Should you eat organic and why the hell is it so expensive?


Organic produce is so hot right now. The word ‘organic’ is so hot it’s practically meaningless with overuse. Does ‘organic’ mean chemical and pesticide free? Does it mean GM free? Is it a new type of street drug? Is it a good name for a dog? Whatever the organic industry/Organic the dog is defined as, it’s growing globally by 10-15% per year and over one million Australians regularly purchase organic foods and beverages. In 2013, cost-of-living figures revealed organic foods purchased through a supermarket is 79% more expensive than their non-organic counterparts. Organic pasta is the most expensive, weighing in 318% more than non-organic brands. But is it worth the extra $2,340 on average per year to eat organic produce?  And what are you actually getting for your money?

Like most things in life, these questions aren’t easy to answer.

Is organic produce more nutritious? Answer: no, but maybe. A 2013 study out of the University of Arizona found no consistent difference in vitamin levels between organic or non-organic produce. However in 2014, a study out of our own Newcastle University found organic produce contained more antioxidants and less of the bad stuff (toxic metals and pesticides). Ain’t that always the way with the constantly shifting sands of academia. But there have been a few more studies, here and there, which support the notion that no, there is no nutritional difference between organic and non-organic produce. 

BJC dietician Kate Bennett believes there’s hardly a difference between the two, apart from the price.

“As far as nutritional value goes, large literature reviews show there is no scientific evidence to say organic foods are more nutritious than non-organic foods. So no, your money is not buying you more nutritious or healthier foods.

“With the current cost of living, mortgage, bills, petrol, I can’t afford to buy organic foods on a full-time wage!”

Bennet believes that a 100% organic diet isn’t as beneficial as the label implies, as the prohibitive cost of organic produce usually sacrifices variety and, as all dieticians will tell you, variety is the secret to a healthy human.

So we can assume that if there’s no difference in nutritional value, or perhaps more accurately the difference in nutritional value is unclear, why do we pay so much more?

One contributing factor is that organic producers don’t use pesticides. Chemicals and pesticides are not good in a human body, but they are very efficient at producing consistently high-yield harvests that aren’t destroyed by bugs or stolen by hobbits on their way to Bree.

"What the hell is going on at non-organic farms if you have to specify that you CAN’T feed the animals pieces of their dead friends?" 

But it’s not only that. Organic produce yields smaller harvests (34% smaller than non-organic according to a 2012 Nature study) and there is less market demand, making every step of the process (from planting, to harvest, to distribution channels) less economically efficient than mass-produced non-organic produce.  Figures from the Soil Association (it’s a real thing, I checked) show that healthy eating (55%) and avoiding chemical residues (53%) were key reasons why people buy organic produce. So while the healthy eating justification is a bit iffy, the not-eating-pesticide thing should be high on everyone’s list.

Aloysa Hourigan, a nutritionist for Nutrition Australia, agrees the main benefit of eating organic is avoiding pesticides, which have been linked to cancer.

“We’re fairly stringent in Australia compared to other countries and we have fairly low levels (of pesticide use).

“In Australia there are standards and pesticide levels that are considered safe – we have to trust in that to some degree.”

So pesticides: consume in moderation. Bennett believes that organic or not, the boring process of washing food is actually very important.

“It’s a good idea to wash your food thoroughly whether it’s organic or not, because you can’t assume that organic products have absolutely no chemicals on them.

“The reason for this is the soil may not have always been used to farm organic foods and therefore could have been treated earlier with pesticides.”

Having said all of that (warning: incoming caveat), animal products are a different meatball game altogether (lol).  Organic certification, when applied to meats and animal products, has real ramifications for the quality-of-life for the animals.

The National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA) is the most far-reaching of the seven organic certification companies approved by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service. NASAA outline specific conditions for organically produced meat and animal products, but the main gist is: “Producers should maintain conditions that enhance, as much as possible, the animals’ lives, physiological needs and behavioural needs.”

Right, normal, correct… kind of what you’d expect from all farmers but apparently not.

Organic producers must also ensure:

- Breeding must be naturally suited to the environment and the animal’s genetics (must not overburden the land).

- Artificial insemination not recommended (yes to free-range animal sex) and must allow natural birth.

- Animals must be allowed to grow NORMALLY, meaning no roided-up chickens on synthetic growth promotants (hormones).

- Grazing practices should foster biodiversity.

- Sheep and cattle must get enough to eat so as to earn a fat score of two or better (Fat scores range from 1-6, so a sheep with a fat score of two would still probably make onto the “Best Bikini Bods” issue of Ok! but also maybe the “OMG Totally Too-Skinny Celebs” issue too… it’s a fine line).

- Animals must be kept in conditions that allow them to express natural behaviours (foraging, pecking, wing-spreading, playing poker, drinking red wine, etc).

- Paddocks should provide adequate shelter (duh).

- Chickens must get at least eight hours of darkness per 24 hour block (double duh).

- No restraints, cages or pens.

- Animals must be fed an organic, balanced diet and this strictly prohibits feeding them: “offal, faeces, urine, urea, slaughter products, food industry by-products, treated with solvents, same species materials or other prohibited substances” and no more than 2% of something called Meat Meal (what the actual hell is Meat Meal, I don’t want my food eating that food).

These are just some measures enacted by organic producers and that’s all well and good (although I’m still reeling about Meat Meal). But what the hell is going on at non-organic farms if you have to specify that you CAN’T feed the animals pieces of their dead friends? I’m sure we can all guess and I bet a whole lotta Meat Meal is being thrown around.

Finally, there’s the less sexy, but super important, aspect to consider: soil (and the environment at large). Carol Schachet says that organic farming has a contracted responsibility to maintain the quality of the soil, by replacing key elements of the soil naturally and rotating crop schedules (basically not scorching the earth for eternity). Industrial (non-organic farms) don’t have to do this and frankly they don’t want to. In order to maintain the same yearly crop yield (read: profit), industrial farms have to pump more and more chemical fertilizers into the ground every year. The run-off of fertilizer gets into water-ways and creates algae blooms, which suck oxygen out of the water and create ‘dead zones’ (it’s that whole scorched earth thing again). Not to mention completely ruining the soil and harming the farm workers who handle the crops.

"The only way to make ethical food more affordable is if more people start buying it to increase demand."

Having said all of that (prepare yourself for MORE caveats), buying local produce might actually be the most environmentally friendly route of all because the less time and distance between your food being picked and you eating it, the better. Studies have shown that in fruits and vegetables, the optimum nutritional content occurs at harvest and after harvest, as the food starts to respire, nutritional value is lost. In the same vein, a shorter distance from field to market means fewer carbon emissions, less packaging needed to maintain freshness and less time for the food to rot before it reaches you. Some food stuffs travel great distances in their short little lives, which leads to questionable activities like harvesting unripened produce (which further reduces nutritional content) and spraying produce with preservatives so it survives the journey. On top of this, the shorter distance the fruit and veggie pilgrims have to travel, the smaller the carbon footprint.

In summary: world is fukt. Organic and locally-produced food is the ethical choice but the system in place makes that choice a very expensive one. And a healthy, balanced diet takes into account your mental health and financial restrictions and it’s definitely not healthy to work a second job in a diamond mine in order to afford ethical food. In the end, the only way to make ethical food more affordable is if more people start buying it to increase demand, maybe not all the time but certainly when possible. You can also hit up farmers markets, grow your own veggies and wash the hell out of your food before you eat it, organic or not. And hey, if you don’t care at all you can probably save a tonne of money by cutting out the middleman and just chowing down on a big ol’ bag of Meat Meal.