Organic vs. conventional produce
DEAR DR. ROACH: Do you think there’s much benefit to buying organic foods, now that my husband and I are in our 60s? I’ll gladly purchase organic fruits and veggies when we host our children and grandchildren, and our garden is chemical-free, but I can’t imagine that the added expense of buying organic will provide much benefit to senior citizens (on a fixed income, no less) whose bodies already have 50 or more years of exposure to pesticides and herbicides. Is there any solid evidence either way? — D.B.
ANSWER: The data are not entirely conclusive, but the preponderance of the evidence is that organic food does not provide significant health benefits, compared with conventionally grown foods. In my opinion, organically produced foods are not worth the extra expense just because they are organic.
Both organically grown and conventionally grown foods contain residues of pesticides, but organic food has lower amounts of conventional pesticides (however, nearly all are far below the Environmental Protection Agency standards). Organic foods have a more restricted list of pesticides that can be used, and some of these are poisonous to humans. Take, for example, copper sulfate, a chemical commonly used in organic farming (in the U.S., but banned in some European countries) to kill fungus and bacteria. It is many times more deadly, at least in rats, than glyphosate (Roundup), a commonly used conventional herbicide. It also is carcinogenic (cancer-causing) in animals. However, by the time foods arrive in a grocer’s market, these chemicals are present at such small amounts (in both organic and conventional produce) that they are very unlikely to cause any symptoms or disease.
Most data show that organic food does not have more nutrients than conventionally grown foods. There may be an argument that organic farms are friendlier to the environment; however, I have had conventional farmers write to me to dispute that as well.
Growing your own food is getting it as fresh as possible, but local farmers markets are another good way to buy local. In my opinion, food that is locally produced (whether conventionally or organically) is likely to be fresher and more nutritious than food shipped in from far away. Washing the produce under running water and rubbing gently with hands or a vegetable brush gets rid of most of the residual pesticides, dirt and bacteria.
Bacterial infections are increasingly a problem with organically produced foods, with over half of recent foodborne illness attributable to organic foods. All produce needs to be rinsed: Danger from bacterial contamination is probably greater than the risk from pesticides.
There is a great deal of further information about this, but I found much that was biased (both pro-organic and pro-conventional), even from organizations I have respected. I found good and unbiased information from the national pesticide information center at npic.orst.edu.