Bursting your organic bubble!



According to a survey conducted at College of the Desert (COD), many people are under the impression that buying organic products is more nutritious or natural than conventional produce and has little or no contact with pesticides.

Organic farming, like all agricultural farming, uses pesticides and fungicides liberally to prevent critters from destroying their crops. In fact it’s important to know that without pesticides, the human population on Earth would be much smaller. The difference in organic farming is not the use of pesticides, it is the origin of the pesticide used.

Pesticides of organic origin are not synthetic and occur naturally in nature. This, however, does not mean they are better for our health. According to Dr. Jeff Place, professor of horticulture at COD, the only difference between synthetic and organic pesticides or herbicides is they contain carbon and hydrogen. The toxicity associated with naturally occurring pesticides can be just as dangerous and fatal as their synthetic counterparts. Although arsenic and strychnine are no longer lawfully allowed due to high toxicity, some naturally occurring organic chemicals have names that most of us would recognize as toxic, such as: lime sulfur, soap, hydrogen peroxide, rotenone, and manure.

If farmers choose to use pesticides (and not every farmer does), they are strictly mandated to observe instructions in using any pesticide, organic or synthetic alike. According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), there are three types of warning labels under one classification system:

  • CAUTION: if precaution is not taken, may cause minor or moderate injury,
  • WARNING: if warning is not heeded, it can cause death or serious injury
  • DANGER: if danger is not avoided, it will cause death or serious injury.

These labels are found on all pesticides regardless of origin. Because naturally occurring chemicals used in organic pesticides are less concentrated than in synthetic ones, more product is required to achieve the same results synthetic pesticides do. This leads to organic produce that may contain more chemical residue than would otherwise be present.

A harsh side-effect of using organic pesticides is that they are more ecologically damaging than synthetic pesticides which are proven to be a more controlled means to ridding crops of unwanted pests such as aphids. They cause high mortality rates in non-targeted species that have important ecological roles.

Another fact is some farms limit their use of any pesticides and thereby can lawfully label their produce organic. This is harmful not only to our health, but financially and environmentally as well. Lack of pesticide leads to insects devouring many of the crops and subsequently farmers produce smaller yields. Lower yields can translate to more land-clearing to make more space for farming. Moreover, many of these farmers use manure rather than fertilizer, which in turn risks having a product contaminated with pathogens.

CNN recently published a study saying “you’d do better eating an extra apple a day, whether it’s organic or not” because the difference in nutritional value of organic food and conventional food is so small. In agreement, Professor Brooks who teaches Principles of Cooking in the Culinary Arts department at COD, said there is no discernible difference between organic produce in comparison with other goods. “There are no studies that have found organic produce to be significantly more nutritious or flavorful than regular produce”.

When asked about pesticide alternatives, Professor Kurt Leuschner, who teaches Entomology at COD, suggested Integrated Pest Management (IPM) as a viable option. IPM is used to manage pests while minimizing harmful costs to people and the environment. IPM is a series of pest management evaluations and decisions which offers to eliminate or drastically reduce the use of pesticides through biological control and habitat manipulation. There are six tactics of IPM: Cultural, physical, genetic, biological, chemical and regulatory. For example, if a pest is found to be a threat to crops, a biological solution would be to “introduce predators, parasites and diseases of pests in a targeted way to suppress pest populations”. The downside to this practice is the necessity for a lot of outside knowledge and a working understanding of ecology, as well as more planning and monitoring.

Though the experts interviewed agree that organic versus non-organic don’t much differ from one another in health benefits or flavor, consumers who buy organic continue to be convinced that a product labeled “Organic” is worth the extra cost. According to Consumer Reports, organic products can cost up to forty seven percent more than non-organic produce. The cost associated with organic produce stems from limited availability against demand, more labor costs, and more time needed to produce a sizable yield.

Agricultural farming is not a black and white world. By all accounts, organic produce is not much different than conventional. Both use pesticides, both have just about equally nutritious produce, and perhaps the only difference is the marketing scheme behind organic produce. When Dr. Jeff Place was asked if organic food was really better for you than conventional food, he responded, “Both are good. There is nothing wrong with buying either. If buying organic makes you feel better mentally, physically, or emotionally, have at it!”

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