The typical person who goes to the grocery store is faced with the decision of whether to buy organic or non-organic vegetables. Generally, organic food is more expensive than non-organic. Is it worth the extra cost?
First let’s dig in a little deeper…
Being an organic farmer in the USA is NOT easy! Per Modern Farmer, “The USDA’s National Organic Program is a complicated operation.” There are many challenges to getting and staying certified. They outline some main reasons why. This helps consumers understand that growing organic vegetables requires time, energy, and money – all of which influence prices in the marketplace.
- Transitioning farmland takes three years – a lengthy period for farmers to convert from a conventional farm to an organic one.
- Certification is costly, with steep annual fees per farm.
- The paperwork is heavy. Modern Farmer shares, “The USDA will inspect all organic farms once per year, and they’ll want to see extensive paperwork, often much more in-depth than conventional farms would maintain.”
- Organic farms are outnumbered by conventional farms. As a result, they may be surrounded by non-organic ones. Pesticides can drift by wind or be sprayed near organic farms, thereby potentially leaving residue on non-organic produce – which may require restarting the three-year process all over again!
Let’s delve into some basics about the organic farming process:
For crops to qualify as organic, produce must be grown on farms that have not used synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers for three years prior to harvest. And they must have a contamination/buffer zone. In organic farming, genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge are prohibited. Each of those practices has health and safety issues to consider. For example, genetically modified foods raise concerns over the transfer of antibiotic resistance, toxicity, and allergenicity, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Wow! Labeling is tricky!
In the USA, organic produce labeling is overseen by the government. Reading labels is tricky for consumers. WebMD breaks it down:
- 100 Percent Organic – This means that all the ingredients are certified organic.
- Organic – This means that at least 95% of the ingredients are certified organic.
- Made with organic ingredients – This means that at least 70% of the ingredients are certified organic.
WebMD cautions, other terms such as “all-natural” and “farm-raised” don’t mean much – as those labels are not regulated.
Note that natural and organic are different. Natural can indicate that there are no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. However, this unofficial term is loosely used and does not relate to methods or materials used. So, buyers beware!
Is organic farming good for consumers?
Organic farming leaves a smaller carbon footprint than traditional farming. Eating organic is also believed to minimize health risks associated with some possibly harmful practices permitted in non-organic farming. AAP Publications states that “In terms of health advantages, organic diets have been convincingly demonstrated to expose consumers to fewer pesticides associated with human disease.” Growing organic foods is widely viewed as beneficial to the environment and human health. For example, organic produce, as compared with conventionally grown vegetables, generally has lower levels of pesticide residue.
Consumer info lacking:
Unfortunately, USDA claims it does not have official statistics on U.S. organic retail sales, but information is accessible from industry sources. They also state that a typical organic food consumer is difficult to pinpoint, with organic consumers coming from a variety of demographics. However, sales of fresh fruits and vegetables have been the top category of organically grown food since the organic food industry began retailing products.
Organic farming is costly to farmers.
The goal of many farmers is to bring safe and nutritious food to the table. Organic farming is a healthy way to do it. But consider this. Not only do farmers have to prepare the land for three years prior to starting, but organic farming is more labor intensive that traditional methods since the farmers generally can’t use pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or drugs. And because they do not use synthetic pesticides or herbicides, their crops are more vulnerable to damage from disease, insects, fungi, and other pests. For example, one bad season can entirely wipe out a crop.
Understand that some costs may pass to consumers.
Organic products ultimately cost consumers more as certified crops are more expensive to maintain and must also meet strict production standards which involves the expenditure of time, money, and energy from farmers. Organic crops are supplied in smaller quantities since organic farms generally produce less. Between strict USDA requirements and added costs to farmers to grow organic produce and deliver them to the market, consumers ultimately absorb an increase in cost.
So, is it worth it?
In terms of taste and nutritional content, organic and non-organic are neck-in-neck, with a slight edge in nutrition for organically grown food per some studies. Despite this pretty close match, organic foods are largely desired for environmental and health reasons as they cut down on pollution and dangerous pesticide usage. Because organic foods contain less pesticide residue, many people feel comfortable paying additional costs for organic vegetables.
The American Cancer Society shares some valuable info via their website:
They explain that the main benefit of consuming organic foods is to support environmentally sustainable agricultural practices. They caution that little research has been done on the link between organic food consumption and cancer risk. But they also share that a recent study showed that eating more organic produce is linked with a lower risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. However, they stress that the finding needs to be confirmed by other studies. Because organic produce can be more expensive than conventional produce, people with limited resources should continue to eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables required for overall health. Washing produce can remove some of the pesticide risks, so it’s important to continue to do so.
Some good news!
Price comparisons shared by CNET demonstrate that buying organic is cheaper now than in the past. This is mainly attributed to enhanced agricultural practices. Additionally, particularly for produce, the price difference isn’t necessarily that much higher for organic. And it offers people peace of mind knowing that these foods are likely safer to consume. However, if price is a major concern, comparison shop for the best deals. For consumers who prefer to pick and choose, consider buying organic produce for items with edible skin, such as salad greens and berries, which are likely more vulnerable to pesticide and chemical contamination.
Something to note:
A common complaint is that organic vegetables may look less “perfect” than nonorganic ones. For example, an apple may not be as shiny, or a squash may not be as bright. There are a few things to note. Nonorganic fruits and veggies tend to be sprayed with an artificial wax coating to improve appearance and shelf life. Whereas organic fruits and vegetables remain in their natural state, rendering them essentially imperfectly perfect. Additionally, organic produce has a shorter shelf life due to containing lower amounts of preservatives.
I want to eat organic food – but I’m on a budget! Can it still be done?
Eating organic food is a personal decision, both health-wise and economically. Regarding the latter, those on a budget who find it challenging to pay for organic vegetables may consider searching for sales or alternating between organic and non-organic ones – only buying organic for those veggies which tend to contain the most pesticides. But how do you know which ones are safest?
Learn about “The Dirty Dozen.”
To ascertain which conventionally grown fruits and vegetables have the highest and lowest amounts of pesticides, visit Everyday Health, sharing EWG’s annual ranking (The Dirty Dozen) to serve as a guide. Another key to saving money on organic is to only buy what you’ll eat or use soon to cut down on food waste. Or, whenever possible, buy in bulk and prepare/freeze them.
Still undecided or confused about organic vs. conventional vegetables? Or, not sure about how many healthy vegetables you should be consuming? Talk to your primary care physician or qualified dietician to help you uncover the facts and do what’s best for you.
Keep eating those veggies!
So, are organic vegetables worth the money? Generally, most people believe they are! However, it’s a deeply personal decision. Regardless, health experts note that the benefits of diets rich in fruits and vegetables are undeniable, so keep eating healthy whenever possible.
This article is purely informational and is not intended as a scientific resource.