The difference between organic and conventional foods

Sales of organic products continued to grow last year, with annual sales figures eclipsing $30 billion for the first time ever ($31.5 billion.) Of this, $29.22 billion came from organic foods and beverages and $2.2 billion were from organic non-food products (bodycare, etc.). Organic food sales grew 9.4 percent for the year.

While the popularity of organic food continues to increase, there are still plenty of people who don’t know what organic food is or how it differs from “regular” or “conventional” food.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established specific requirements that must be verified by an accredited third-party certifying agent before products can be labeled “organic.” The use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, irradiation, sewage sludge, hormones, antibiotics and genetic engineering is strictly prohibited.

In general, organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources and conserving biodiversity.

So, for example, whereas farmers using conventional methods might spray synthetic chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth, organic farmers would, instead, apply natural fertilizers such as manure or compost to feed the soil and the plants. Where the conventional farmer would use insecticides for pest control, the organic farmer would make use of beneficial insects, birds or traps. And where the conventional farmer might use herbicides for weed control, the organic farmer would rotate crops, till the dirt and hand-weed or mulch to manage the weeds. Similarly, producers of organic beef, pork, poultry and other meat products use preventative measures such as rotational grazing, a wholesome diet, clean housing and access to the outdoors, in contrast to the conventional producers who give animals hormones to spur growth and antibiotics to prevent disease.

The health risks associated with exposure to pesticides is one of the main considerations when looking at the differences between organic and conventional food. Many EPA-approved pesticides were registered before research linked them to cancer and other diseases. Now, the EPA considers over half of all herbicides and fungicides as potentially cancer causing. (*It should be noted that pesticide residue is reduced substantially by routine food handling practices such as washing, peeling and cooking.)

Another factor that people sometimes consider when looking at differences between organic and conventional food is the nutritional value. While many studies show that organic foods are richer in nutrients, in particular organic acids and polyphenolic compounds, which have been shown to have human health benefits as antioxidants, other studies contradict these findings. Researchers generally agree the results are inconclusive and that more research is needed.

Finally, to the casual shopper it may appear that one of the biggest differences between organic and conventional food can be found on the price tag, however, it is important to realize that the true cost of food is not necessarily the price listed on the price tag. There is also a cost associated with the method of food production, including:

  • The amount we pay on our water bills to cover the cost of getting agricultural chemical residues out of the drinking water;
  • The cost of health care associated with an increasing number of food-related illnesses, and;
  • The amount we pay in taxes to subsidize large farming operations (the vast majority of which are “conventional” farms), and to fund governmental agencies that work to protect wildlife and repair their habitats.

In addition to the differences between “organic” and “conventional,” some people want to know what the difference is between “organic” and “natural.” Unlike the word “organic” the word “natural” does not have a specific meaning and can mean many different things. In general, “natural” food does not contain artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives or other additives. When you see the word “organic” on a label or a package that means the product was grown or made according to the strict standards (i.e. without the use of toxic, persistent chemicals, GMOs, antibiotics or hormones) as established by the USDA.