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The Benefits Of Organic

By Andy Hammermeister Ph.D., P.Ag.

Every day we make choices about what we eat and how we live. Will it be a salad or a burger? Should I drive my car or walk? Now we ask ourselves, “Should we be buying organic food?” As consumers we have great influence on every business through the food chain, from the farmer to processors to local grocery stores. So every time we buy organic we are, in effect, voting with our dollars. Most shoppers say they buy organic food for reasons of personal or family health, the environment, and/or animal welfare. Are these valid reasons for buying organic?

Let’s face it, everything we do in our lives involves some level of risk, whether it’s crossing a street or running with the bulls. The rules or standards for organic agriculture and food are designed to take a precautionary approach. That’s not to say that non-organic food isn’t safe. Our food system is carefully regulated, whether it is organic or not. However, just as crosswalks are used to reduce the risk associated with crossing the street, organic has developed standards intended to minimize risks associated agriculture and food.

Until recently, claims could not be made about the benefits of organic production systems or products. In the UK, however, the British Code of Advertising has now accepted 22 claims that can be made about organic food1. These claims cover everything from pesticides, food additives, fats, antibiotics, vitamins and minerals, genetic engineering, animal welfare, wildlife and the environment. These claims are supported by a growing body of research that has been designed to compare organic foods and production systems with other systems2.

The science behind organic agriculture is developing quickly as people and policy makers are paying more attention to health and the environment. For example, there is increasing evidence of risks associated with pesticide residues in food3. We now have scientific data showing that organic foods contain fewer kinds of pesticide residues and at lower concentrations4. Organic also restricts the use of most chemical additives in foods. However, scientists cannot easily make direct links between pesticide residues or additives and risks to human health As a result, the organic standard takes a precautionary approach, and severely restricts the use of pesticides and additives. And the standard works; eating organic food has been shown to reduce pesticide intake in children5.

Agriculture in general has a big impact on the plants and animals that would naturally live on the land. We can’t entirely avoid these impacts but we can try to minimize them. Compared with conventional farming, organic performs at least as well as non-organic and in many ways better. Synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and confined livestock operations are not permitted in organic production. This means that there is lower risk of pesticides, nutrients, manure, and antibiotics affecting the soil, ground water, rivers, lakes, atmosphere and the life within them6. It still means that farmers must be responsible for managing what happens on their farm. Overall, organic farming also supports more wildlife than non-organic farming7.

Organic farming also uses much less energy than conventional agriculture, mostly because it doesn’t use nitrogen fertilizer8. The Rodale Institute has reported that organic farming systems use 30% less fossil fuels than other farming systems9. They have also found that organic farming tends to hold more carbon in the soil, reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide is an important greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change10.

So aside from reducing risk, is organic food more nutritious? The claim being made in the UK is “No food has higher amounts of beneficial minerals, essential amino acids and vitamins than organic food”. Research from around the world has supported this statement11. There is not always a difference between organic food and other food, but when there is a difference, organic foods do have higher amounts of these beneficial substances.

We as consumers face difficult choices every day. Many of those choices involve balancing the risks and benefits of our activities. Research is increasingly showing that buying organic reduces many risks associated with agriculture and food while also providing benefits. Farmers and food processors will respond to consumer demand; they will use fewer pesticides, fertilizers, additives, antibiotics etc. if that is what the consumer wants. It is our responsibility as a consumer, however, to be prepared to pay more for our food so that farmers can change their practices.



1. Soil Association Information Sheet 11/24/2005 (version 4) www.soilassociation.org
2. Shane Heaton/Soil Association, 2001, Organic Farming, Food Quality and Human Health, www.soilassociation.org
3. For a review see: www.organic-center.org/reportfiles/PESTICIDE_SSR.pdf
4. Food Additives and Contaminants, 2002, 19:427-446.
5. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2006, Volume 114(2): 260-262.
6. Dabbert, S. 2006. Measuring and communicating the environmental benefits of organic food production. Online. Crop Management doi:10.1094/CM-2006-0921-13-RV.
7. Journal of Applied Ecology, 2005, Volume 42 (2): 261-269.
8. Bioscience, 2005, Volume 55(7): 573-582
9. Rodale Institute. www.strauscom.com/rodale-whitepaper/
10. Nature, 1998, Volume 396:262-265.
11. More information

This article was originally published in Reader's Digest and is reproduced here with permission.


Posted May 2007


© 2012, Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada (OACC)


Dalhousie University Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada