What Does “Organic” Mean, and Should You Buy Organic Foods?

What Does “Organic” Mean, and Should You Buy Organic Foods?

January 8, 2020 80 By Ewald Bahringer


[♪ INTRO] You’re at the supermarket, and you need to
pick up a few ingredients for your favorite stew. Do you buy the organic carrots,
potatoes and beef? Or do you skip the upcharge and
stick with the conventional stuff? There’s a lot of confusion
over what organic means, and whether it makes sense
to buy food with that label. Legally, organic food has to meet a variety
of regulations having to do with how it was produced, including no synthetic fertilizers,
no antibiotics or hormones, no food irradiation or genetic engineering, and most appetizing
of all, no sewage sludge. Which might sound good. Less sewage sludge, that’s always better. But whether these regulations are actually
meaningful isn’t always clear. So far, there’s no evidence that organic
foods are healthier, as many people claim. And while they do offer some environmental
benefits, they also come with some costs. So today, we’re diving into the complicated
world of organic farming to help you make sense of the labels and figure out what should
make it into your grocery cart. To chemists, of course, “organic” means
a molecule or compound that has carbon in it. But when you’re talking about food from
the grocery store, “organic” is a legal term for marketing purposes. Without a standards program, anyone could
use that word and it would be meaningless. In the U.S., organic certification requires
farmers to grow crops without chemical fertilizers and to use a limited number of pesticides. They also have to rotate crops, which is basically
growing different plants on the same plot of land throughout the year. And they can’t grow GMOs, or genetically
modified organisms. This generally means they’ve had
their DNA altered in a lab, often by adding a new gene
from a different organism. For meat and dairy products to qualify as
organic, the animals must be given organic feed. Cows and other ruminants that naturally eat
grass have to be able to graze for at least a third of the year, and animals like pigs and
chickens need to have the option to go outside. Just like me, I have the option, do I take
it? Vets also can’t give these animals antibiotics
or growth hormones. And there are a few other quirky provisions, like
not using certain food sterilization techniques, and specific terminology if you’re only using
some organic ingredients in your product. But that’s the gist. The rules are similar in other nations, enough that many countries have so-called equivalency agreements that allow organic food in one
nation to count as organic in another, although there are exceptions. The U.S., for instance, has equivalency agreements
with Canada, the EU, and Japan. Now, the whole idea of organic food is to
be easier on the planet. And in many ways, organic food does that. No chemical fertilizers means organic farmers
typically use manure as a source of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Plants need these nutrients to grow, to make amino
acids, DNA, and cell membranes, for example. And normal soil doesn’t have enough to support
crop-level growth. Hence, fertilizer. Manure is less environmentally damaging because
it takes a lot of energy to make chemical fertilizers, especially the nitrogen-rich
ones. They’re one of the largest sources of carbon
emissions in the whole farming process. And because manure breaks down more slowly
than chemical fertilizers in soil, the nutrients are released more gradually. So with manure, there’s less nitrogen-rich
runoff polluting nearby streams and rivers, which lets algae overgrow and kill off fish
and other creatures. Less runoff is one of the big selling points
of organic agriculture. Crop rotation cuts down on soil erosion and
helps with soil quality, too. That’s because growing the same plant again
and again saps specific nutrients from the soil. But if you rotate plants with slightly different
chemical needs, no one nutrient runs especially low. Rotation also reduces the needs for pesticides
because no pest can get especially comfy. Some research also suggests organic farming
can support more biodiversity, because fewer pesticides means a more diverse
mix of plants and animals can hang around. But the results vary depending on the crop
and the conditions, so this finding isn’t for sure. All these benefits are great,
and of course non-certified farms can and do practice these kinds of things too. But there are also real downsides to organic
farming approaches. The biggest of these has to do with yield. Using different fertilizers and being more
susceptible to pests means organic farms aren’t as productive as conventional farms. And that cuts down on how environmentally
friendly they are. Because of lower yields, experts estimate
that it takes about 25% more farmland to grow organic food than to grow
the same amount of regular food. And that space could theoretically be left
as a natural forest or other ecosystem. So even though skipping the chemical fertilizer
helps with greenhouse gas emissions, these reduced yields mean organic
farms aren’t chipping away at the total carbon footprint
as much as you might think. Even with researchers still looking into it,
it’s hard to say exactly how much. Even if we wanted, we couldn’t just
switch all farming over to organic because we wouldn’t be able
to feed the entire planet. Ultimately, this comes down to the fact
that we wouldn’t be able to make enough manure or other organic fertilizers. Like, it takes a lot of farmland to raise
animals that make gobs of nutritious poop. Some of the standards that
define organic foods in the U.S. aren’t necessarily helping with sustainability,
either. Take the ban on GMOs. GMOs have a bad reputation, but as we’ve
talked about before here on SciShow, they’re not inherently bad. And they have a lot of potential to reduce
the amount of chemicals needed to grow food. Or sewer sludge. It seems obvious
that sewage and food don’t mix. But it turns out that using carefully
treated sewage, known as biosolids, might actually be good for
farms and the environment. Crops are especially good at absorbing the
nitrogen and phosphorus in biosolids, so there’s less runoff
than with traditional fertilizer. And, since people poop anyway, we don’t
need to increase carbon emissions by making synthetic fertilizer or use more land
to rear animals for a bunch of manure. In this case, the organics label prevents
a sustainable farming practice, which is kind of a waste. Now, besides caring about the
environment, which we should all do, people sometimes buy organic food
because it sounds healthier. But there is no evidence that organic food has
more nutrients or is better for you in any way. Scientists have checked this repeatedly,
since it does make sense that if you have slightly better soil,
maybe you’ll get a better apple or pepper. But if you think about it more, that’s asking
a lot from a relatively small change. A few studies have found slightly
higher levels of certain nutrients, such as antioxidants in produce. But it’s not clear that it’s enough to
be a health benefit. And, to be totally transparent, those results
have tended to be funded by the organics industry. A 2012 systematic review of 240 studies, for example, didn’t find any significant differences in
vitamins or minerals in foods grown with organic and traditional methods, except for one. Phosphorus was higher in organic foods, but it’s unlikely that that difference
would matter for us anyway. Phosphorus is in a lot of foods,
and deficiencies are really rare. So there’s no compelling case to be made
that organic food is better for you. So don’t kid yourself. Eating a whole organic
cake is just as bad for you as eating any whole cake, and you don’t get an extra boost by
chowing down on an organic banana. The one area where organics do beat conventional
foods health-wise is pesticides. But the difference may not be all that meaningful. When tested for pesticide residue,
organic food usually comes back with fewer than conventional crops,
which makes sense. The whole idea is to use fewer inputs, including
pesticides, to grow food. But it’s not zero. The review found that about 7% of the organic
foods they tested had detectable pesticides, compared to 38% of conventional foods. It’s possible these small differences matter, but
from everything we currently know, it’s unlikely. Virtually all foods are still within the
EPA’s safety limits for pesticides, no matter how they’re produced, which
we’ve talked about in another video. And you should still be washing all your fruits
and veggies to minimize exposure. In terms of preventing food poisoning, organic
food also seems to match conventional food. In fact, it turns out that organic regulations
forbid a perfectly good technique that could protect us against foodborne illness called
food irradiation. It’s not used much in conventional food,
either, but some food scientists think it should be used much more widely. Irradiation might sound scary, like, is my
grape gonna become a radioactive grape and then I’m gonna eat it and become Grape Man? but it’s not like the food becomes
radioactive and dangerous. The CDC, the WHO, and the USDA all agree that
food that’s been irradiated is safe. Basically, ionizing radiation is used to break
chemical bonds and kill contaminants like bacteria. That makes the food last longer and makes
it safer to eat. Irradiation doesn’t solve all problems, like, toxins can still build up in food
before a pathogen gets the axe. Plus, it can reduce some nutrients
and some people say it can change the taste
of foods ever so slightly. Because it reduces spoilage, it’s possible
irradiated food could be older when you buy it compared with non-irradiated food. Critics also say irradiation can cover up
poor farming practices. But the fact remains that irradiation is very
effective for food safety. If you want to avoid getting sick from something
you eat, it might be your best option. The proof is in the pudding; hospital pudding,
that is. Hospitals regularly irradiate food to make
sure patients with weakened immune systems don’t get taken down by a bit of Staph. NASA also irradiates the meat it sends into
space to feed astronauts. You know, because nobody wants
diarrhea in space. That sounds terrible. Irradiation is particularly useful for foods
that are hard to properly clean before eating, like sprouts, shellfish, and things like spices. In fact, in recent years, organic spices
have been a big food safety offender, because of contamination from
microbes like Salmonella. So, despite what you may have heard,
organic doesn’t always mean safer, and at the end of the day,
whether you should buy organic food isn’t a question science can definitely answer. You shouldn’t buy it because it’s healthier
or tastier, that much is clear. But the truth is that while organic food includes
some great sustainable farming practices, it excludes some others. That’s unfortunate, because if I’m going to
pay extra for an organic apple, I’d really like to know it’s eco-friendly. And right now, you can’t necessarily tell
that by looking at the label. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow,
and thank you especially to our Patrons on patreon who make posting videos 7 days a week
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Patrons, so thank you. [♪ OUTRO]