As more and more organic foods are appearing on the shelves of our grocery stores and are gaining publicity in mass media, one cannot help but wonder what the big deal is with the presence of the little green “organic” sticker. The word being passed around is that organic foods are “healthier” and “safer” for the consumer than foods produced by conventional farming. And the fear of consuming pesticides, in particular, is a catalyst in the trend towards choosing organic foods.

However, there is limited scientific evidence to support the perception that organic foods are safer and more nutritious to consume. In addition, with major organic retailers such as Vancouver’s Capers – servicing posh neighbourhoods like Kitsilano, West End Robson Street and West Vancouver – the organic food movement may actually appear to involve a specific subculture characterized by the affluent and the trend conscious customer.

What does it mean when a product is said to be “organic”? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), food that is labeled “organic” is produced without the use of conventional pesticides. This implies that organic foods are not entirely free of chemical residues, which is the popular misconception of organically grown foods. Organic produce is grown without synthetic ingredients, bioengineering or ionizing radiation; however, natural materials such as iron, sulfur and copper can be found on even organically grown foods. This is because it is virtually impossible to produce foods that are 100% free of chemical residues. Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products are awarded USDA approval if the animals are reared without antibiotics or growth hormones. A USDA Organic seal is granted to foods that contain at least 95% organic ingredients.

The dread of consuming pesticides in conventional foods is the main reason behind the popularity of purchasing organic foods. Exposure to pesticides is feared to be associated with respiratory and nervous system problems, cancer, birth defects and other health issues. Children are especially susceptible to the adverse affects of consuming large quantities of pesticides. There are about 600 different pesticides registered with the US Environmental Protection Agency which are allowed to be used in conventional farming. Studies have shown that organic foods have less detectable pesticide residues than conventional foods. Thus, incorporation of organic products in one’s diet may decrease the risk of consuming additional pesticide residues present in conventional foods.

The organic movement is also said to benefit the environment since there is limited synthetic pesticides or herbicides used. Therefore, there is little chemical byproducts released from organic farms and into the environment where it could potentially harm wildlife and disrupt ecosystems. Organic farms are also more energy friendly and produce less waste than conventional farms since they do not need the packaging material required for chemicals and feed. Organic farms emit less CO2 into the environment and recycle both nitrogen and organic material back to the soil and consequently, organic advocates argue organic farming is the solution for long term environmental sustainability.

As a result, through word of mouth and the media, it may seem that choosing organic products is a safer alternative both for the consumer and the environment. However, scientific research delineates little advantage (nor disadvantage) in choosing organic over conventional foods. This is because one must take into consideration that the amount of pesticide residues found in conventional foods are already relatively low. Also, the pesticides used in conventional farms are intensely subjected to tests and highly regulated in farming. Although it may be difficult to test for a direct effect of consuming increased concentrations of pesticide in human and animal samples (due to bioethical constraints), it can be assured that the amount found in conventional foods is below statutory maximum limits.

Most toxicologists believe that there is no need to eliminate pesticides entirely and the amounts consumed in conventional foods are safe. As for organic farms being more beneficial to the environment, some studies do suggest organic farms are better at sustaining wildlife and are more energy efficient. In theory, the organic farm should be friendlier on the environment; however more data is needed to properly conclude these speculations since there are inconsistencies between the methodologies used to obtain the data.

In addition to the idea that organic foods are safer than conventional foods, many believe that organic foods are healthier as well. However, most scientific studies found no evidence for organic foods being more nutritious than conventionally cultivated foods. The USDA clearly states on their website that organic foods are no safer nor healthier than conventional foods. The two differ only by the procedure in which the food is grown, handled and processed. Likewise, most researchers agree that there are little nutritional benefits in choosing organic foods. Research comparing organically and conventionally grown cereals, potatoes and vegetables found no difference in the mineral, trace elements or vitamin B levels each contained. Also for the vegetables tested in both groups, there was no difference in levels of vitamin A or beta-carotene.

So the questions remains, why then, are people going organic? Granted that whilst organic foods contain less chemical residues than non-organic processed foods, this should not be of great concern for the sensible consumer since the amount present in conventional foods is not high enough to be considered harmful. In addition, evidence to support the perception that organic foods are safer or more nutritious and tasty than conventional foods is difficult to identify scientifically. Not to mention, most organically grown produce is more expensive than the conventional variety.

One study explains that the public is increasingly concerned of health risks when deciding what foods to purchase as a result of four of the ten leading causes of death in the US (heart disease cancer, stroke and diabetes) being linked to food and diet. Also, another study showed that one third of cancers can be avoided by proper diet choice. So perhaps, this fear of chemical residues and pesticides contaminates left behind by conventional farming is stirring up a new health craze.

In one study, organic food purchasers claimed the most important reason for purchasing organic foods is to protect their own and their families’ health and these people were more fearful of possible health issues related to pesticide residues than conventional food buyers. Conventional food purchasers believed that the amount of pesticide resides in conventionally grown foods do not possess a significant health hazard since they have not observed any evidence of harm. Furthermore, they believed that if it did pose a threat, the government would intervene.

Another study, performed by Hammitt (1990), has organic food purchasers characterized by having a higher “value of life”. Although the statistical significance is not great, it is still interesting to suggest that organic food purchasers may be less likely than conventional food purchases to smoke cigarettes and avoid red meat and tap water. Consequently, the assumption is that the choice to consume organic foods may be related to the consumers’ anxiety over health problems.

As well, there exists an interesting notion whereby organic food purchasers are simply members of a larger subculture. Organic foods are more expensive than conventional foods and organic food purchasers report having a higher “willingness to pay” (on average, a willingness to pay 50% more for organic in place of conventional products, whereas conventional food purchasers had a willingness to pay only an extra 20%). This may suggest that organic consumers have greater disposable incomes and the ability to purchase these organic foods may entail higher socio-economical status. Likewise, consuming organic foods may be just another trend, since there is no sound scientific evidence for organic foods being more nutritious than conventional foods.

Overall, there may be many reasons why consumer may choose organically grown foods over the conventional variety. The fears of consuming chemical residues left on conventional foods have many opting for organics as a means to a healthier diet alternative. On the other hand, given that scientific research currently does not support any health benefits in consuming organic foods, perhaps other mitigating factors are afoot.