What is “Organic Farming”?
Organic farming refers to a food production system that sustains the health of the land, natural biological systems, biodiversity and people. The food is produced without synthetic pesticides, herbicides or genetically modified seeds and the fertilizers used are plant and manure based without being commercially produced. Animals reared organically are not given prophylactic antibiotics or growth hormones.
Is it better for me?
When reviewing the available evidence regarding the advantages or disadvantages of consuming organic produce, it quickly becomes clear that definitive conclusions are not easily drawn. The reason for this is that the cultivation system is merely one factor that determines food quality. Differences in location, soil quality, weather, plant varieties and species, harvesting methods, storage and processing of produce all affect the nutritional quality and make up of foods .
Similarly, long term studies which aim to determine the effect of organic produce on human health may be conflicted by the fact that consumers of organic produce are more likely to lead active and healthy lifestyles and therefore lead to questions of causality – is it the organic food or the lifestyle that contributed to improved health? .
So lets take a closer look at what we do know and what conclusions can be drawn to inform decisions about whether to choose organic food over conventional food. The issues explored in the literature mainly relate to nutritional quality and chemical residue.
In general, there is a trend towards a slightly higher nutritional content in organic produce. This is not a consistent finding and is probably relates to the previously mentioned factors that affect nutrient content. Indeed even the same crop type on the same farm may have different nutritional qualities depending on whether the plant is facing east or west, the moisture in the soil and the distribution of fertiliser over the individual plants . The farming system used plays only a small role in the amount of vitamin and mineral content of foods. So a fresh conventionally produced vegetable may be higher in some nutritional content than an old stale organic vegetable .
However, food is made up of more than vitamins and minerals and there are some components in our food that appear to be reliably influenced by the farming system. These are the class of anti-oxidant chemicals called phenolic compounds and are found to be consistently higher in organic compared to conventional foods. This may be related to the plants defence mechanisms. In the absence of chemical pesticides and herbicides the plant must work harder to fight pests and disease and in the process produces these compounds beneficial to human health .
Conventional produce may contain the residue of synthetic pesticides and herbicides and some studies have found that these chemicals may play a role in the disruption of hormone balance in humans –. Animal studies also suggest that general immunity and reproductive health are improved when fed an organic diet .
But perhaps one of the major issues that arises regarding pesticide use is the combination of pesticides that are used. Safety and risk assessment checks are conducted on isolated compounds but there may be significant health implications that arise from how these pesticide compounds interact together once ingested and inside the body . It is well accepted that a mixture of chemical compounds can have synergistic toxic effects that is far greater than the effect from sum of the individual compounds . This alone may provide sufficient evidence to adopt the precautionary principle, that is, that the potential risk is greater than the potential gain.
Non nutritional aspects
There are other aspects of consuming food not related to its nutritional make up that may affect our purchasing decisions. For many, the relationship to our food and the satisfaction that comes from eating foods grown in a sustainable and environmentally responsible manner is compelling.
Lastly and perhaps most importantly, food should be delicious, and many can attest to the wonderful flavours fresh organic produce can offer .
An individual’s decision to purchase organic food will depend largely on their needs and values. Purchasing decisions are made based on a number of factors including affordability, perceived environmental responsibility, health status, taste, and availability. The bottom line is that despite any differences, a well-balanced diet can improve health regardless of its organic or conventional origin .
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