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Organic: Worth the Extra Cost?

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Over the past twenty years, organic foods have become more popular in the United States.  Consumers look to buy these foods not only from local farmers markets and community supported agriculture programs but also in conventional grocery stores, with some grocery chains advertising their offerings of a wide variety of fresh and processed organic foods. 

Tens of thousands of shoppers pay extra money every day for organic foods.  Depending on the food source (produce, meat, or dairy) organic foods can cost 50 to 200 percent more than conventionally grown foods with organic meat often costing more than twice that of those that are conventionally grown.  Organic farms, because of the restrictions on land and animal management, often produce proportionally less product than do conventional farms.  The economics of supply and demand drive the costs of organic foods and leave consumers asking themselves “Is having organic food in our diet really worth the extra cost?”

Why do organic foods seem so popular?

In many ways, the popularity of organic foods can be broken into two categories: health – of the environment, livestock, and people – and economics.  Organic food advocates argue that organic food tastes better, contains more micronutrients, and is healthier than conventionally produced fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy products.  These claims link to greater consumer health.  Additionally, animals raised on organic farms are expected to be treated more humanely than those raised conventionally.  The research findings behind the higher nutrient claims are mixed, however.  Some studies show that organic foods do contain more nutrients while others argue that no significant difference between conventional and organic food products exists. 

Organic food advocates also praise the lower levels of pollution, synthetic materials use, and antibiotics that are associated with organic farming.  Farms and producers that market their products as “organic” must be certified by the USDA under the National Organic Program.  Under this program, organic foods are produced without genetically modified organisms and synthetic or petroleum-based pesticides and herbicides. Organic meat, dairy, and poultry products must contain no trace of antibiotics or growth hormones, and animals must have access to land outside of confinement facilities. 

For many consumers, the absence of synthetic chemicals is important. Some researchers have hypothesized that the increased levels of growth hormones in the food supply have caused girls to reach puberty at younger ages making them more likely to develop breast, cervical, and uterine cancers later in life.  More concerning for some public health officials is the amount of antibiotics that farmers give livestock.  A New York Times’ opinion piece, “Bacteria 1, F.D.A. 0,” by food writer Mark Bittman explains that 80 percent of all of the antibiotics sold in the United States are given to livestock.  Animals, even when they are not ill, are given antibiotics to improve their weight gain and keep them healthy in confinement operations.  This overuse of antibiotics has encouraged antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella to develop. 

In addition to avoiding the antibiotics that producers give livestock, one of the most popular reasons consumers buy organic food is because the fruits and vegetables are not treated with synthetic pesticides that may contain cancer-causing agents and pollute water supplies.  Instead of synthetic pesticides and herbicides, organic farmers use “biopesticides.”  Biopesticides are developed from microbial organisms like fungi, bacteria, and viruses, and the primary microorganism targets one specific insect or weed source.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), these biopesticides are less carcinogenic than traditional pesticides and do not harm to other animals, plants, or insects other than those targeted by the primary microorganism.  

Even with the mixed results regarding the actual nutritional benefits of organic foods, the lower levels of pollution and the less frequent use of antibiotics encourage many people to argue that buying organic food is worth the extra cost because of conventional foods’ adverse affect on public health and the environment. 

Economics also plays a role in the popularity of organic foods, especially those found in farmers markets.  Locavores, consumers interested in supporting the local economy by eating food grown in the community, often look to retailers for locally grown, organic foods, ranging from fruits and vegetables to grass-fed beef and free-range chickens and eggs.  Locavores argue that putting money directly into the hands of local farmers is just as important as the health and environmental benefits of organic foods. 

If I’m going to splurge on organic foods, when should I do it?

When organic foods can cost more than twice as much as conventional foods and when so many families’ budgets are strained, it is often hard to justify buying organic, even if they seem to be better for us and the environment. In light of consumers’ needs to spend more conscientiously at the grocery store, the United States Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Working Group (a non-profit organization comprising scientists, engineers, and policy experts who work to reduce the levels of environmental pollution) have developed two lists: the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean 15” to help budget-conscious consumers decide how to most effectively splurge on organic fruits and vegetables and where to save their money.  

The foods listed in the “Dirty Dozen” tested positive for more than 47 different pesticides and herbicides.  While some pesticides can be washed away, many are absorbed through the skin of the fruit or vegetable and cannot be avoided. 

The “Dirty Dozen”

Fruit

  • Apples
  • Cherries
  • Grapes (especially those imported from Chile)
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Raspberries
  • Strawberries

 Vegetables

  • Bell peppers
  • Celery
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach

The foods that made “The Clean 15” list contained little to no pesticide residue.  The thick, inedible skins of fruits like melons and vegetables like corn protect the produce from the pesticides.

The “Clean 15"

Fruit

  • Cantaloupe
  • Grapefruit
  • Kiwi Fruit
  • Mango
  • Pineapple
  • Watermelon

Vegetables

  • Asparagus
  • Avocado
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Eggplant
  • Sweet Corn
  • Sweet Onions
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Sweet Peas

While fruits and vegetables can be divided into “dirty” and “clean” groups, environmental groups and public health officials do encourage consumers to eat organic meat, regardless of the species, to avoid growth hormones and antibiotics. 

Without question, organic foods purchased in grocery stores – and often at farmers markets, especially in large cities – cost more.  While no conclusive evidence exists that organic foods contain higher levels of nutrients than do conventional foods, numerous studies and the USDA agree organic foods do not expose consumers to the numerous synthetic materials and genetically modified organisms that we find in conventionally raised produce and meats.  But, because so much of the science regarding health benefits and even the safety of the biopesticides is contradictory and difficult to decipher, it is, ultimately, up to consumers and their budgets to decide whether organic foods are really worth the extra cost.