THE BLOG
30/09/2015 11:17 BST | Updated 29/09/2016 06:12 BST

Organic Farming: Myths and Truths

As this month is celebrated as Organic September it only seemed appropriate for me to write about this topic that has interested me for some time. In particular comments such as:

"I only eat organic because if your food is sprayed with pesticides then the enzymes in your body will be killed off and you won't be able to digest the food properly." (overheard at a juice bar)

And...

"non-organic apples are basically blocks of poison" (adapted from an Instagram post)

Have really spurred me into action!

So I went on Instagram and asked people two questions:

1. Do you eat organic?

2. Why/why not?

The post ended up with well over 100 comments which is great! I was really keen to find out what motivates individuals to buy organic, and also to find out why some people don't. Last week on Instagram I deliberately tried to leave my thoughts and opinions on organic farming out of the equation; today I'm bringing them back in.

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I don't generally buy organic anything unless it's the only option available. This is not because I am anti-organic in any way, but simply because I don't think the supposed benefits outweigh the added cost in any way. I used to feel guilty about not buying organic, but now that I feel I can justify and explain myself, I definitely don't feel that way anymore.

Now obviously my reasons are much more complex and sophisticated than this, and they tie in nicely with some of the common myths that surround organic farming and produce, which I'd like to discuss in more detail.

1. Organic farming doesn't use pesticides.

Produce without pesticides is the ideal that many organic shoppers aim for; in fact it was one of the top reasons mentioned on Instagram. This is completely false: there is a long list (12 pages!) of pesticides approved for use by the Soil Association in the UK, which you can find here.

An organic label does not tell you how much the crops were sprayed or how often. There exist non-organic farms that spray pesticides once per year, and there are organic farms that spray every week. To quote Michael Pollen: "They're organic by the letter, not organic in spirit... if most organic consumers went to those places, they would feel they were getting ripped off." The chances of finding organic produce that hasn't been sprayed at all is incredibly small, especially in supermarkets, as for most farmers it's just not an option due to the low yield. Farming is a business after all just like any other, and farmers are out to make a profit.

I've heard/seen people use the phrase "saturated with pesticides" when describing conventional farming practices. Not only is this fear-mongering, exaggerated language, but it's also completely false. Pesticides are expensive, why would farmers saturate their crops with costly pesticides when the necessary dose is so much smaller? It just doesn't make sense.

What makes organic farming different from conventional farming is not the use of pesticides, but the origin of those pesticides. Organic farming uses pesticides of natural origin, whereas conventional farming tends to use synthetically produced pesticides. This brings be nicely into point number 2...

2. Natural pesticides used by organic farms are better and/or less toxic than synthetic pesticides

Perhaps 40 years ago this might have been the case, but nowadays it takes many years and millions of pounds to bring a new synthetic pesticide to market and have it approved. Both natural and synthetic pesticides are studied rigorously, and in some cases the natural pesticides are actually more toxic than the synthetic ones.

All pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are toxic. All of them; which makes sense when you consider that the whole point of them is to kill something, whether it's plants, insects, or fungi. But just because something is toxic to insects at a particular concentration doesn't make it just as toxic to humans. Chocolate is toxic to dogs, but that's not going to stop you from eating it yourself! Coffee contains thousands of chemicals, and several are known carcinogens (known to potentially cause cancer). With every cup of coffee you ingest 10 miligrams of carcinogens, which is more than an entire year's worth of carcinogens from pesticide residues. Have I put you off your coffee yet? You may also have heard about the herbicide glyphosphate which is the subject of much discussion in the US; yet glyphosphate is ten times less toxic than coffee. The dose makes the poison. Even water is toxic if you drink too much of it.

Many bacteria and plants naturally produce poisons and toxic chemicals that you definitely don't want to consume, and that you definitely don't want sprayed on your food. The point here is that natural does not automatically mean good, and synthetic doesn't automatically mean bad, and we shouldn't be afraid of chemicals just because we can't pronounce them (I've written more on this here).

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3. Organic is better for the environment

In some cases yes, in some cases no. Organic farms have been found to have a crop yield 20% less than conventional farms, with other studies putting that number as low as 50%. Organic farming also requires considerably more land, and with the current (and increasing) population if all farms were to switch to organic methods overnight food production would drop drastically and millions more people would be malnourished. Non-organic farming methods are essential for keeping up with the global demand for food. While you may argue that organic farming is more sustainable as a contained unit, it is not sustainable on a global scale.

All crops require some necessary minerals to grow. When these nutrients are free in the soil and not being actively used by crops, they can potentially be washed off and cause algae to grow to produce "dead zones" in the water. The method by which organic compost and fertilisers are added means they are far more likely to be washed away and contribute to "dead zones" than the drip irrigation practices used in conventional farming.

So in some cases organic farming may be better for the environment, especially regarding crop rotation and avoiding monocultures, but not in others.

4. Organic produce is healthier

Another top reason on Instagram for choosing organic. For some this is due to the lack of pesticides (see myth #1), whereas for others it is simply due to the increased levels of nutrients.

In 2010 an independent research group in the UK conducted a meta-analysis of over 100 articles that compared conventional and organic produce over 50 years, and found no evidence for differences in nutritional content for over 15 nutrients. It's very easy to find single studies online that show organic produce is better nutritionally, but most of these studies have been shown to be very poorly designed with limited data.

To quote one systematic review: "No consistent differences were seen in the vitamin content of organic products, and only one nutrient -- phosphorus -- was significantly higher in organic versus conventionally grown produce (and the researchers note that because few people have phosphorous deficiency, this has little clinical significance)." Researchers were also unable to isolate any particular fruits and vegetables where organic was shown to be healthier.

The Food Standards Authority (FSA) concluded "there was no reason to buy expensive organic food for nutritional reasons". Simply eating more fruits and vegetables, rather than worrying about whether they are organic or not, therefore seems to be the best advice I would give based on these conclusions.

5. Organic produce tastes better

Have you ever seen that amazing video where two Dutch guys get "expert" taste testers the latest in organic food, but it actually turns out to be McDonalds? Go watch it, it's hilarious, and really highlights just how powerful the placebo effect is.

This placebo effect has been demonstrated time and time again, in wine, in vodka, and now in organic produce. Marketing strategies and social pressures play a huge role in determining what we buy and what are preferences are. It's normal to assume a more expensive bottle of wine tastes better than a cheap one, and to assume expensive organic produce tastes better than the conventional alternative. The only way to truly determine if there is a difference is by using blind testing. The conclusion: no significant difference could be found between conventional and organic produce.

6. But Big Pharma/Big Agriculture/Big something-or-other

There seems to be a trend of mistrust in science and big organisations in the wellness industry, and the fact that big organisations sometimes fund research is likely a contributing factor. The fact is that any research that is funded by a company or organisation has the potential to be biased, but organic proponents are quick to overlook the same thing happening with research on organics. The organic industry funds a great deal of research and also pays both scientists and bloggers around the world to write pieces and publish articles promoting organics. This is nothing new, but we tend to look at it from a very one-sided perspective. If you're going to claim Big Agriculture influences research, well then so does Big Organic.

I found this brilliant piece that summarises the process by which pesticides are approved by the government for use. No conspiracy, just very strict guidelines and very rigorous testing.

Note I haven't touched at all on the subject of genetic engineering (or "GMOs") for a very good reason: I think they deserve a whole blog post dedicated to them as there's a lot to say, and I didn't want the comments section to become a discussion on GMOs.

In conclusion...

I don't believe conventional or organic farming has all the answers, and farming practices that combine the sustainability of organic farming with the technological advances of conventional farming would be a step in a better direction. I don't believe it has to be about sides, about organic vs. conventional, as they both have merits.

Organic lobbyists and organisations portray this image of organic produce being totally pesticide-free, healthier, and better for the environment. In some cases that may be true, but it's not guaranteed. In many cases conventional produce contains the same levels of pesticides, is just as nutritious, just as environmentally friendly, and tastes the same. There are some great benefits to organic farming like moving away from monocultures, crop rotations, and (in some cases) attempting to use less pesticides, but I strongly disagree with glorifying organic produce as something it isn't, and encouraging these myths to persist. I have no intention of dissuading you from buying organic; that is your choice and yours alone. Just please do it for the right reasons, and not because someone told you non-organic produce is toxic or causes your enzymes to stop functioning (so beyond false I can't even).

Making an informed choice, rather than a choice based on fear or guilt, is vital.