The Organic Debate

The Organic Debate

Photo by Irving Penn, Vogue, December 2002

When we shop for food, we are often overwhelmed with choice – brand name or generic, fresh or frozen, organic or not organic. Standing in front of the shelves with dramatic headlines running through our heads, it’s easy to get guilt-tripped into spending more on organic products – but is it always necessary? And is it always the “best” option?

Decoding the label

In order for food to be labelled as organic, it must be grown without synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or genetically modified organisms. Organic meat must come from animals fed with 100% organic feed and raised without growth promoters or hormones. While organic food is arguably better for human health, and for the planet, there is no real monitoring system in place to track whether or not products are truly organic. And since organic products often bear a hefty mark-up (a 2016 study found that, on average, UK consumers paid an 89% premium over non-organic goods), buying all-organic is not a feasible option for everyone.

Photo by Peter Lippmann

What are pesticides?

Pesticides are chemicals used to protect crops from insects and rodent contamination, weeds, and fungal rot. Since the introduction of pesticides and other agricultural practices, crop yields have been able to multiply immensely, but at the risk of our health. Pesticides are essentially poisons, and some studies suggest they can end up harming more than just the pests that they’re designed to repel. Exposure to the toxic chemicals found in pesticides may be linked to a variety of health conditions, from respiratory problems to cancer.

So… when is it important, and when is it not?

  • Young children, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems should prioritize organic food wherever possible
  • The rule of thumb for fruits and vegetables goes: if you eat the skin, buy organic. This applies especially to thin-skinned produce such as berries, apples, cherries, and grapes. If you don’t plan on eating the skin – think, for instance, avocados – skip it. Onions, garlic, and radishes grow mostly underground and are thus considered safe from most bugs and pesticides.
  • Take a look at the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” lists, which highlight which produce generally bears the highest and lowest pesticide loads.
  • Conventional meat may contain hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides, due to the animals’ feed being grown with synthetic fertilizers and herbicides. It’s worth buying organic here, as the long-term effects aren’t entirely clear yet.
  • Go for organic wine: since grapes score extremely high in terms of pesticide residue, and wine is made from skin-on fermented grapes, it could be worth splurging on organic wine. Be aware, however, that organic wine will not spare you from a hangover.
  • Coffee is the third most-sprayed agricultural crop in the world (first and second place are occupied by cotton and tobacco respectively, neither of which we eat). If you can’t live without your daily cup or two, try to opt for organic since the long-term effects of the pesticides might negatively impact human health.

Extra tips:

  • Always wash conventional fruits and vegetables thoroughly. Soaking them in a 1-part vinegar, 9-part water solution can help remove some of the contact pesticides.
  • Try out your green thumb and plant your own fruits, vegetables, and herbs in your garden or even indoors – that way you decide whether or not pesticides land in your crops.
  • Sometimes it’s worth buying from a local farm. That way, you’re buying seasonallythe produce won’t have an immense carbon footprint, and you can avoid pesticides.

Final word

Whether or not the organic label is worth it depends on your priorities. At the end of the day, consuming non-organic fruits and vegetables is still preferable over a highly-processed diet, so don’t avoid regular produce simply because it’s not organic.

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