, “the growing consumer interest in health and nutrition, the growth of the green movement, the focus on conservation and environmental issues stimulated the development of the organic market and encouraged farmers to adopt organic methods” (5).
However, concern from organic producers and others also grew regarding the hazy conditions surrounding the term “organic”. This spurred the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990, which allowed the Agricultural Marketing Service under the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create national standards for foods certified as “organic”. It also created a National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and a regulatory agency called the National Organic Program (NOP), which oversees the production and handling of organic items.
Health benefits of organic produce
There has been much debate over whether organic foods or conventional foods are “better” for overall health. And despite the research that has been undertaken, the evidence is not yet conclusive. Although more research needs to be conducted, the current literature contains findings similar to these following quotes: an article from Science Direct states that “in public health terms, there is insufficient evidence to recommend organic over conventional vegetables” (7) and another study states that the “results at present do not make it possible to formulate a general conclusion on a higher health-promoting value of organic vegetables in comparison to those grown by conventional farming methods” (6).
So why the craze for organic?
Although the evidence regarding overall health is not yet conclusive, organically grown produce does still have certain favorable benefits over its conventionally grown counterpart.
More of certain vitamins and minerals may be present in organic products.
A study found that, from analyzing 33 studies of the micro-nutrient content of organically versus conventionally grown plant foods, “the absolute levels of micro-nutrients were higher in organic foods more often than in conventional foods (462 vs 364 comparisons, P = 0.002), and the total micro-nutrient content, expressed as a percent difference, was higher in organic (+ 5.7%, P < 0.001) as compared to conventionally grown produce” (8).
Other studies simply find that micro-nutrient levels can vary. One found that “potatoes marketed as organic had more copper and magnesium (p < 0.0001)”; however, they also had “less iron (p < 0.0001) and sodium (p < 0.02)” (9).
Organic farming has less of an environmental impact.
Organic agriculture focuses on “renewable resources, soil and water conservation, and management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological balance” (10). It utilizes “cover crops, green manures, animal manures and crop rotations to fertilize the soil, maximize biological activity and maintain long-term soil health” (10).
Reduced exposure to pesticides and other chemical additives
One research states that “two studies reported significantly lower urinary pesticide levels among children consuming organic versus conventional diets” but also acknowledges that “studies of biomarker and nutrient levels in serum, urine, breast milk, and semen in adults did not identify clinically meaningful differences” (11). This study states also that “consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to…antibiotic-resistant bacteria” (11).