Organic food – friend or foe?

Are there any ‘real’ benefits of consuming organic food over conventional food? And can we feed the whole world just with the organic food?

Living standard in the western world has probably never been higher. With higher living standard, comes possibilities. Among these possibilities is caring more about what you eat.

The rise of organic food

The Norwegian Agriculture Agency (Landbruksdirektoratet) has for several years reported of double digit increases in the sale of organic agricultural products in Norway. This is a trend also seen in other developed countries as well, although the overall share of organic food relative to total food consumption is still low even in these countries.

So far so good. But several questions arise in my mind related to this topic. Are there any ‘real’ benefits of consuming organic food over conventional food? And can we feed the whole world just with the organic food?

In many respects humankind has always harvested and cultivated organic food. Before the invention of modern farming methods, such as chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers, food was cultivated organically. There may be many reasons why people want to return to basic concept of food production. Awareness towards eating healthy and “safe” food, environmental conservation, and more knowledge about the effects of chemicals, wellbeing of animals, improved taste and personal health are some of the most important factors. We can assume that these factors may result in willingness by the consumers to pay notably higher prices for organically manufactured commodities.

What is organic food?

But what is organic food? Simply stated, organic food is grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones.

 

 

The advantages and disadvantages

After reading and researching extensively about this topic, I have found it very challenging to suggest what’s best and what is not. There are strong opinions on both sides of the aisle. As with many things in life, perception may be more important than facts. There is a jungle of information out there, and both sides present what seems to be strong arguments. Beyond doubt, organic food has various benefits compared to the conventional or non-organic food. These advantages can’t be ignored. At the same time, there are more and more stronger voices showing their concern about organic food. Recently I came across an article by Bjørn Lomborg, who is President at the think-tank Copenhagen Concensus Center. He voiced several concerns about organic food, and many of them bases in facts and research. Here are some pro and cons:

Environment

(+)  Organic food contributes towards the protection of environment. Toxic pesticides and chemicals are not used in production of organic products. There is minimal soil degradation and water pollution. Organic food also requires less energy.

(-)  Organic food requires more farmland, because organic farming is less efficient. This is return leads to equal amount of greenhouse gas emissions as traditional farming per unit of food produced. In addition, more farm land would mean less forests and wildlife. In addition, organic farming does not avoid the complete use of pesticides. “Natural” pesticides, such as copper sulfate, are allowed.

Taste and nutrition

(+)  According to some consumer’s reports and researchers, organic food tastes better than conventional food and may also have more nutritional value. The noticeable reason behind this argument is that there are no pesticides and additives used in the production of organic food; thus the taste is better than the conventional food. Moreover, most of the organic food is sold locally and fresh food mostly tastes better than frozen and shipped food.

(-)  A 2012 University of Stanford conducted the largest comparison of organic and traditional food. This study did not find any significant evidence to conclude that organic food is more nutritious. In addition, organic food doesn’t last as long as traditional food, which may compromise the quality by the food spoiling faster.

Animal welfare

(+)  The wellbeing of animals is an essential aspect of organic farming. It is important in the concept of organic farming that animals had been treated well. The other aspect of organic food as concluded by many researches is better reproduction abilities among animals that have been fed with non-organic food.

(-)  A study conducted by Oregon State University concluded in 2014 that cows raised on organic and conventional dairy farms in three regions of the United States show no significant differences in health or in the nutritional content of their milk. The Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food Safety concluded the same in 2014.

Health benefits

(+)  When it comes to the health, many researchers believe that organic food contributes a lot towards preventing certain diseases such as heart diseases, cancer and premature aging. The reason behind this theory is that organic vegetables and fruits contain approximately 40% more antioxidants than the non-organic products, which diminishes the exposure to these diseases.

Variety and availability

(-)  Organic food spoils faster, which means that it cannot travel as far as conventional food. This in return limits the availability. The variety is also limited, amongst other because organic food is more expensive.

Economics

(-)  Organic food is more expensive than conventional food. Organic farming doesn’t use chemicals or pesticides which results into the slow growth of crops. The production of organic crops takes twice as long as compared to conventional food. More farmland is needed, which also drives up the cost.

Feeding an ever growing population

According to Lomborg only 1% of the farmland in the world is used to produce organic food. Converting the entire global population to organic food would mean doubling farmland. Forests and jungles are already under pressure. In addition, the global population is projected to reach 8.5 billion in 2030. Feeding the entire global population with organic food seems a very difficult, if not impossible task.

Navigating in the jungle of information and misinformation about organic food is not easy. An average supermarket can contain thousands of food articles. And given that every food article has its own production and supply chain, it might be difficult to get clear and unbiased information about this topic. Organic food has some advantages and some disadvantages. The question is whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages? And regardless of the advantages, will organic food ever be able to feed an increasingly growing population?

 

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