Standing in the produce section of your local grocery store, you have a choice. It seems like a small one: which carton of strawberries to purchase, the conventional or the organic? But, in that moment, you’re making a choice that can have a big impact.
As research increasingly supports the benefits of choosing organic, surveys reveal people are purchasing organic products more than ever. According to a 2014 Gallup Poll, 45 percent of shoppers actively try to include organic foods in their diet. And organics don’t just appeal to one type of shopper. The Organic Trade Association’s (OTA) annual Organic Industry Survey shows people of varying income levels, generations, ethnic backgrounds, and political affiliations bring organic products into their homes.
From nutritional value to supporting a healthy ecosystem, organic consumers know that embracing this lifestyle is meaningful and beneficial. The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Organic seal has become a symbol of integrity and trust and a standard that is being adopted by more producers.
“A new generation of supporters insists on organic options, along with those seeking the benefits of vitality and longevity through eating organic,” says Mo George-Payette, CEO of Mother’s Market & Kitchen, a California grocery chain that sells organic products. “There are many facets to this demand, from taking care of the planet to acknowledging the correlation of how it affects our health.”
Since the OTA started tracking the organic food industry’s performance in 1997, sales have grown tenfold. Organic food sales in 1997 totaled $3.4 billion and grew to an exploding $35.9 billion in 2014. Organic nonfood items (think fabrics, personal care, and household cleaning supplies) are booming in sales, too, rising 14 percent from 2013 to 2014.
“Demand for organics and ingredient transparency—right down to the seed—is growing as information spreads about the importance of eating cleaner and healthier,” says George-Payette.
Organic under attack
With more people than ever putting their dollars behind organic products, the industry has taken some jabs. To draw attention away from the big-picture benefits of organics, some opponents—especially those with market share to lose—have spent a lot of money on public relations campaigns to rally behind conventional farming and bash organics.
For example, in 2012, Stanford University issued a press release stating the university team’s review of scientific literature “did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives.” Since its release, experts, including John Reganold, a crop and soil scientist at Washington State University, questioned the review’s design, findings, and interpretation—including an alleged downplay of the higher levels of omega-3s, as well as lower levels of pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in organic compared to conventional foods. When it was revealed that Stanford received large donations from conventional agriculture giant Cargill, suspicion about the study’s design grew. When questioned, however, Stanford officials denied the link, stating that the Cargill money was used to support a department not involved in the research.
In recent years, a variety of similar claims have surfaced in the media: Organic farming isn’t sustainable; organic isn’t toxin free; organic produce has no more nutritional benefit than conventional; and organic isn’t better for the earth.
So how do shoppers make decisions based on the influx of information? “It’s easy to read a specific study and take a paint brush and make a generalization,” says Jessica Shade, PhD, director of science programs at the Organic Trade Center, a nonprofit research organization. “We have been very much trained to trust what is in print. It’s important when you read something to check the sources. Sometimes these articles, especially online articles, don’t cite their sources.”
Also, there is a spectrum of credibility in science journals that have published organic studies, Shade says. Not all but some organic studies have small sample sizes, narrow scope, or aren’t constructed well—and therefore, the outcome will show no statistically significant difference between conventional and organic. “Finding no significance is easy, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a correlation.”
The health benefits of eating organic
Surveys indicate organic shoppers believe their dollars spent at the supermarket make a difference, both in their health—by increasing their intake of antioxidant-rich foods and reducing their exposure to harmful pesticides and hormones—and the environment.
“When asked to select their reasons for purchasing organic, four in ten parents say they do so primarily because it is ‘healthier for me and my children.’ Also, as parents learn more about the attributes behind the organic label, they cite more specific reasons for selecting organic,” says OTA’s Associate Director, Angela Jagiello. “A significantly higher proportion of families [in 2014 versus 2013] say they buy organic to avoid highly processed ingredients or GMOs. This is good news for organic because it means consumers have a deeper understanding of what’s behind the label.”
Do organic crops have more health benefits? A 2014 meta-analysis of 343 peer-reviewed studies, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, showed that several organic crops contain higher antioxidant levels and fewer pesticide residues than nonorganic foods, but certain produce showed the most significant difference. “It is not the case that everything you buy organic is going to have higher antioxidants,” Shade says. “It’s the type of produce—tomatoes and strawberries in particular.” For instance, a 2013 study in the journal PLoS ONE found that, even though organic tomatoes are generally smaller than conventional ones, they contain almost twice as much antioxidant vitamin C and 140 percent more plant phenols, a class of antioxidant believed to protect against heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Another study printed in a journal of the International Society for Horticultural Science showed that organic strawberries grown in plastic-house conditions are higher in fiber and plant phenols than conventional berries grown in a similar environment.
Do conventional crops pose health threats? Eating more organic foods can decrease your exposure to harmful toxins. In 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel recommended avoiding foods grown with pesticides to reduce your risk of toxin-related cancers.
Herbicide exposure is particularly harmful to human reproductive systems, according to researchers at the National Institutes of Health’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Society of Reproductive Medicine suggested in a joint report that pesticide exposure poses risks for healthy pregnancy. And, consuming conventionally grown produce with pesticide residues has also been linked to lower sperm count, according to a study of 338 semen samples from 155 men published this year in the journal Human Reproduction.
“There is a realization that exposure to chemicals does have risks,” says Shade. We are just now developing mechanisms that are able to detect those risks.”
The organic ecosystem
Each year, to keep the organic seal of approval, organic farm owners go through inspections to prove their farmlands are free of GMOs and that they’re improving soil quality and ensuring the growth of pollinators and biodiversity.
Is organic farming better for the environment? Organic farming is a giant step toward a healthier ecosystem. Research has unearthed evidence that pesticides used in conventional farming, where the focus has historically been on crop yield and size, do, indeed, damage our planet’s land, water, and atmosphere.
Frogs in Iowa wetlands, for example, were found to have a significant amount of pesticides in their skin, according to a study published in Science of the Total Environment in early 2015. The herbicide atrazine, which harms the amphibians’ reproduction, physical characteristics, and behavior, was detected. The study also points to a larger issue: toxic pesticides that contaminate water. Another study published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences states that water polluted by pesticides “constitutes an excessive threat to aquatic biodiversity.”
Other findings suggest the number of insects and spiders are higher on both organic farms and surrounding land, compared to conventional farms. Organic farming methods value biodiversity in the ecosystem, allowing beneficial predator insects to control plant-attacking pests. Biodiversity means more pollinators and higher plant yields. And better nutritional quality of the soil means better plants. Organic farmers view that as a win-win for the farm and surrounding ecosystem.
Organic farming may also protect the land by counteracting harmful effects of climate change. Regenerative organic agriculture, which employs crop rotation and low tillage, keeps photosynthesized carbon dioxide in the soil instead of pushing it into the atmosphere. If regenerative organic farming standards were applied to all farms, greenhouse gas emissions could decrease by 40 percent, according to the Rodale Institute’s study, “Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change.”
Is going organic sustainable for farmers? “We are seeing that there is economic opportunity for farms of all shapes and sizes to go organic,” says Brise Tencer, the executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. “Consumer demand for organic is more than the United States is supplying. We are importing much from overseas.”
“Many farms are adopting organic practices and adding certified organic acreage,” says the OTA’s Jagiello. “That’s critical because the largest challenge for organic today is that demand is outpacing supply. Because it takes three years for land to transition to organic, producers have to forecast several years out.”
The future of organics: Accessibility + Affordability
With the organic industry steadily growing, there are more organic products available in stores of all types, according to data compiled by SPINS, a research firm.
“Organics are not as out of reach as they once seemed. We offer competitive prices and excellent organic options across all categories,” says George-Payette of Mother’s Market & Kitchen.
Although stores play a big role, it’s the buyers in the grocery aisles that is leading the organic movement. Mindful shoppers are driving the increase of organic production and affordability. People who want to provide pesticide-free and GMO-free food for their familes, women who want to buy paraben-free cosmetics, and shoppers who demand transparency are leading an economic shift toward organic practices in our agricultural industry. At its core, those shoppers can feel good about supporting what benefits the planet and future generations.