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  • Subject area(s): Marketing
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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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Organic food is often alleged to be safer and more nutritious than conventionally grown food, but is it really? Masked by deceitful marketing campaigns and misleading nutrition labels, the meaning of "organic" on food packaging is not widely understood. Though many studies show that organic food is not well regulated nor consistently defined, people continue to hold to the idea that organic means better and is therefore more beneficial to human health than conventionally processed food. In reality, it has been found that a diet consisting solely of organic food does nothing more than help limit exposure to pesticides. Even then, the term organic does not mean that no pesticides or herbicides are used. The United States government actually has a list of pesticides approved for human consumption (ECFR). It is also commonly believed that organic farming is better for the environment, however in reality, the trade-offs between conventional farming and organic farming have about the same negative and positive impacts on the environment.  Because of these misconceptions, organic food sales have grown by over $20 billion between 2006 and 2015 (OTA). This paper will discuss the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) definition and standards of organic food, and analyze the effects of organic food on the human body and environment compared to non-organic foods. 

In order to meet the USDA's definition of organic a product must be “produced without excluding methods, genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge, produced using allowed substances” and “overseen by a USDA National Organic Program-authorized certifying agent, following all USDA organic regulations” (USDA). The USDA also places more specific regulations on individual categories such as produce, meat, and dairy. Though these standards are enforced by law, they are not always entirely beneficial and some companies continue to use “organic” on their labels even though the product does not meet the criteria. In a study done by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), researchers found that food-borne illnesses have risen as the popularity and purchasing of organic foods has grown. The study performed saw the first outbreak in 1992, yet 56% of the total outbreaks recorded happened between 2010 and 2014. The diseases include, but are not limited to, Salmonella, Campylobacter, E-Coli, and Hepatitis A. Of these, fifteen outbreaks were caused by USDA certified organic food, and two were caused by products labelled organic though they did not meet USDA standards (Harvey, Zakhour, Gould). Though it is difficult to prove from these studies that the USDA's regulations are the cause of the outbreaks, it is quite obvious that there is a correlation.

While USDA processing standards often involve the removal of certain harmful chemicals, their regulations are not always beneficial. In a 2006 case study published by the American Association of Avian Pathologists, researchers found that although organic chicken broiler caused far fewer cases of Salmonella, it did cause more cases of Campylobacter, a bacterium that causes food poisoning. Campylobacter is usually contracted during weeks 7 through 10 of a chicken's life. Conventionally grown chickens are often slaughtered at 6 weeks old because they are fed antibiotics causing them to grow faster than organically grown chickens which are often slaughtered about 5 weeks later, allowing a higher chance of contracting the disease. In this case, avoiding one harmful food pathogen led to a spike in the occurrence of another (Overbeke et al..). Besides the fact that the removal of pesticides has led to these outbreaks, researchers found that the lasting impact of any pesticides carry on for generations. A professor at Washington State University School for Biological Sciences discovered that the effects of pesticides were found unaltered four generations after the affected rats (Holzman.). So even if they stopped using the harmful pesticides and additives on chickens many generations ago, the meat we consume today will still contain trace amounts of them. Fruits and vegetables, however, will contain little to no pesticides having been grown organically.

Another misconception about organic foods is that they contain more nutrients than conventionally grown and processed foods. This theory has been heavily debated. One literature study performed by a team of medical specialists through Stanford Medicine concluded that “no consistent differences were seen in the vitamin content of organic products, and only one nutrient — phosphorus — was significantly higher in organic versus conventionally grown produce (and the researchers note that because few people have phosphorous deficiency, this has little clinical significance)” (Stanford Med). However, another study that specifically studied tomatoes found that organically grown tomatoes contained a much higher amount of nutrients than conventionally grown tomatoes (NPR). Allison Aubrey and Dan Charles, journalists for National Public Radio, attribute this not to the way the fruits and vegetables are farmed and processed, but to the individual items. “Here's the basic reason: When it comes to their nutritional quality, vegetables vary enormously, and that's true whether they are organic or conventional… That's due to all kinds of things: differences in the genetic makeup of different varieties, the ripeness of the produce when it was picked, even the weather.” Basically, in a single bag of carrots the nutritional value between the individual carrots could vary greatly. This is why it is difficult for scientists to determine whether or not organic produce is more nutritious overall compared to conventionally grown produce. Generally speaking, the majority of studies have found that there is little to no difference between these.

In addition to the inaccurate list of reasons that eating organic is better, organic farming is thought to be better for the environment than conventional farming methods. While this is partly true, the trade-offs between the benefits and disadvantages of organic farming even out to have almost no difference in environmental impact as conventional methods. Organic farming drastically limits the amount of harmful pesticides released into the soil and water on farms. This is beneficial to both us and to small animal and insect populations. However, organic farming takes up considerably more land than conventional farming does. Being that there is already a worldwide shortage of farmable land, this can be extremely detrimental to the environment (Genetic Literacy Project). Furthermore, while organic farming strives to create healthier soil, the amount of organic materials (manure, cover crops, etc.) is limited, and the amount of “organic” manure is even more limited. For that reason, organic farmers often end up using manure produced through conventional methods, which has just as big of a carbon footprint as conventional farming overall (Genetic Literacy Project). Basically, the positives and negatives of organic farming methods balance out to the point that it is futile. However, environmental specialists are hoping to advance technology enough to create organic farming methods that are actually beneficial to environment in the near future.

Overall, studies have found that even though organic food is marketed to be more healthful than other foods, it is often not. Organic growth and processing methods are poorly regulated and often create more problems than they prevent. Correlations have been found between the growth of the organic food industry and the spike in number of outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. Researchers concluded that, for now, organic food has no more nutritional value than other foods, and organic farming methods have done more bad than good for the environment. Surprisingly, even with this wealth of information disproving common beliefs about organic food, the industry continues to grow rapidly. Perhaps it is due to the price being higher. It is a psychological game between producers and consumers. This paper is limited by the number of scholarly and credible studies performed on specific characteristics of organic food and farming methods.

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