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Food Science: Natural vs. Synthetic - Series

Part 2 The Truth Behind Organic Farming

Part 2 The Truth Behind Organic Farming

Contributor Bio

Arianna Ferrini is a postdoctoral research fellow at University College London (UK) and a freelance scientific writer and illustrator. She holds a PhD in Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine from Imperial College London and an MSc in Medical and Pharmaceutical Biotechnology from the University of Florence (Italy).

Organic farming is a type of farming defined as a holistic system designed to optimize diverse communities' productivity and fitness within the agro-ecosystem, including soil organisms, plants, livestock, and people. The principal goal of organic production is to develop enterprises that are sustainable and harmonious with the environment.

Organic farming is primarily based on the principles of enhancement and exploitation of the natural biological cycle. In organic farming systems, there is a strong emphasis on optimizing animal welfare, avoiding pollution, and improving the farm's environmental infrastructure.

For example, organic farming promotes crop rotations and cover crops and encourages balanced host/predator relationships. Organic residues and nutrients produced on the farm are recycled back to the soil. Cover crops and composted manure are used to maintain soil organic matter and fertility.

Organic farming is becoming exponentially more and more popular. However, there are many myths out there about organic foods and a lot of propaganda supporting methods that are rarely understood.

Also, organic has become a significant market player. The “Certified Organic” label has only been around for a couple of decades. Yet in 2019,  certified organic sales worldwide have jumped to about $55 billion. And this is even though organic food costs up to three times more than the same food produced by conventional methods.

Beware, we are not saying that organic is all bad. Let’s just explore some of the myths surrounding organic farming so everyone can judge for themselves and decide if they want to spend their well-earned money on organic food.

Organic — Is It Really Better for Human Health?

A number of studies examined the macro- and micronutrient content of organic foods and found no differences in vitamins, minerals, and overall nutritional content. Organic foods are not healthier, per se, in terms of nutrients. You are still getting the same benefits in conventionally grown foods as you are in organic foods.1–3

There is currently no evidence supporting any nutritional benefits or deficits from eating organic compared with conventionally grown food with regards to human health. There are no exhaustive studies demonstrating health benefits or disease protection as a result of consuming an organic diet.

Organic — Is It Really Better for the Environment?

It is unquestioned that several toxic chemicals have been widely used in the agricultural industry, especially pesticides. These toxic chemicals have a huge negative impact on the environment (from leaching into soil and water, for a start).

Organic Pesticides

The primary reason reported by customers for shopping organic is “because it does not contain pesticides.” Organic farming, however, can still use pesticides and fungicides to prevent critters from destroying their crops. The difference lies in the origin of these pesticides. Organic farming mainly uses naturally derived pesticides. Nevertheless, it can also utilize some synthetic pesticides (here, you can check the list of pesticides allowed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example). Organically approved pesticides include "natural" or other pest management products included in the Permitted Substances List (PSL) of the organic standards. This list is determined with input from board members, including farmers, business owners, and consumer advocates. The public (you!) is invited to submit opinions on what makes the list. Anyone can file a petition to have materials added or removed.

For Europe, the full list can be found in Europe’s Commission Regulation (EC) No. 889/2008. It includes materials such as composts and manures and inputs or pesticides such as aluminum-calcium phosphate, magnesium sulfate, sodium chloride, calcium polysulfide, copper sulfate, and many others that can be used.

The main difference between the inputs used in conventional agriculture is that those used in organic farming “must be of plant, animal, microbial or mineral origin except where products or substances from such sources are not available in sufficient quantities or qualities or if alternatives are not available “ according to the Council Regulation 834/2007. This means that substances used in organic farming must be “naturally occurring.” But be careful; just because something is of natural origin, it does not mean it’s not toxic. In general, whether they are of natural origin or synthetic, pesticides remain toxic materials with active chemical substances. Hence, farmers should take a number of precautions when using them, and the public should be aware that organic farming is allowed to use pesticides.

The Case of Rotenone

For years it has been assumed that pesticides that occur naturally (e.g., derived from some plants) are somehow better for us and for the environment than those artificially made. As more research is done into this topic, this assumption does not appear to be true. Many naturally derived pesticides have been found to pose potential health risks. A famous example of this is Rotenone. Rotenone is a naturally occurring molecule found in some subtropical plants. It has been widely used as an “organic pesticide” for decades. However, research has shown that Rotenone is harmful to human cells because it attacks the mitochondria (the cells' powerhouse). This is confirmed by the World Health Organisation, which classified Rotenone as harmful.4 Unfortunately, it is still used as an insecticide and piscicide (used to eliminate unwanted fish species). Rotenone is just an example to show that botanical pesticides are not necessarily harmless.

The Case of the Bordeaux Wine Mixture

Doses are everything. Almost any molecule can become toxic in excessive doses. This is the case of the so-called Bordeaux wine mixture, a copper sulfate and lime mixture, widely used in organic farming. Overall, the Bordeaux wine mixture is considered to have low toxicity even if used chronically. However, several official reports from the French government showed that for the arboricultural uses of apricot, cherry, hazel, olive, peach, pear, apple, and plum (1.25 g Cu / L) and walnut (0.7-1 g Cu / L), the Bordeaux wine mixture poses an unacceptable risk to farmers, operators and/or workers. In addition, it also concluded that “the number of applications must be reduced for certain uses so as not to exceed annual doses resulting in unacceptable risks to aquatic organisms.” Indeed, the Bordeaux wine mixture has been found to be harmful to fish, livestock, and earthworms due to the potential buildup of copper in the soil. This shows that even a “naturallyoccurring” pesticide can have adverse effects on the environment and human health, depending on the doses or the context.

To Sum Up

Benefits to human health and the environment are the basis of the choice of consumers who buy organic food. However, it should be noted that there is currently no scientific evidence that organic food consumption is better for human health from a nutritional point of view. Regarding the use of pesticides, the public should be aware that naturally occurring pesticides are still allowed in organic farming and that these can be as dangerous as their “synthetic” counterpart.





  • mal

    Nice article. Unless I missed it, there was no mention of the importance of good quality water for organic farming.
    Also, Ive seen it time and time again in all the big supermarkets where the produce in the organic section is kept looking fresh by spraying/washing the produce in the filthy chemical ladden town water.
    Im grateful to be living on a little slice of paradise in the Pacific where we grow all our own fruit and veggies with no chemicals, great water, fresh local meats and fresh fish.

  • Alex Tarnava

    Hi Karen, I think Arianna is pointing out that organic farming, as in commercial operations, is allowed to use toxic pesticides so long as they are “natural chemicals”. Often these chemicals are more toxic than the pesticides used in conventional farming.

    There is inherent potential harm from any pesticide use. growing your own food is a great solution for you. My mom and grandma do the same, and my wife and I are moving to an acreage we just purchased, and I plan to plant some foods and herbs, as well. That said, home garden cannot solve food insecurities, or feed our growing planet. Home gardens typically cannot even feed a single household. It isn’t a complete solution.

    Knowing the misrepresentations made by the organic industry can help consumers save their hard earned money. This is not to say that all farming practices are good; it is saying that organic practices are equally bad, or in some cases, worse.

  • Karen Olsen

    I still choose my own organic garden over poison sprayed on GMO farming. Our soil in the US is trashed and from what I have researched we don’t have many years left of agriculture.

  • Charlie

    Good article. Maybe buying local, knowing where your food is coming from can help with these concerns. Also the carbon foot print from shipping food not in season around the world can’t be good.

  • chris wallace

    Good stuff. Most people don’t know any of this and now I know more. I will say that when I taste an organic apple versus ordinary apple, the organic apple has more flavour. I presume that’s because of how its grown but can’t tell for sure.

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