Safer, healthier, but what about less toxic? Why not ask the question the other way around… Are foods from chemically intensive farms worse for humans and the planet than organic alternatives?

An apple is an apple, and fortunately the way it's grown does not hugely transform its insides  - its nutritional and molecular make-up, for instance. But while they might be nutritionally similar inside, the conventional ones are sometimes ‘dressed up’ with a sophisticated cocktail of chemicals used in growing them in chemically-intensive farms.

A new study that is making the media rounds found that conventional food is 30% more likely to have pesticide residues than organic foods [1]. But this is the interesting part: because the ‘insides’ are nutritionally similar, we get the headline that organic foods are not better than conventional ones.

But wait a minute, aren’t they?

Think about a strawberry. The organic strawberry, compared to a conventional one, is better for the famer who grows it without toxic pesticides; better for the bees that thrive in her farm and can eat pollen uncontaminated with pesticides; better for the neighbours, both nearby and far away, who do not get exposed to pesticides or other chemicals; and surely better for the consumer who can trust this strawberry is grown without pesticides or chemical fertilisers.

Is this strawberry better nutritionally?

As it turns out, one prestigious study has shown that organic strawberries have a higher content of vitamin C [2], in addition to being sweeter and more favoursome.

Our health is fortunately not only reduced to a few ‘nutrients’ in our food – it is a whole lot more than that. I say ‘fortunately’ because it’s also about the pleasure of knowing your food comes from organic farms that are less polluting, better for the environment, as well as farmers and rural communities. It is also about the pleasure of tasting a diversity of colours and smells, often much more intense in local markets coming from your neighbours’ ecological farms.

But I could also say that human health is unfortunately not only reduced to ‘nutrients’ because health is as well about the other stuff they ‘dress up’ our food with in industrial farming: chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilisers, antibiotics, and hormones, for instance.

Nevertheless, the authors of the study found significant reasons to stick to organic foods:

“If you look beyond health [nutritional] effects, there are plenty of other reasons to buy organic instead of conventional,” noted Dena Bravata, senior author of the paper comparing the nutrition of organic and non-organic foods [3].

And so do we!

Reyes Tirado, Greenpeace Research Laboratories, University of Exeter, United Kingdom

[1] Smith-Spangler, C., Brandeau, M. L., Hunter, G. E., Bavinger, J. C., Pearson, M., Eschbach, P. J., Sundaram, V., Liu, H., Schirmer, P., Stave, C., Olkin, I. & Bravata, D. M. 2012. Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives? A Systematic Review. Annals of Internal Medicine, 157: 348-366.

[2] Reganold, J. P., Andrews, P. K., Reeve, J. R., Carpenter-Boggs, L., Schadt, C. W., Alldredge, J. R., Ross, C. F., Davies, N. M. & Zhou, J. 2010. Fruit and Soil Quality of Organic and Conventional Strawberry Agroecosystems. PLoS ONE, 5: e12346.