The public debate over whether eating organic versus non-organic food matters has been a hot topic for years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) established official standards with the National Organic Program in 2002, which brought it to the forefront of the public’s consciousness and made "organic" a household term. People still have differing opinions about whether buying organic is healthier, and the people who do buy organic do so for a myriad of reasons. Unfortunately science does not conclusively provide an answer as to which is better (disclaimer: I am a strong proponent of organic, but want to fairly present both sides of the argument); better also being a relative term.
A very recent study published by researchers at Stanford concluded that there is little evidence of health benefits from eating organic instead of non-organic food. While I think it is good that studies such as this are conducted (the more science and factual information the better), I don’t think it was presented in the right way. The article emphasized the fact that there is no nutritional difference between organics and non-organics. It did say that organics posed a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination, but quickly followed this by saying that organics are not necessarily 100 percent pesticide free. Very well. But that shouldn’t minimize the fact that organics reduce pesticide exposure by 30 percent, which is significant. Buried deep within the article, one of the lead researchers says that the intention was not to discourage purchasing of organic products, but to educate. She even states that there are plenty of reasons to buy organic, including that taste preference and a concern for the environmental effects of non-organic farming practices. There are thorough, robust rebuttals to the Stanford study.
I have never been under the impression, nor has anyone else ever tried to convince me, that organic products are more nutritious than non-organic. In many conversations about food with all types of people of varying opinions about food and the food system, this has never been a topic. The nearly unanimous opinion of those who buy organic food is that they want to reduce pesticide ingestion because they believe it is healthier to avoid synthetic chemicals. Limited long term studies have been done on the effects of synthetic pesticide ingestion. Some explore pre-natal and early childhood exposure, while others established some association between exposure and increased cancer.
The USDA regularly tests harvested food crops for residue of pesticides and then publishes an annual report. There is quite a lag, as the most recent is the 2010 report that was published on May 25, 2012. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) analyzed the data and published a list easily digestible by consumers. It ranks the food in order of greatest pesticide residue, allowing you to easily know what is much safer to buy organic, and what has minimal risk to buy non-organic.
This indicates the great disparity among which crops are naturally more resistant to pests and therefore don’t require loads of pesticides. Worthy of note and not commonly known is that organic doesn’t explicitly prohibit pesticides, but only synthetic pesticides. There are natural, plant-based pesticides that can be used in organic farming according to USDA organic standards. The safety of their use depends on the quantity. In too-high usage, they could be damaging both to the end consumer eating the product as well as the local environment.
There are pros and cons to both organic and non-organic. Non-organic will likely put more toxins in your body, but we don’t yet know the long-term effects of that on humans. It can also be damaging to the land and water where those crops are grown. Organic can be more expensive and thus inaccessible to those with less means. Also, industrial scale organic farming that uses lots of natural pesticides could also be damaging to the earth and people; not the image one conjures up when thinking of organic. Lastly, crop yields are typically lower on organic farms, so it may not be possible to feed the nearly 1 billion hungry people around the world using organic methods, since it would require more land than is currently available.