Organic foods have been around forever (literally, forever), but they’ve recently become the centre of a massive health craze. In fact, sales of organic produce in the UK have increased by 5% from last year, whilst sales of non-organic have dropped by 1% – demonstrating that the increase in organic can’t be put down simply to a rise in population size. Currently, the organic market is worth just shy of £2,000,000,000 in the UK, across all products. However, to keep it (relatively) simple, this article will focus solely on fruit and veg, omitting products such as organic meat and fish, organic textiles, and organic beauty products.

There are many claimed benefits to organic produce – the two leading proposals are that it is healthier for you, and that it is better for the environment. Let’s first look at the health aspect.

Why would organic fruit and veg be any healthier in the first place? The obvious argument is the use of pesticides on the plants. Conventional (non-organic) farming uses an assortment of chemicals to kill insects and thus ward them off of the plants, increasing crop yield. The concern with this is that small quantities of the pesticides remain on the food when it reaches our plate, and furthermore –  these fears aren’t irrational. A 2014 review by Benbrook and Baker, analysing findings from the US Department of Agriculture, uncovered that pesticide residues are indeed found on conventionally-farmed produce that had made its way into American supermarkets. However, the paper also noted that pesticide residues were still found on some organic produce (albeit in minuscule quantities). This could be due to a number of factors, one being contamination from other fields, as most farms often grow organic crops alongside conventional. Another reason may come from the government’s loose definition of ‘organic’, which allows for certain pesticides (such as the not-too-friendly sounding copper sulfate and elemental sulfur) to be used on crops that are still considered to be organically grown. Yet, despite the use of these chemicals, farms still tend to use considerably smaller volumes of pesticides on organic crops than on those conventionally farmed.

But what effect do these pesticide residues have on us? Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell. Not enough people adhere to a strict enough organic-only diet for a long enough period of time for us to be able to draw conclusive results as to the differences between the two. The largest study of this type was carried out by the University of Oxford in 2014 and followed over half a million middle-aged women in the UK, comparing the proportion of organic food they consumed with rates of cancer. The study revealed that there is no statistical correlation between the amount of organic produce eaten and the incidence of cancers, with the exception of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (although even this is most likely just a coincidence). So, there’s no proven link between organic consumption and reduced cancer risk, but we are limited to very few studies on the topic.

“What effect do these pesticide residues have on us? Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell…”

Of course, cancers aren’t the only disease linked to pesticides. A review paper by Smith-Spangler attempting to uncover the link between farming methods and health found no evidence to suggest that organic foods are more nutritious or more likely to prevent disease, but that exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria is reduced. So whilst more evidence is needed to discover the long-term health benefits of eating organic, there is likely a benefit relative to the chemicals consumed whilst eating conventionally farmed food.

Now, let’s move on to the environmental aspect. It is claimed that by using less pesticides and other harmful chemicals (such as herbicides and fungicides), less damage will be done to surrounding ecosystems; this is definitely true. When comparing the results of nearly one hundred studies on the topic, you can see that, on average, organic farming results in a biodiversity that is 30% higher than its conventional counterpart. Maintaining the biodiversity of our soils and shrubs is more important now than ever; in the most recent ‘State of Nature’ report published by the RSPB, it is estimated that one in seven species of animals in the UK is at risk of becoming endangered, with most of the blame being given to farmers. Additionally, an article published by New Scientist detailed how one third of the Earth’s top soils are becoming barren, with the fair share of the charge going to the use of pesticides and bactericides. Many people argue that these two problems pose a greater threat to humanity than any other aspect of agriculture.

Despite organic farming being presented as a much more economically sustainable method than conventional farming, it actually fares the same when taking into account the decreased yield of organic farming. Some estimates state that the yield of organically grown grains can be up to 54% lower than those conventionally grown. When you control for this decrease in yield, the biodiversity of the local ecosystem does not differ for certain species (e.g. bumblebees, butterflies) between the two farming methods. In fact, amidst the hot topic of sustainability, organic farming was thought to be the answer to protecting our biodiversity. However, this no longer appears to be the case when considering the fact that crop demands are expected to increase by 100% by 2050, and organic faring simply won’t be able to keep up with the necessary supply.

I personally always used to believe that there must be some benefit to organic foods, before I began to analyse the primary resources utilised within this article; however, the facts seem to speak for themselves. Despite all of this, it is worth mentioning that there aren’t enough long-term studies to provide definitive evidence of – well – anything, really! Whilst ’m of the opinion that consuming even tiny amounts of residues of poisons designed to kill insects can’t be good for you, we simply can’t prove it at the moment. I’ll continue to eat organic when I can, if only to fuel my own beliefs.

Having just completed a degree in BSc Medical Science, Michael is now studying Graduate-Entry Medicine at the University of Southampton. He has a keen interest in increasing scientific accessibility, and is particularly passionate about dispelling medical myths.

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