Organic food and farming – Scientific evidence, problems and ethical dilemmas

There is a growing trend of beauty companies going organic but before we can even discuss as to whether there is merit in buying those products or not, it is important to first look at what organic food and farming is.

What scientific evidence is there, if any at all, that organic food or farming are better? After reading more than 60 research papers on the matter during the past couple of months, I’ve collected all the information here, together with some interesting questions and dilemmas. Bear in mind that all information stated here is cited with a research paper, so this is NOT a personal opinion piece.

This is a long post but it was very important to get in as much information as possible. I’ve condensed most of the points to one or two examples each, to keep this shorter, but keep in mind that there are more for every case. Grab a coffee and enjoy.

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What is organic food and farming

As you’d expect, organic food is the food that is produced from organic farming. In turn, organic farming refers to ecologically-based systems that are used to produce food. [1] Conventional agriculture on the other hand (the one we mostly use now), is defined as an agricultural system in which chemical inputs are used. [2]

In farming and food, the term organic is defined as “the farming systems and products described in the IFOAM basic standards”. [2, 3] These standards include a variety of rules that must be followed including: the use of no artificial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, no genetic engineering, the way soil is maintained for fertility, maintenance of agricultural and natural biodiversity, compatibility with natural cycles, providing the freedom to animals to express their natural behaviour and the promotion and distribution of local and regional products. [2, 3] This means that for a product to be legally labelled as organic, they must satisfy all the above rules. Whether or not a product is truly organic and therefore adheres to all rules above is a separate issue, see section organic standards.

Organic food has been expanding rapidly in developed countries due to an increased awareness of the link between health and diet but even more so due to highly publicised food safety cases [4], such as for example, the mad cow disease. Despite the growing trend, organic farming is still very small compared to conventional farming, and accounts for roughly 1% of all farming (some countries have more than others) [5] and about 4% in Europe. [6] This might be due to the challenges involved with converting conventional land to organic but perhaps it is also linked to the low demand. Where some are convinced that organic food is better for us, others rely on the fact that there is little to none scientific evidence of that or perhaps are just appalled by the huge price differences.

Nevertheless, an American Chef Survey conducted by Stensson in 2006 showed that organic produce demand is on the rise and was one of the top three preferred menu trends. [7, 8]

Perhaps it’s due to the generality of the term or lack of education in the matter but sadly, different individuals interpret the term organic differently and there is still considerable confusion around it. [5, 9] While many of us have heard the term and know that roughly it means “chemically-free”[5, 9], many interpret this as a complete lack of usage of pesticides, fertilisers etc which is not the case. Perhaps it’s part of the general chemophobia that our society is growing paralysed from or just simply the lack of understanding of what organic farming and a chemical is and does.  Check out: “The Chemical Misconception – Should we avoid chemicals?

Organic farming still uses this type of intervention, it just uses pesticides etc from a pre-approved list. This brings up a lot of questions such as “what makes that list safer or more approved than the conventional one”? And that if there was actually solid evidence (which there isn’t otherwise they would be illegal) of certain pesticides being hazardous to health, then a simpler solution would be to target the conventional list and create a better one.

 

Why do some people choose organic?

There are many studies on consumer behaviour trying to understand why some people choose organic over regular food.  While the results can vary slightly, depending on demographics, cultural differences and through time, the most prominent factors seem to be: healthier, higher product quality and environmental concerns. [10] The Swedish University for Agricultural Sciences named the following motives for buying organic food: (a) health and nutritional concerns (b) superior taste (c) concern for the environment (d) food safety and lack of confidence in the conventional food industry (e) animal welfare concerns (f) support of local economy (g) more wholesome (h) nostalgia (i) fashion/curiosity.  [10]

 

Here’s a list of the motivations and other categories with their relevant scientific findings and concerns.

 

Health [5]

This is the number one reason for people buying organic food, as there is a perception that it is healthier and more nutritious. This is mainly down to the use of pesticides and other human interventions that are perceived as unhealthy.

In a study published by Magnusson et al it was found that “health concern is a better predictor of the purchase of organic food than concern for the environment, and conclude that egoistic motives are better predictors of the purchase of organic foods than are altruistic motives.” [5, 11] However, to date, there has not been conclusive evidence to prove that organic food is more healthy or nutritious than the conventional, keep reading for the research evidence and citations.

Beyond price, standards, flavour and all the other variables and questions, the ultimate value of organic food would be if it promotes health, growth and reproduction. However, studies on animals that have been fed conventional or organic food are controversial and do not show clear differences between the two. [12] To quote “With the possible exception of nitrate content, there is no strong evidence that organic and conventional foods differ in concentrations of various nutrients.” [12]

A systematic review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition which analysed published scientific literature on studies investigating the nutrition related health effects of organic vs conventional food studies also concluded “Conclusion: From a systematic review of the currently available published literature, evidence is lacking for nutrition-related health effects that result from the consumption of organically produced foodstuffs.” [13]

In another study the authors also explain that even if there were health benefits from organic food consumption they would not be “unanimous, but most probably depend on the genetic background, dietary habits, and overall lifestyle of an individual”. [14, 35] There are bigger factors that likely affect your health more such as your diet, lifestyle, metabolism and genetics.

According to Velimirov et al. the detailed quality of the products (=if they are slightly higher or lower in certain nutrients) can have an impact, but the most important factor that influences nutrition is primarily the diet composition. [36]

 

Environmental concerns

Conventional agriculture is said to cause environmental damage and therefore organic agriculture can be seen as “exologizing” conventional agriculture. [2]

Because of the belief that organic farming is “chemically-free”, many believe that it is also environmentally friendly. [5]

Even though some might believe that organic crops are healthier for humans, a lot can be said as whether or not it is healthier for the plants themselves. Organic crops cannot deal as well with water limited situations, pests and diseases [2] etc and therefore undergo higher stress.

Additionally, as organic farms are currently surrounded by conventional farms, it is very difficult to draw conclusions, as conventional farms could be providing a shielding effect. See section potential false positives.

Finally, since the organic agriculture yields are lower than conventional, this means that feeding the world by using organic agriculture alone will require the use of more land. This in turn will lead to lowering of the natural and semi-natural ecosystems. [2]

 

Psychological benefits

Peace of mind from the belief that more natural farming or less usage of pesticides is healthier. [14] See sections health and higher nutrients.

 

Higher nutrients

One of the biggest reasons for consumers buying organic food is the idea that it is more nutritious or healthier than conventional food. However, several studies including the National Food Agency of Sweden, have concluded that there is no significant scientific evidence to prove that organic plant derived food is more healthy or more nutritious than regular food. [10, 15, 16, 17, 13, 18] Additionally, a study done by the University of Otago analysing 100 studies that compare organic to conventional food, has concluded that there is no conclusive evidence that organic food is more nutritious. [24] Another similar study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, analysed 162 scientific research papers and also found no significant nutritional differences between organic and conventional food. [7, 19]

However, there are also some studies that conclude that some organically produced crops are higher in anti-oxidants and have lower levels of cadmium, nitrates and nitrites. [10, 20] Another study concluded a 6% higher vitamin C content in organic crops. [21] However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that all organic food is higher in vitamin C, as the Huber et al explain in their research paper “the variation in outcomes of comparative studies is very high, depending on plant fertilization, ripening stage and plant age at harvest, and weather conditions.”[22]

Similarly, organic milk was found to have a higher composition of fatty acids, than regular milk. [10, 23] Such differences were more pronounced in the summer time, when outdoor grazing is more common. [22]

A lot of fitness instructors claim that organic meat is higher in protein. Even though there are conflicting results on organic crops, at least there are several studies on the subject. On the other hand, organic meat has unfortunately, much less studies and the suggested link of organic meat being better than regular might just be an extrapolation of the milk results.

Additionally, things might not be as straightforward as that, even if that claim was true. As Siderer et. al explain in their research paper “High nitrogen application to plant foods can increase crude protein concentration but decrease the nutritional value of that protein. This may be because nitrogen from organic fertiliser sources is often released slowly and is therefore less readily available to plants than from chemical sources. Nonetheless, sufficient data do not exist to support or reject this speculation.” [12]

Some unscientifically founded claims also extend to the “life force” or “organising activity” being higher in organic food. [12] While it could be possible that there is a difference between how the molecules in organic vs conventional food are, some studies, although questionable by many,  show that “the more artificial inputs used to grow the plants, the more time since harvest, and the more processing it has undergone, the more coarse, broken and disrupted the crystal patterns formed by the extracts” [12]. However, even if this was the case, there is still no scientific evidence to prove that this might make a difference health wise. It might just be still the same molecules, nutrients etc, just arranged differently. A bit like with the same colour, shape and size legos you can make many different shapes but it’s still the same number, shape, size and coloured legos, ie. the same nutrients.

Overall, the nutritional variation between organic and regular food is often small even though the differences between the studies are often large. As a result, it is not possible to conclude whether organic food differs from regular food but even if it does, the difference is smaller than expected and it does not equal the price difference.

There is also the opposite evidence. As explained by Huber et al, “in most studies comparing conventionally with organically grown cereals, higher levels of proteins and amino acids were found in the conventionally produced grain.” [22]

 

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Animal welfare

If you choose organic food due to animal welfare you might still be disappointed. As Sundrum et al. state in their paper “Organic livestock farming is not a production method to solve all problems in livestock production. It is primarily a production method for a premium market with high requirements for the quality of the production process, demanding high management qualification”. [25]

The authors go further to explain that “Furthermore taking steps of precaution concerning animal health and welfare are, to a certain degree, in opposite to the objectives of high productivity and low production costs.” [25, 26] Sadly, this means that it is possible that increasing animal welfare might have an impact on human lives, as for example, we might not have enough food to feed the world. Animal welfare should and can definitely be improved in many cases but we should not forget that we are biologically built to eat meat and humans should come first.

The authors conclude that “Despite their benefits for animal welfare and environmental friendly production, the basic standards seem to be insufficient to ensure a higher animal health status and a higher product quality compared to conventional production.” [25]

 

Taste and perception

Another motivation for organic food is taste, which is considered by some to be superior in organic food. [19] However, taste can be subjective as it is based on many influencing factors such as genetics, cultural cuisine flavours etc.

A study published by Shimizu et al in 2013 looked at whether the public’s perception of organic would affect their judgement of taste, calorific content and their willingness to pay higher prices. Have you ever heard the expression “you eat with your eyes?”. In their paper titled “You taste what you see: Do organic labels bias taste perceptions?”, the researchers gave 115 people at a mall a tray with cookies, potato chips and yogurt where some of them labelled as “organic” and others as “regular”. The results showed that the participants estimated the organic food as containing less calories. [27] showing that consumers perceive an organic label as a healthier option than conventional food. [27]

Other studies have also shown that consumers in routine buying situations are affected by the halo effect. This means that when we find ourselves in routine buying our involvement is low, meaning that we pay little attention to information search and in deliberating brand and product choices. [27] This type of behaviour is easily identified, how many times did you pick up a specific product for a reason that you have not fully researched, like for example if organic food is more nutritious or not, whether that brand’s product is truly better than the other brand’s, whether that product actually tastes better or different than the other one etc. [27]

This limited cognitive involvement influences our evaluation of one attribute of a product and creates a bias of perception called as the halo effect. [27] Obviously, the average consumer is unaware of such cognitive processes, “people unconsciously use heuristics to make judgments when an object belongs to a product category whose ‘members’ have judgment-relevant attributes, unless people deliberately avoid such automatic influence on judgment.” [27, 28, 29]

Halo effects occur very often when it comes to evaluation of health claims on food packages. [27] For example, how likely would you be to purchase milk or yogurt that is higher in calcium than the normal one? But have you ever researched whether consuming higher calcium is actually beneficial and at what circumstances it can actually be unhealthy? Health claims help generate a halo effect leading the consumer to make automatic extrapolations about how healthy a product is. [27]

In a study titled “The ‘organic’ path to obesity? Organic claims influence calorie judgments and exercise recommendations.”, Schuldt and Schwarz explain that the impact of organic claims have been found to bias calorie judgements. [30] When participants were asked to judge whether an organic or regular cookie that was given to them had more calories, the participants rated the organic labelled one as a lower calorie cookie. This could be a result of the halo effect making participants associate organic with healthy and less kcalories however, it could also be due to the fact that participants thought that the organic cookie was less tasty and therefore associating it (another halo effect) with lower kcalories. [30] These results are in agreement with another study published by Westcombe and Wardle, were participants perceived organic food as more healthy but rated it as less tasty. [31]

In the study published in 2013, the researches went into great extends to evaluate how those 115 consumers are affected by organic and regular food and how their perception changes. [27] The participants were seated at a long table and were given two cookies, two potato chip portions, and two yogurt cups. [27] The food was presented in the same way to avoid any visual bias and the entire tasting procedure was done according to the American Psychological Association guidelines to minimise any external interferences. [27] Although one of which food item was labelled organic and the other regular, in reality both of them were organically produced. [27] The brands of the products were not revealed to the participants.

After tasting products in a specific order, the participants were asked to answer questions about the products on taste, appearance (is it appetising etc), nutrition related attributes (fat, protein, carbohydrates etc) and how much they would pay for the item. The participants also had to answer questions about their habits such as whether they often read the products’ labels, whether they are pro-environmentalists in terms of recycling, spending time in nature, hiking etc.  [27]

After deep statistical analysis, the study concluded that the organic label did indeed influence participants. The organic labelled cookies and yogurt were thought to be lower in calories (20.1% lower for organic yogurt, 23.1% for organic potato chips and 21.1% lower for organic cookies), and the participants were more likely to pay higher prices for the organically labelled products (22.8% more for organic yogurt, 23.4% organic potato chips and 16.1% for organic cookies). [27] The nutritional evaluation showed a consistent halo effect were the organic cookies and yogurt were reported to taste lower in fat and calories. [27] The organic labelled cookies and chips were considered to be more nutritious. On the other hand, the taste related evaluation seemed a bit less consistent. The organic chips were considered more appetizing but the organic yogurt was considered more flavourful. The regular cookies were considered more flavourful than the organic ones.

In general, all organic labelled foods were considered to taste less artificial. [27] This could be that for healthier type of foods like yogurt, the organic halo effects might make them appear even more tasteful whereas for the more “naughty” type foods such as cookies and chips, we tend to relate better taste with less healthy and therefore the regular cookies and chips appear more tasteful. This is also known as the unhealthy=tasty intuition. [27] In reality, all foods served in this study were organic.

Psychologically, we tend to link taste to food quality. However, food quality can be defined in many different ways and just because something tastes better it doesn’t mean that it is more nutritious. Focusing on one aspect (like taste) undermines the importance of other factors (like actual nutritional content) and hence, does not make the practise good as a whole. [14]

The study also concluded that those who often read nutritional labels are less likely to show halo effects as they engage in more deliberate thinking prior to purchasing. [27] Conflicting results exist on whether people who are pro-environmental show less or similar halo effects, with this study concluding that environmental knowledge minimised the halo effect whereas another study in 2010 concluded the opposite. [27, 30]

The researchers of this study concluded that “The use of organic labels on processed food items may seem attractive to retailers and manufacturers in order to advocate the benefits of organic methods of production. However, this study demonstrates that these labels may instead impart an undue perception of increased healthfulness of a food item. Given the disparity between the intended message and actual consumer perception, more caution should be taken in determining whether and how the organic label – as well as other health claims – should be included on a given food package.” [27]

It is very interesting actually that despite the fact that we spend a lot of time shopping and preparing food, we spend only a couple of seconds when deciding which product to choose. [32, 33]

 

Safety

One of the biggest motivators for consuming organic food is food safety.

In a paper discussing the safety of organic food the authors state that “Publicizing the findings of one or just a few studies, no matter how credible they may be, could be misleading and confusing for the public.” [14] The authors also state that “While there is no doubt that organic food is more “natural” than conventional food, “natural” on the other hand does not mean benign.” [14]. The fact that natural is good is an interesting human construct that has been given more ground after a couple of disease outbreaks (such as the mad cow disease) and overall chemophobia. We often forget that nature can kill us also, in so many ways.

The authors also explain that the organic label is not a seal of safety, it only refers to the methods the food has been produced and it is an assumption to immediately believe that it is safer. “Organic is a process claim not a product claim.” [14, 34]

Some fail to consider that some of the organic fertilisers used like manure, have a high probability of microbiological contaminations and parasites. [37] There are some cases of this already, were organically produced lettuce was found to be contaminated with E. Coli, [37, 38] a bacterium that can cause severe gastroenteritis, urinary tract infections, Crohn’s disease and amongst other health problems, it can cause even death in severe cases. Interestingly, some researchers state that “The risks due to pesticide residues and food additives are relatively minor, compared with both acute and chronic effects caused by microbiological and other naturally occurring toxicants”. [39, 40]

The authors also explain that during the post World War II era of synthetic agrochemicals there was no significant increase of cancer occurrences (with the exception of lung) and actually a decrease in stomach cancers, likely because of conventional agriculture being able to provide fruit and vegetables all year round. [39] They also explain that the high organic food prices might actually increase disease occurrences because many might simply not be able to afford them. [39] This also poses an ethical dilemma.

In a study published in 2005 in the journal of Trends in Food Science and Technology, the authors state “It must, however, also be mentioned that organic food may not be safer than conventionally grown food. A recent scandal in Germany regarding contaminated organic meat products caused by contaminated animal feed suggests that organic products cannot be given total trust either.”  [12]

There are studies that conclude that the use of nitrogen containing fertilisers increases the levels of nitrates in food which can lead to serious health problems, such as cancer, as they get converted into nitrates (in our gastrointestinal tract) and then nitrosamines. [37] However, it is interesting to note that although organic food is said to be lower in nitrates, the same effect can be achieved by other, simpler means. Some scientists suggest that cooking processes such as boiling, can also lead to a decrease in nitrate content as the ion diffuses into the water. [37, 41, 42]

In a study titled “Is organic food nutritionally ‘better’ for us? Is it safer? Is there any evidence?” the author Merson cites a UK report stating that there were 25,744 tonnes of pesticides in the UK during 1999 and a proportion of those end up in water sources, which then in turn end up in conventional food. However, that would be true for organic farms also, which also use water. [43, 12]

The “sleeping giant” as Klaus G. Grunert named food safety, is a major concern and it wakes up every time there is a report of food contamination crisis. [10, 44] However, consumers seem to also relate food safety to certain production technologies, viewing some as unsafe such as for example, the use of pesticides. [10, 44] Interestingly, in a study published in 2017, it was shown that the link between actual risk and the risk perceived by consumers was weak and they also underestimated other risks. [10, 45]

 

Price

Organic food is well known for its high prices and this is one of the major reasons that puts many consumers off. Studies estimate that the biggest deterrent from adoption of organic food is not the lack of scientific evidence but rather the price. Organic food is around 50-75% more expensive than conventional food. [46] Most consumers find organic food too expensive to be worth the cash and is therefore, restricted to consumers with a more comfortable income and the willingness to pay the premium. On a cost basis, organic food cannot, currently at least, compete with conventional food however, there are also socio-demographic factors that can influence the consumers’ intentions to dine organically. [7]

Interestingly, organic farmers state that the higher price comes from having to forgo synthetic fertilisers which gives lower crop yields. However, they also claim that organic farming restores soil cultivation and fertility which in turn means faster re-planting. Shouldn’t that then make the price close to conventional or even cheaper? The reality is that part of the price premium is not just the higher costs of running an organic farm but is also rent for “social costs” such as organic certification and also the notion that consumption of it is an elite practice. [47]

Additionally, other than the premium product label (a bit like buying a brand), the organic food price is also due to the increased transportation and processing costs which arise from handling small quantities of products. [12] If organic food became the norm, it is safe to assume that the price would go down, as it would be handled and processed in bigger numbers. However, it is still unclear whether it would ever be “as cheap” as conventional food.

As Siderer et al. explain in their paper, a big role for the organic label is the fact that organic farmers need a way to cover their higher expenses in order for their business to survive. [12] The only way that a consumer would accept paying a higher price for the same product is if that label is present. It might not necessarily mean that organic is better but it almost creates an “it’s ok to pay more” reason. [12]

 

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Lack of organic standards

Sadly, there is no worldwide standard for organic agriculture and different organisations and governments define what an organic product is differently [12], which not only causes confusion and lack of trust to the consumers but also makes international trade more difficult.

There are several bodies which set organic standard rules, one of which is the European Union. Each governing body recognises products as organic if they fulfil their definitions and laws. There is still a lot that need to be done in not only unifying the definition worldwide but also in supervising and certifying organic agriculture and food trade.

Additionally, even if there was a world-wide organic standard, other than a farm adhering to organic farming rules, there is no scientific test to prove if a food item was grown organically or not. [7, 48] Interestingly, most if not all organic farming regulations focus on how to produce the product and not how the end product turns out. “The organic certification regulates the production processes, not the quality of the products, nor the environmental effects” [10]

 

Contradicting research studies and potential false positives

Other than the health and fitness consumers, those who are more likely to consume organic food are related to alternative lifestyles such as environmentalism, vegetarianism and/or alternative medicine and in general according to statistics, they tend to be younger females. [5, 49]

Despite the lack of standardised certification or verification testing, the matter is more complicated than that. The plant world contains around 75-100 000 different compounds and 7500-10 000 per plant. [22] This means that developing methods to evaluate the differences between organic and conventional plants is a huge chemical task, even with our present analytical methods. Now think about how many more compounds would exist in more complex life forms such as animals, humans and then to top it all up, how complex the interaction of the two is! It’s like mixing 100 cakes all together and trying to find out if the one-teaspoon of vanilla you added in one of them made a difference.

Another factor that not many studies take into consideration is the habit of the consumer. It is more likely that those who buy organic food will overall have a more fit and healthy lifestyle than those who don’t. This might not necessarily be from the food they consume but from all their other lifestyle differences like the type of meals they are eating, way they are cooking, their portions, the fact that they are exercising regularly, their lower stress levels etc. Health and fitness is never down to one thing! Diet alone cannot bring you a fit body, and vice versa, and there are even athletes who die from cancer or other diseases because there are also other factors at play, such as the environment and genetics.

Huber et al. also explain in their paper “The lack of a straightforward relationship between nutritional value and health is another reason why it has been difficult so far to draw conclusions from comparative studies on the health effects of organic foods. As the bioavailability of chemicals is limited and can be affected by numerous factors, the contents of nutrients and secondary metabolites in plants cannot give straightforward indications of their health effect.” [22]

In the same research paper, Huber et al go further to explain that even in-vitro studies are not to be fully trusted. In-vitro studies (which are cheaper than in-vivo studies = studies inside living organisms), are the studies that take place outside an organism, like in a test tube or petri-dish, and are highly focused. [22] This means that they are looking for a specific aspect/criterion and are not taking into consideration how a compound or process affects an organism in a real-life scenario.

As Lester nicely put it in his paper “A common thread among these comparable studies is the huge variability (both magnitude and direction) in the available data. This complicated the task of interpreting the data and makes it difficult to reach meaningful conclusions” [4]

There are also other factors that might be affecting some studies which are not considered. Siderer et al explain that “some claim that fresh conventional food that was grown near the market and was consumed close to the time it was picked in the field, has better nutritional value than food from an organic production system that sometimes has to be transported long distance. In addition to the perceived lower nutritional value, the cost of transportation in terms of energy consumption and the resulting contamination burden on the environment should make such production less favourable. “ [12, 50]

Part of the difficulty is that no two studies are the same and cannot be compared or put together for a conclusion. Such studies have high variabilities that come from the inability to control environmental and other factors that could affect the crops in many ways, such as the physical, biological and chemical properties of soil, rainfall, radiation etc [4]. There are also huge differences in fundamental practises such as crop storage, sampling, maturity, harvest dates etc. [4]

As a result, if one or a couple of studies (whether right or wrong) reach a conclusion it cannot define an industry or scientific opinion. A larger more solid consensus is needed before any final conclusions can be made and the easiest way to get there at the moment is to set strict rules on how the studies and crops are handled from day 1 and even how the data is analysed.

Interestingly, farming systems and details relevant to organic standards are not always referred to in the same way, and therefore when searching for literature or scientific evidence on the subject, searching for “organic agriculture” will not yield all possible relevant studies. [2]

For example, studies that use no artificial fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides often fail to consider that their crops are successful and disease free because the land is located between other farms that do use such chemical agents and therefore could possibly be providing a shield of protection for the organic farm. To put it in simple terms, if the lands around are killing all the pesticides, diseases etc it is almost given that the organic farm next door will be pesticide and disease free. Points like this are often not discussed, or even noted at all, in studies that favour organic agriculture.

 

Ethical and other dilemmas

Whether or not organic agriculture is more nutritious or not, the future of organic agriculture highly depends on whether it can become economically competitive with conventional agriculture [2] and whether it can sustain feeding the world. As the organic agriculture yields are lower, this means that feeding the world by using organic agriculture will require more land. This in turn will lead to lowering of the natural and semi-natural ecosystems. [2]

Many studies have been conducted to explore whether organic agriculture can feed the world. Some studies have concluded that it is not possible [51], others that it might be possible to feed the world but with limitations [52] and some that claim that it might actually be possible [53]. A more recent study has claimed that organic agriculture can at least contribute substantially [54] but the studies’ results were heavily disputed by others. [55, 56, 57]

Practically, the yield of a crop can be affected by multiple reasons including: crop type, region of the world where the crop is, climate, humidity, soil quality etc. However, studies have shown that an organic crop can provide at best 80% of the food in comparison to the one provided by conventional crop, with many studies proposing numbers as low as 50%. [2] A paper looking at multiple studies published on both conventional and organic agriculture has concluded that the lowest relative yield for organic agriculture in Northern Europe with a maximum yield of 70% and the highest in Asia with a maximum yield of 89%. [2] As expected, tropical climates in general tended to give higher yields. [2]

The authors of this study explain that the reasons why some crops might appear to be doing very well in organic agriculture could be due to the fact that the data for those crops comes from only tropical places that would be expected to perform better anyway. [2] This could mean that even though, soybean, for example appears to be doing very well under organic agriculture, it might not be possible to organically feed the world since the crop will not be doing as well when grown in other areas of the world. [2] The general point of these authors is that when looking at organic agriculture results, one must consider all aspects of it and not generalise results from a couple of studies.

Another factor to consider is that one of the important sources of nutrients in organic agricultures in the usage of manure. [2] However, if organic agriculture was to be applied worldwide, manure would become a limiting resource therefore, reducing the overall organic yields. [2] This would mean that the current usage of manure in other crops such as fodder crops, will be reduced meaning that the quality of those crops may decrease due to soil nutrient depletion. [2] Conventional agriculture can also suffer from nutrient depletion in the long run, as they rely on phosphorous and other micronutrients to maintain soil fertility. However, situations such as phosphorous depletion would affect both types of agriculture as soil fertility still remains one of agricultures’ biggest challenges. [2]

One of the biggest challenges in proving that organic agriculture can or cannot sustain the world’s food demands is the fact that a lot, if not most, of the studies do not provide evidence on all points in the organic definition.

Organic farming also poses the risk of “discomfiting levels of surveillance on those who have least to gain” as governing bodies will have to keep checking that the farmers are following the strict rules and not just making superprofits. [47]

In Marxian economics, land value is estimated on potential income, like for example how much rent you could potentially get out of it. [47] As Guthman nicely explains in her paper “In other words, higher land values potentially driven by organic regulation raise the cost of doing business and lessen the opportunities to replenish biophysical systems, in utter contradiction to the ostensible purpose of organic farming.” [47]

Guthman also explains in her paper that “Making risk management a matter of consumer choice rather than public choice is troubling as if it is sufficient to make a personal decision as to whether a particular material or practice constitutes harm.” [47] If organic food is truly superior to conventional food then the decision should lie with governing bodies and health regulators to put in place laws and regulations and not down to the consumer to figure it out. Not everyone has access or even the capability to read scientific papers and draw the correct conclusions.

In a research study titled “I Eat Organic for My Benefit and Yours: Egoistic and Altruistic Considerations for Purchasing Organic Food and Their Implications for Advertising Strategists” Kareklas et al. explain how in Western countries we emphasize autonomy and individualism (as opposed to Asian and Latin American that focus on collectivism) and therefore, there are both egoistic and altruistic reasons for purchasing organic food. Some want to be healthy, others are green at heart but do not want to pay the price and some are concerned over the general environmental impact and animal welfare. [58]

Finally, in another study questioning whether organic purchasing is ethical, the authors state that “In general, it is also acknowledged that organic foods socially exclude lower socio-economic groups and less educated individuals.”, as you will need specialised or trained personnel to deal with certain organic practises.  [59] It is also worrisome that since organic food is more expensive to produce, it might actually lead to disease and conditions in those who cannot afford to buy everything and might skip on protein, fruit or vegetables which are essential for health.

 

Lack of evidence

Summing up, no hard evidence currently exists to support or refute claims that organic food is healthier and safer than conventional food, or vice versa, and assertions of such kind are inappropriate and not justified. They remain groundless, not only due to ethical considerations but also due to limited scientific data. The selective and partial presentation of evidence serves no useful purpose and does not promote public health. Rather, it raises fears about unsafe food. In the meantime, consumers are left in confusion and ignorance, counting the widely publicised food scares; complete fasting seems to be the only solution and ‘truth’ remains elusive. Still, it is logical to assume that food is healthier if not contaminated by pesticides, microbes and other toxic agents, and the possibility that some consumers draw psychological benefits from their food choices cannot be ruled out.” [39]

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Verdict

Although for many it would be common sense that organic food is better, there is still no solid scientific evidence to support that. [12, 60] As nicely said by Saffron et. al, in their study as to whether organic food can lower cancer occurrence “‘The strongest and most direct evidences of the health benefits of organic food would come from studies on people. No such studies have been carried out so far. No one has yet done a study comparing the health of people who eat a healthy diet of organic food with the health of people who eat an equally healthy diet of conventional food.” [60]

Organic farming is not just about being healthier, even if we had the evidence for it. Unfortunately, an overwhelming majority of research studies show that there are none to minor differences between organic and conventional food and there are also a lot of contradicting studies. However, there are multiple social, economic and even ethical dilemmas that make this subject much more serious than an eating trend or choice.

 

References:

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  6. Eurostat, 2007. Statistics in focus. Different organic farming patterns within EU-25. An overview of the current situation https://publications.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/71fb9781-5de1-4cf9-9eb3-bd6a7f02ae5f/language-en
  7. https://org/10.1016/j.ijhm.2010.04.004
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4 responses to Organic food and farming – Scientific evidence, problems and ethical dilemmas

  1. zakeeyak says:

    Thank you for doing so much hard work and so. much. reading! This article is very well written; the points made are very valuable and well reasoned.
    I personally have little to no faith in organic farming – for me it’s a case of longing for “the good old days” without actually pausing to think about what that means.

    I have faith in the people who will have spent hours looking into the safety of the oh-so-baaad chemicals and testing them to ensure their safety. Could it later be proved that someone we think is safe is actually not? Of course! Is that a reason to be afraid of everything? No. It’s a reason to always keep looking.

    Which is why the only part of your article that was a bit jarring was “Still, it is logical to assume that food is healthier if not contaminated by pesticides, microbes and other toxic agents”. I realize this is a quote from an article, but I disagree. Water in a river, dam or lake may be free of chemicals but I still prefer to drink mine filtered and with a bit of floride.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you very much for reading my lovely, glad you liked the post. I personally think that good diet and exercise are bigger factors that the little details of food and a lot of us don’t do much of that to begin with.

      From my experience as a chemist I also see that our society has branded chemicals or what is even a chemical completely wrong, which in my opionion is the actual problem behind this and not so much whether we want slightly more nutritious food or not.

      I hope this article shows that the organic labels are beyond just eating healthier. A lot of people make quick judgments and choices and don’t realise the ethical dilemmas and problems behind such big subjects.

      Liked by 1 person

      • zakeeyak says:

        I fully agree with you. Chemophobia is real and it’s not just sad, but dangerous. I truly believe that if as a species we stopped using pesticides etc we would all starve. I also believe that in the absence of good dietary choices modification of food is a viable option for good health. It’s been shown with iodated salt, fortified wheat and others. That the war for natural affects others who may not have the option to get nutrients in other ways (see: golden rice) is truly devastating.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Maybe one day we might find more evidence for it of even make it work, who knows but at the moment there is not enough science to back the claims and it’s a money making trend.

        Liked by 1 person

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  1. […] Natural and organic products in the cosmetic industry have no proof on their claims. Molecules do not have a history, they do not know if they have come from a lab or nature (although note that even natural compounds have to go to the lab to be purified) and so they do not change whether they are good or bad. A molecule will be good or bad based on its structure and hence chemical activity, not based on where it came from. Natural and organic products (whether food or cosmetics) come with a higher profit margin and that’s the main reason why companies create these products. There isn’t even solid proof for organic food and there are a lot of ethical dilemmas with these types of labelling, for science information check out: Organic food and farming – Scientific evidence, problems and ethical dilemmas […]

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