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Does Organic Food Have Any Added Nutritional Value?

sophie b.'s picture

 Recently many Americans have been reevaluating their food choices, and have started to choose organic and local produce as opposed to conventionally grown products. Green markets and Whole Foods stores are springing up across the country; even Wal-Mart has begun to carry organic meats and produce. Advocates of “green” food cite many reasons for opting for organic food, however I am most interested in the claim that organic food is healthier than conventionally farmed products, and whether or not there is actually any nutritional benefit to eating organic.
The difference between organic and conventional farms is the different agricultural methods that are employed, organic farms generally use more traditional agricultural techniques. In order to be classified organic by the USDA farms are required to "manage soil a manner that maintains or improves the physical, chemical and biological condition of the soil and minimizes soil erosion" (1). Organic farms are not permitted to use herbicides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers for three years before being classified as organic (1). In order to do this organic farms use techniques such as crop rotation (2). Crop rotation is typically devised around sequencing a ratio of three different crop categories: row crops, grains, and rest crops (3). This method of farming aims to cut the development of pests by constantly moving the crops to different areas. Additionally, crop rotation is used as a method of maintaining soil health, as row crops are replaced with rest crops when declining soil fertility is apparent (3). Organic farms also use manure to fertilize their soil.
The USDA has similar strict requirements for organic livestock. Organic livestock must be fed organic materials consistently throughout their lives (1). The only exception is during transitions from non-organic to organic farming can livestock be fed 80% organic materials. There are also many requirements for the housing and everyday living of organic livestock (1). Organic livestock must have access to the outdoors for exercise as well as grazing, and clean, dry bedding. The USDA requires housing and pasture appropriate to the breed in the hopes that it will prevent illness, along with veterinary care (1). Organic farms also use rotational grazing, which has similar goals to crop rotation, in that farmers hope that frequent motion will prevent certain types of illness among their livestock. If animals do get sick, some medicines are allowed, however antibiotics are not permitted. Additionally hormones to speed growth in animals are not permitted, nor are any other forms of medicine that are not expressly necessary at the time (1).
Conventional farms, on the other hand harness modern agricultural technology, and generally are more industrialized and produce at a higher volume than organic farms. One of the largest differences between organic and conventional farms is that conventional farms almost always grow one or two crops, as opposed to organic farms which typically grow a variety of crops . In order to prevent pest and disease infestations of their crops, farmers use herbicides and pesticides, as well as chemical fertilizers which fertilize plants directly (4). Livestock on conventional farms are often given hormones in order to encourage faster growth. Conventional farms also rely upon veterinary care, antibiotics and other medicines in order to treat and prevent disease. Animals on conventional farms are often given non organic feed, usually comprised of grains such as corn, and sometimes by products of animals (4).
Though there are many differences in the methods of conventional and organic farms, the nutritional value of its products do not seem to reflect those differences. I have only found two instances of organic products containing a higher nutritional value. In 2007 researchers from UC Davis noted that organically grown tomatoes contain nearly twice the amount of flavonoids, or vitamin P, than conventionally grown tomatoes. The researchers also noted that the flavonoid levels seemed to be rising over time (5). Additionally, organically produced eggs are known to contain more omega three vitamins than their conventionally produced counterparts. Though these benefits are significant, as eggs and tomatoes are widely consumed products, they can also be replicated by conventional farming. Many conventional producers have special omega three eggs, which are produced under the same conditions except their hens are fed flax seed (6).
This is not to say that there are no health issues that arise from conventional farming, however I started out by framing my question in the wrong way. The real health risks to conventionally farmed products are not their lack of nutrients, but rather the fact that they pose a serious risk for food borne illnesses. Every year 87 million people in the US become sick from food borne illness, and 5700 are killed (7). Whether it is mad cow disease or an infected spinach crop the US tends to experience a food contamination crisis almost annually. There seem to be two reasons that conventional farming lends itself to this kind of mass health emergency, the first being the sheer volume of production in conventional farms. Conventional producers are extremely centralized, and tend to be oriented towards producing the most efficiently (4). This means that mass quantities of food are being distributed across the country coming from the same location. If there are problems with a crop it automatically becomes a national issue, as opposed to smaller scale organic productions which generally only effect local and regional areas.
The second health issue with conventional farming is the actual conditions under which food is produced. Conventional farms are not required to give their animals clean bedding, or access to the outdoors and rarely do so. Animals in conventional farms are kept in extremely close proximity, and disease can spread extremely quickly among them (4). Furthermore the types of feed given to the livestock can also cause disease, feed corn can increase the acidity levels in cows which increases susceptibility to E.Coli. The use of animal by-products can also cause diseases such as mad cow (4). The frequency and scope of the recent health crises show that conventional, industrialized farming tends to create unhealthy or unsanitary products.
In the end purpose of organic farming is not to improve the nutritional value of our food, but rather to make the overall process of food production better. Through this attempt improve the health of the soil and animals involved organic farms circumvent the serious health issues that are facing the modern agriculture industry.










Paul Grobstein's picture

reasons to go, and not go, organic

"the purpose of organic farming is not to improve the nutritional value of our food, but rather to make the overall process of food production better."

An interesting/important idea, worth further exploring.  The issue, if I'm understanding you correctly, is not the molecules and macromolecules produced in the food items but rather additional things that may be associated with the food items because of industrialization.  And the impact of industrialization on the environment, which in turn has impacts on the health of consumers.