Organic Food: How Much Noble, How Much Muck?

Organic food production is literally much more full of muck (and that is good for nature) than the conventional one. Whether organic foods are healthier, however, is debatable. This piece tries to put together the available details concerning this debate.

MK*

What are organic foods?

When the expression ‘organic’ was first linked to farming, it represented biological, living –  for example, living soil versus that rendered dead by overuse of fertilizers. Later, ‘organic’ started being used to connote natural, against synthetic: so,’ organic food’ is the food that people generally feel is grown without synthetic inputs such as fertilizers and man-made pesticides. 

True, ‘organic’ farming practices avoid synthetic inputs such as:

  • synthetic pesticides and herbicides
  • synthetic fertilizers
  • antibiotics
  • unnatural diets given to animals
  • genetically modified seeds or organisms
  • hormones or enzymes
  • preservatives and additives
  • other chemicals, e.g. for ripening of fruits and fumigation at the time of import

But ‘organic’ has become more of a technical term. So, organic food is the food that meets the requirement for being certified as organic food. A more exhaustive and technical definition of organic foods, as given by FSAAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) is as follows: “Organic foods are products of holistic agricultural practices focusing on biodiversity, soil health, chemical-free inputs, etc. with an environmentally and socially responsible approach that have been produced in accordance with organic production standards.”

You would have noted that only the last part of this definition is enforceable and is actually enforced (with limitations). Moreover, the ‘organic production standards’ differ from nation to nation. 

Are the organic foods sold in the market have to be certified?

Yes. Most countries have authorities set up by law, which do certification of organic foods. Foods cannot be claimed to be ‘organic’ unless they pass through the certification process. 

In the USA, there are three general categories of organic produce: 100% organic, organic (with at least 95% of organic ingredients), and that made with organic ingredients (with at least 70% of organic ingredients). 

In India, all food that is sold as ‘organic’ must come from certified producers. Producers or producer organizations whose annual turnover is less than Rs. 12 lakh (1.2 million) need not go for certification if they sell their produce as ‘organic’ directly to consumers. For single-ingredient foods, ‘organic’ certification is given only when 100% of the ingredient is organically produced; for multi-ingredient foods, 95% of ingredients must be organic for the product to be branded as ‘organic’.

Certificates are given when producers and the product meet a number of criteria under a given category. For example, in India, pesticide content in organic food should not be more than 5% of the upper limit prescribed for non-organic food of the same type. In most countries, the law mandates that packets of organic food display the labels issued by the authority that has certified the producer/ food. 

Why are organic foods considered better than non-organic ones?

The following are the common arguments given in favour of organic farming/ foods (and against ‘modern’ agricultural practices): 

  • Modern food production practices are not environment-friendly and harm the natural resources in the short as well as long run. For example, overuse of synthetic inputs has seen soils and water systems in large parts of India becoming unhealthy. In many parts of India, the organic content of cultivated soils has gone down to unsustainable levels, their structural properties have deteriorated and water retention capacity has gone down too much. Large-scale use of harvester-combines followed by burning of stubbles has been causing grave pollution in the northern parts of India in October-December every year. It is also found that excessive use of pesticides harms useful insects, leading to new types of pests. The list of environment-damaging actions of modern food production is long.
  • Widespread use of pesticides, antibiotics and herbicides can lead to resistance among bugs, pathogens and weeds. This can, in turn, lead to large-scale crop failure and epidemics.
  • Monoculture and rearing of GM (genetically modified) varieties can have a long-term impact on the genetic diversity of crops and animals. 
  • Genetically modified food can theoretically have health consequences as it involves changing the natural genetic structure of living beings. Genetic modification of natural creation also looks unethical to many people. 
  • The use of growth hormones in meat animals and milk-enhancing chemicals in milch cattle is regarded as unethical and cruel. Besides, large quantities of such chemicals are considered harmful to humans, especially to the foetus and children.
  • Large-scale and indiscriminate use of chemicals can directly impact the health of workers engaged in food production. Excessive use of pesticides is supposed to be one big factor for the high prevalence of cancer in parts of Punjab state of India, which is referred to as the food bowl of India.
  • Mechanised production of animal food often involves cruelty and unethical means. For example, milk cattle, pure vegetarian by nature, are fed with meat products. Animals are seldom allowed to graze in the open but are ‘grown’ in packed livestock farms.
  • Organic food retains the natural qualities, and therefore tastes better.

In short, organic food is supposed to be more tasty, nutritious and safe to consume. In addition, organic food production practices are considered more ethical and environmentally sustainable. Let us examine the claims one by one.

Is organic produce more environment-friendly than other food?

For people who value the environment and those who find the modern farm practices too unnatural and unethical, it makes sense to buy ‘organic’ and support it too. 

Organic food production definitely minimizes the use of factory-made fertilizers and other harmful chemicals, thus contributing to the health of soil and water, sometimes air too. It also does not disturb the natural ecosystem of useful birds and insects too much.

However, scientists tell that going organic has its environmental cost too. Organic crop yields are lower by about 20% and animal products by about 4% on average. It is argued that for the production of the same amount of food, more area and other resources are used, leading to more deforestation and greenhouse gas emission. An oft-quoted article of 2018 in Nature says, organic peas farmed in Sweden have a huge climate impact (50 percent higher emissions) as compared to peas that are grown non-organically. In the case of winter wheat, the impact is even more, at 70% higher than conventional practices.

However, it must be added here that such studies have come for criticism from environmentalists for drawing misleading conclusions based on small samples, while global environmental phenomena are much more complex.

If organic crops are produced using sustainable tilling methods (e.g. zero tilling), using traditional knowledge for resource use (e.g. crop rotation with legumes), and making use of less resource-wasting technologies and processes (e.g.drip irrigation, local consumption of produce), that can result in significant environmental benefits. Farmers who use sustainable practices, and treat their natural resources with concern, do not necessarily get the benefits that the ‘organic’ labelled products get. Thus, small farmers and tribals in remote areas are rather fleeced by buyers though the veggies, fruits, forest produce, honey and medicinal plant products sold by them might be much more nutritious, safe and environmentally sustainable than ‘organic’ labelled products.

However, the sad reality is that now ‘organic’ has become as industrial and commercial as the conventional food production, and the stress is on being technically correct rather than caring for the spirit in which the concept evolved. Many organic farms are known to keep all other considerations aside while maintaining the minimum prescribed levels of inputs and practices. They don’t hesitate in using ‘natural’ herbicides and pesticides, hiding the ‘natural’ contamination in groundwater, growing the same crop varieties over large areas (thus caring little for biodiversity), transporting organic food over continents (thus losing all environmental gains that organic farming could give in terms of reduced carbon footprint), and so on.

Is ‘organic’ food more nutritious than non-organic food?

There is mixed scientific evidence to support the claims about organic food’s high nutritional value. On one hand, it has been found in some studies that such food has higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants, and organic dairy and meat have been shown to have a better fat profile. On the other hand, many large studies have either found no strong linkage between being grown organically and nutritional values. 

In a 2012 study of 237 researches comparing organic and non-organic food, scientists found that there was no evidence that organic food was more nutritious than non-organic food. In addition, even though conventional foods did contain a higher amount of pesticides, it was within permitted limits.

It is also argued that sometimes organic food can have a lower nutritive value because of natural deficiencies in the soil or feed on which the plants and animals are reared organically.

Is ‘organic’ food safer than non-organic food? 

If any food, whether organic or not, conforms to the limits of pesticides, heavy metals, additives, etc, it is safe for human consumption. It has been found that most of these chemicals allowed for farm use are not harmful to humans in the quantities they are applied. Because of this, the presence of lesser amounts of such chemicals in organic foods may not matter from a health point of view. 

On the other hand, it is true that organic farming uses no or very little amounts of harmful chemicals, and such organic foods avoid potential health risks from these chemicals which are not yet known. In the EU, out of nearly 500 approved substances for use in pesticides, only 28 are allowed in organic farming, and out of them 24 are not even toxic. On the other hand, many of the other pesticides are known to have high levels of toxicity, carcinogenicity (=cancer producing capacity), mutagenicity {=capacity to cause genetic deformities) and reproductive toxicity. Votaries of organic movement indicate that regular use of high levels of such potentially harmful toxins, and over a long time, might already be responsible for many modern-day diseases. They also point fingers at the suppression of fact in research funded by giant chemical corporations.  

It is a fact that out of the harmful chemicals applied/ produced in the food production business, about 99% are those produced naturally, but that does not dilute the fact that many extremely harmful chemicals are in use for protecting food from diseases and pests.

Over the years, it is established that fruits are routinely treated with pesticides and other preservative chemicals for increasing their shelf life. Fruits with edible skin – such as strawberries, apples, grapes, peaches and pears.- are therefore found to cause a high concentration of such chemicals in human tissues. However, their concentration usually still remains lower than the permissible limits.

Please note that much of the food contamination with harmful chemicals occurs due to poor quality of inputs (e.g. water), processing (e.g. whether pebbles have been removed from pulses and spices or not), packaging (use of poor-grade packing material), storage and transportation (e.g. any food can get spoiled if not kept in proper conditions) and malpractices (e.g. fake labeling of organic food, deliberate mixing of contaminants). 

Besides, certain cooking processes produce chemicals that can be many times more harmful than those found in non-organic foods (e.g. burning of meat or eggs during roasting, frying of food in oil, cooking food at very high temperature). So, it is argued by some health experts that organic food may be technically safer than its non-organic counterpart, but what matters is the quality of food when it is consumed, not when it is produced in the farm. 

Since organic food does not contain preservatives, it usually has a lower shelf life. At the same time, the food is expensive. So, there is an incentive for the trader to pass off old organic food, for example by offering heavy discounts or to dispose of it as non-organic food. Such practices, reported to be common, make people take poor-quality food. 

The muck behind the ‘organic’ food business

What we discussed above mostly concerns the validity of perceived advantages of organic food products. Let’s come to the core of the present discussion. The hypothesis is that though organic food – when produced and sold according to the spirit behind it – is good for users and the society, the way it is produced, promoted and priced, the whole business is turning murky. The ills of commercialization on the production side and consumerism on the consumption side have inflicted this inherently more humane and environment-friendly food business. People are being brainwashed to take organic food by demonizing other food and creating unnecessary fear. More than that, what they buy as organic food may not actually be organic. Let us see, how.

  • Promotion using false and misleading claims 

The organic food producers and sellers try to convince the potential consumers that such foods are healthier as compared to other foods. Unsubstantiated research is quoted. Health experts, dieticians and celebrities are used for endorsing products. Unrelated facts and figures are dished out. In all, fallacies are spread to prove that the particular food product is significantly healthier than its non-organic counterpart and that not using the product can lead to serious health issues. 

Starting with the media and social media discussions by a vocal pro-organic lobby to advertisements, display of products on shelves and a nudge by the retailer – organic foods are promoted in a way that ‘organic’ is made synonymous with highly nutritious, free from synthetic chemicals and greatly environment-friendly. No wonder, some people feel obliged to buy them and at a much higher price. In addition, smart marketing is used for targeting such groups that can be easily influenced: parents of babies and small kids, those suffering from metabolic diseases, rich people who see price as a label of quality, and so on.

However, as discussed above, except in very few cases, it has not been empirically established that non-organic foods of standard quality provide poorer nutrition or impart harmful levels of chemicals to humans as compared to organic foods. 

This rather old report tells clearly how the organic business misleads people. Prepared by Academics Review, what was exposed in 2014 is now much more powerful a phenomenon: “Our report finds consumers have spent hundreds of billion dollars purchasing premium-priced organic food products based on false or misleading perceptions about comparative products’ food safety, nutrition and health attributes.   The research found extensive evidence that widespread, collaborative and pervasive industry marketing activities are a primary cause for these misperceptions. This suggests a widespread organic and natural products industry pattern of research-informed and intentionally-deceptive marketing and paid advocacy. Further, this deceptive marketing is enabled and conducted with the implied use and approval of the U.S. government endorsed and managed…”

  • Not following standards

It has been widely reported in research journals as well in the press that since organic food gives a higher margin to all in the supply chain, unethical practices are rampant. The spirit of friendliness towards the environment and health is already much diluted when the focus is on maintaining the minimum standards prescribed in the ‘organic’ certificate and maximizing profit.

On top of it, those standards are by-passed wantonly – and it is common knowledge that getting away with non-compliance is easy. For example, many organic farms are not adequately isolated from those using synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, etc. 

A Washington Post investigation of the biggest organic cow milk farm some years back found that the cattle were hardly being sent grazing (a prime requirement for organic milk) and the quality of organic milk was only as good as conventionally produced milk. It found serious flaws in the inspection system and wondered whether cow farms were maintaining standards just during the 5-day inspection in a year, which was, interestingly, being done with advance notice. It is also argued that following the standards is costly, and it is a big disincentive to remain within standards when one can cut corners.

Since organic food is without preservatives etc, it spoils more easily during transportation and storage. Also, in nature, pathogens and pests are known to inject their spores, eggs, etc into the body (e.g. seeds, fruits, eggs, tissues) during its development in such a way that they manifest long after. Therefore, organic foods are prone to carry infections, if not properly treated before packing. Since the standards beyond the production of organic food are the same as for other foods, organic food is likely to have more biotoxins as compared to food preserved well with the use of protective chemicals.   

As said above, in most cases, no special standards are applied after the ‘organic’ food leaves the producer.  Thus, there is no guarantee that the genuine ‘organic’ food is not shorn of its ‘organic’ quality by the time it is purchased by the end consumer. A USDA audit report of 2017 concluded that imported organic food was being fumigated at ports in the same way as other food was, and there was no transparency in the organic oversight mechanisms.

  • Malpractices

Since ‘organic’ has become a sort of fad among rich urban consumers, malpractices have entered the business in a big way. Some of the reported/ unreported but possible means that are used to sell non-organic or substandard organic food as ‘organic’ are:

  • Mixing non-organic food with organic food
  • Wrong labelling (e.g. putting a higher label than what is certified)
  • Hiding certification conditions in fine print
  • Leaving food under-processed, to make it look ‘natural’ and genuine
  • Using the certificate for products for which it was not intended

A counter-argument can be that such malpractices happen in places where compliance standards are low, and afflict all types of foods. That is true, but the point being made here is that even if organic foods are intrinsically better, that advantage is lost if malpractices are not checked. In addition, since ‘organic’ products sell at a premium, there is a higher incentive in the organic food business to commit malpractices.

Let me give some examples of reported malpractices. Please note that these are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The Organic Farmers Association (OFA) of the USA laments that “Organic sales are booming, but unfortunately it seems, so is fraud…” It further says, “The scale and elaborate nature of the fraud over the past decade spans hundreds of truckloads, numerous large ocean-going vessels, and hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Many reports routinely appear in the press in which producers are caught indulging in fraudulent practices in exporting non-organic produce as organic.The fraud is so massive that even with a poor oversight mechanism in place, USDA revoked or suspended licences of ‘722 operations in 50 countries’ exporting organic food products to the USA, in just one year (2019, the latest year for which the report could be accessed).

In 2019, a Europol operation unearthed an international racket to sell non-organic pistachios as organic in France. In 2020, a Chilean company was found to be importing raspberries that were linked with a disease, from China, and repackaging and exporting them to Canada as organic fruit.

In 2019, an American farmer was sentenced to 10 year imprisonment for mixing non-organic feed with organic feed. His firm had made a whopping $140 million through this fraud over the years. The way his defence attorney described the fraud shows the general attitude towards the crime: “No one was hurt financially in Constant’s crimes… Consumers enjoyed their meals, even if they paid more than they should have for them.”

In 2020, USDA came with new rules to tackle fraud in the organic food business, but observes are not sure whether these will ensure that what people buy as organic is at least organic, whether it serves a better purpose or not. It is said that rules are already as good in many other countries where faking of organic food still takes place.

A study by Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (Icrier) four years back revealed an extensive prevalence of malpractices in the organic food business in India. A recent German study has established that organic meat production has the same environmental cost as non-organic meat. It is felt that the same would apply to other EU nations.

Conclusion

Food is a complex biological product. It takes chemicals from soil, water and air, and is constantly in touch with thousands of useful and harmful organisms. It also responds to other conditions such as sunlight, wind, ambiance (especially relevant for animals), and produces its own biochemicals accordingly. When the aim is just to maintain the prescribed limits of synthetic chemicals, other considerations are given a go by, e.g. harmful chemicals and minerals such as arsenic that might be naturally present at high levels in the water or soil of that area. So, organic food is seldom ‘naturally and ethically grown food’; it is just ‘food grown under conditions prescribed for organic certification’. This much quality too is ensured only if the production, transportation and storage (including that at the consumer end) of such food is proper.

We should not ignore the fact that much more contamination, infection and inclusion of toxic substances in human food occurs during cooking and eating.  

Theoretically, yes, organic foods should be better than non-organic food in terms of chemical safety other things being equal. One advantage of organic crop agriculture that cannot be disputed is that it is good for the health of soil and water to the extent that it does not use synthetic chemicals the way conventional agriculture does.

References

*About the author: This article has been contributed by MK. He does not like to call himself a rationalist but insists on scrutiny of apparent myths as well as what are supposed to be immutable scientific facts. Please don’t take the views of the author as the views of Raag Delhi.

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