The label ‘conventional’ describes most food we eat today.
The meaning of ‘conventional’ is ‘based in accordance with what is generally/traditionally done or believed.’
Yet is it really what has been traditionally done when all food used to be organic by default not so long ago.
The label ‘organic’ is now often on the back foot.
’Perceived as a side dish for hippies and self-righteous people with more money than sense.
The meaning of ‘organic’ is ‘produced without chemical fertilizers, pesticides and other artificial chemicals.
It says a lot about a culture when using unnatural chemicals is considered ‘normal’ and natural methods are considered a bit out there and ‘alternative’.
Having worked on a soft fruit farm, I figured there must be a reason why the people who follow the ‘conventional’ method of spraying chemicals, wear masks and moon suits!
Despite this, the BIG question often is…
Isn’t organic too expensive?
The most often repeated criticism of organic food is that it’s too expensive.
It’s often accompanied by the strong implication that it’s not worth paying any more for organic because it delivers no additional value when compared to conventional.
Generally, yes, the price of organic food is about 50% higher on average.
But surely the question should be one of value?
Is conventional food better value for money?
The answer to this question, like many things in life, is never black and white.
It depends on many variables such as; the quality of the seed used, whether it was grown in season, the type and health of the soil it was grown in, how fresh it is and how it’s been stored and handled during transportation, etc etc.
Hence, whether organic or conventional is ‘better value’ is circumstantial and depends on how you measure value.
For the purpose of this analysis, value will be measured from nutrient-density and human health impacts, as they tangibly affect us all on an individual level.
Biodiversity and other impacts affect us all as well, however they are more indirect and may not be a tangible factor for all individuals when determining value.
Mineral expert and Fellow of the Geological Society, David Thomas, analysed The Composition of Foods and found a severe drop in nutrient content in most food in the UK over the last 60 years.
Thomas’ study is not limited to fruits and vegetables. His analysis has revealed a drastic drop in nutrient content (especially essential minerals) across almost all food groups (this includes meat and dairy produce). He states that;
“Research has demonstrated the reality of the loss of micronutrients from our foods and provides evidence that micronutrient deficiencies significantly undermine our health, contributing towards chronic physiological and psychological illnesses in people of all ages.”
This suggests that there is a correlation between the increase in industrial agriculture post WWII, and a decrease in the nutrition and quality of food.
Evidence of nutrient deficiencies is shown in our declining health.
For example, it appears that hundreds of thousands of deaths could have been prevented in the UK alone, had the government acted on the compelling evidence for the benefits of folic acid.
Another notable example is that many of us are deficient in magnesium. We are rarely educated on the importance of magnesium which is critical for most mind-body processes.
For example, magnesium regulates the hormone melatonin, which signals the sleep-wake cycle in our body. And quality sleep is crucial from protecting our brain to regenerating our cells.
The importance of magnesium is explained in a paper titled Magnesium in Prevention and Therapy, stating;
“Magnesium has been recognised as a cofactor for more than 300 enzymatic reactions, where it is crucial for adenosine triphosphate (ATP) metabolism which regulates our energy levels. Magnesium is required for DNA and RNA synthesis, reproduction, and protein synthesis. Low levels of magnesium have been associated with a number of chronic diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, insulin resistance, type-2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease (e.g., stroke), migraine headaches, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).”
Additionally, in her book The Magnesium Miracle, Dr Carolyn Dean highlights the important, yet often overlooked, link between magnesium deficiency and mental illness.
“We do not get anxiety, panic attacks, or depression because we have a deficiency of antidepressants. However, we can develop a myriad of psychological symptoms because of a deficiency of magnesium, a nutrient our bodies absolutely do require.”
This is an issue because commercial conventional farms fail to replenish nutrient depleted soil, and the magnesium that’s left cannot be absorbed by plants due to fertilizers or pesticide residues.
Research has shown that glyphosate, for example, binds with magnesium, preventing absorption.
As well as nutritional deficiencies, we also have to look at heavy metals and environmental toxins in food.
Chemicals that may interfere with the body’s endocrine system, disrupting hormones and potentially producing adverse neurological, reproductive and immune effects.
For example, vegetables grown in mineral depleted soil have been shown to absorb cadmium and heavy metals more easily.
Cadmium is more toxic than lead and mercury with serious health risks for humans and animals. Exposure to Cadmium has been shown to cause an increased incidence of metabolic and cardiovascular disease.
Pesticides and herbicides can also impact our endocrine system.
In this human study, for example, the pesticide chlorpyrifos were noted to have a testosterone lowering effect in multiple linear regression models.
There is also the issue of GMO crops that are designed to tolerate repeated spraying with a particular weed killer.
In addition, antibiotic resistance genes are often added to GM crops despite the threat of antibiotic resistant infections.
Organic is more nutrient-dense and less toxic
It’s evident from the above evidence that most modern food is likely to be insufficient to meet our nutritional needs.
Moreover, environmental toxins like heavy metals, pesticides and GMO have been shown to make things worse, depleting us of vital nutrients and undermining our physiological and psychological health.
Given the above, it’s good to know that organic food has been shown to be not just more nutrient dense than conventional, but less toxic.
The most extensive study comparing organic vs conventional produce found significant evidence to support this.
Research by Newcastle University, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, found that organic fruit and vegetables are up to 60% higher in a number of beneficial antioxidants, and lower in toxic heavy metals and pesticides, than conventional produce.
Cadmium, which is one of only three metal contaminants along with lead and mercury for which the European Commission has set maximum permitted contamination levels in food, was found to be almost 50% lower in organic crops than conventionally-grown ones.
The study also found that pesticide residues were four times more likely to be found in conventional crops than organic ones.
Professor Leifert who helped compile the study stated:
“The organic vs non-organic debate has rumbled on for decades now but the evidence from this study is overwhelming – that organic food is high in antioxidants and lower in toxic metals and pesticides”
This supports the basis that generally, when you buy organic, you are getting a vastly superior foot item in terms of nutrient density and health gains.
Therefore, on this basis it can be argued that the approximately 50% extra price you pay is most certainly worth it.
What if price is still a major barrier?
Even if we do think it is better value, some of us simply can’t afford it and price remains a big barrier.
I think it’s important to note that we don’t have to be all or nothing; it’s not about having to be 100% organic or 100% conventional.
It’s finding what works for each of us individually.
There are no shoulds or should nots. Everyone’s financial and life circumstances are different.
Maybe we can start by buying the dirty dozen organic and/or buy the clean fifteen. Every year PANUK test fruit and vegetables for their pesticide levels.
The dirty dozen are the ‘conventional’ foods with the highest pesticide levels and the clean fifteen are the ‘conventional’ foods with the lowest levels.
Additionally, washing and soaking produce with baking soda is a really cheap way to help remove some of the pesticide residue.
The above was intended to bring awareness to the value of organic food compared with conventional, based on nutrient density and health.
It is evident that conventionally grown produce leads to greater exposure to ingesting more endocrine disrupting toxins, pesticides, herbicides and heavy metals than ingesting the actual nutrients our mind-body craves.
This is enough for me to choose organic or grow my own, without even taking into account the wider harmful impacts of conventional agriculture on farmers, soil health and biodiversity.
After all, what can we do if we don’t have health and vitality?
Plus the fact that organic just tastes way better 🙂