Organic Food — Hype or Hope?

You can skip this video in  seconds
Skip Ad

Visit the Mercola Video Library

Story at-a-glance -

  • “Organic Food — Hype or Hope?” analyzes the benefits of organically grown foods. A problem common to many organic farmers is pesticide drift from neighbors growing their crops using conventional methods
  • Pendimethalin keeps showing up in organic produce sampled in Germany, and has become a particularly difficult problem as organic farmers whose wares test positive for it cannot meet Germany’s strict organic rules
  • If the European Union decides to impose even stricter limits on pesticide residues in organics, drift will prevent many organic farmers from qualifying for organic certification altogether
  • Hundreds of studies have shown organic foods contain fewer detectable pesticides than conventional and higher levels of certain nutrients, especially antioxidants, which are important for health and disease prevention
  • Studies have also shown organic farming is better for the environment and human health, provides unique social benefits and is more profitable for the farmer

By Dr. Mercola

The 2018 documentary, "Organic Food — Hype or Hope?" analyzes the benefits of organically grown foods. How are they different from conventional and do they really live up to the promise of being healthier? One significant problem is the fact that many organic farms are growing their food near farms using conventional methods. They liken it to smoking — if a nonsmoker is sitting next to someone who lights up, the nonsmoker ends up inhaling toxins even though he or she has made the choice to live a healthier lifestyle.

Pesticide Drift Can Decimate an Organic Farm

The film starts out by looking at a problem common to many organic farmers, namely pesticide drift from neighbors growing their crops using conventional methods. The European Union (EU) has strict limits on pesticide residues in organic food, and some farmers cannot sell their products as organic due to chemical drift settling on their crops. Depending on wind conditions during spraying, the chemicals can travel long distances, contaminating organic fields where such pesticides are not legal to use.

What's worse, some chemicals, such as pendimethalin, can remain airborne for weeks on end, thereby assuring widespread contamination. Stefan Palme, who grows organic fennel for baby food on his farm in Uckermark, Germany, recounts how he has been forced to harvest the fennel earlier in the season to avoid chemical contamination, which would bar him from selling the fennel as organic.

It involves more physical labor and greater care to harvest early, but the alternative is to sell his organic crop as conventional, for a lower price. Rudolf Vögel, a German agricultural engineer, is investigating how long pendimethalin can be detected in the environment.

He believes the phenomenon of drift has been widely underestimated, noting that evidence emerging in recent years "calls for an urgent reassessment of the way certain agents are permitted." Pendimethalin keeps showing up in organic produce samples, and has become a particularly difficult problem, as organic farmers whose wares test positive for it cannot meet Germany's strict organic rules.

What's more, if the EU decides to impose even stricter limits on pesticide residues in organics, drift will prevent many organic farmers from qualifying for organic certification altogether. It's a troubling Catch-22.

On the one hand, most organic farmers agree with lowering limits, as it is good for health. On the other hand, the contamination is not caused by them and cannot be stopped by them either, and lowering the limits would put many of them out of business. Palme is now pushing for a ban on pesticides such as pendimethalin to protect the organic sector as a whole.

Pesticides Found in Trees and Groundwater

Frieder Hofmann, an environmental engineer, is tracking the drift of pendimethalin by collecting bark samples from trees. He's been able to confirm this herbicide can spread at least 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the site of the spraying. The drift problem raises an important question: Can organic food be produced anywhere in Germany? The same question is likely to be applicable to any number of other countries, where organic farms are trying to coexist amid conventional farms using copious amounts of toxic chemicals.

In one instance, Hofmann found no fewer than 11 pesticides in the bark of a large tree, two of which were found in "alarming concentrations." One of them was pendimethalin. Pesticides are not only found in food and trees. When it rains, the chemicals seep through the ground and contaminate groundwater as well. Soil samples taken from a depth of 15 meters, just over 49 feet, reveal the presence of both nitrogen (from fertilizer runoff) and pesticides.

Making matters worse, many pesticides biodegrade very slowly, if at all, and remain in the environment for years. As noted in the film, "This is legalized environmental pollution on a grand scale." It also threatens our ability to obtain clean water, as pesticides are extremely difficult and costly to filter out.

Who pays? Those who pay for tap water — not the farms that cause the contamination. That said, German water authorities place the blame not on farmers but rather on the chemical industry, noting that in this day and age, we would expect chemical producers to create agricultural chemicals that not only do their job in the fields, but also properly degrade so they won't contaminate groundwater and contaminate the environment for years to come.

Organic Food Contain Higher Levels of Antioxidants and Fewer Pesticides

Are organic foods healthier and therefore worth the extra expense? If "healthier" means the absence of pesticide contamination and higher nutrient content, then the answer is yes. A meta-analysis1 by Stanford University, published in 2012 — which looked at 240 studies comparing organically and conventionally grown food — confirmed that organics were 23 to 37 percent less likely to contain detectable pesticide residues. Organically raised chicken was also up to 45 percent less likely to contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Following in Stanford University's footsteps, a group of scientists at Newcastle University in the U.K. evaluated an even greater number of studies, 343 in all, published over several decades. Just like the Stanford study, their follow-up analysis,2 published in 2014, also found that while conventional and organic vegetables oftentimes offer similar levels of many nutrients, the frequency of occurrence of pesticide residues was four times higher in conventional foods.

Conventional produce also had on average 48 percent higher levels of cadmium,3 a toxic metal and a known carcinogen. Moreover, while many nutrient levels were comparable, a key nutritional difference between conventional and organics was their antioxidant content. In the Newcastle analysis, organic fruits and vegetables were found to contain anywhere from 18 to 69 percent more antioxidants than conventionally grown varieties. According to the authors:

"Many of these compounds have previously been linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers, in dietary intervention and epidemiological studies ... Significant differences were also detected for some other (e.g., minerals and vitamins) compounds."

The filmmakers visit the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture4 in Frick, Switzerland, where they've been investigating the differences between ecological and conventional farming for over four decades. The Institute was the first to confirm that organic apples contain higher levels of antioxidants than conventional varieties. Antioxidants are a very important part of optimal health, as they influence how fast you age by fighting free radicals.

So, the fact that organic foods contain far higher levels of them vouches for the stance that organic foods are healthier in terms of nutrition, in addition to being lower in pesticides. There are also a number of other studies that support the claim that organically grown produce contain higher levels of nutrients in general. For example, a study5 partially funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found organic strawberries were more nutrient-rich than conventional strawberries.

Is There a Middle Ground Between Organic and Conventional?

Organic farming is more complex and economically challenging than conventional, and some have wondered whether conventional farms could just adopt some, but not all, of the organic criteria. Or vice versa, could organic farms use some conventional methods and still be just as beneficial for human health and the environment?

The short answer is no. Carlo Leifert, agronomist and professor of ecological agriculture at Newcastle University, heads up the university's experimental farm. One of the things he's looking at are the possible overlaps between the two farming systems.

Interestingly, in the film he explains that when you use organic fertilizer in combination with conventional pesticides, you end up with higher pesticide levels in the crop than were you to use conventional (synthetic) fertilizer and pesticides! This surprising result appears to be due to how different minerals and chemicals interact. So, to enjoy all the benefits associated with organic, a conventional farm making the switch to organic really must make a comprehensive changeover.

Organic Grass Fed Milk and Meat Is Healthier Than Factory Farmed, Research Shows

Two 2016 studies6 led by Leifert — one on the compositional differences of organic and conventional meat,7 and one on milk8 — also found clear differences between the two. Said to be the largest studies of their kind, the researchers analyzed 196 and 67 studies on milk and meat respectively.

The largest difference in nutritional content of meat was its fatty acid composition, certain essential minerals and antioxidants. Coauthor Chris Seal, professor of food and human nutrition at Newcastle University, commented on the findings, saying:9

"Omega-3s are linked to reductions in cardiovascular disease, improved neurological development and function, and better immune function. Western European diets are recognized as being too low in these fatty acids and the European Food Safety Authority recommends we should double our intake. But getting enough in our diet is difficult. Our study suggests that switching to organic would go some way toward improving intakes of these important nutrients."

According to the review on milk, half a liter of organic full fat milk will provide you with an estimated 39 milligrams (mg) or 16 percent of the reference daily intake (RDI) of very long-chain (VLC) omega-3 (EPA, DPA and DHA), whereas conventional milk will provide only 25 mg or 11 percent of the RDI of these important fats.

As noted in the milk study,10 VLC omega-3s have been linked to a number of health benefits, including "improved fetal brain development and function, delayed decline in cognitive function in elderly men and reduced risk of dementia (especially Alzheimer's disease)." Organic milk also contains lower levels of omega-6, providing a healthier ratio between these two fatty acids. Compared to conventional milk, organic milk was also found to contain:

  • Higher levels of vitamin E
  • Higher concentrations of iron
  • Higher levels of antioxidant carotenoids
  • 40 percent more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has a wide array of important health benefits, from fighting cancer to decreasing insulin resistance and improving body composition

Other Studies Confirm Superiority of Grass Fed Milk and Meat

Other studies have come to very similar conclusions. A 2010 study11 looking at grass fed beef versus grain fed beef found the former had healthier fat composition and higher CLA levels.

As noted by the authors, "[C]hanges in finishing diets of conventional cattle can alter the lipid profile in such a way as to improve upon this nutritional package. Although there are genetic, age-related and gender differences among the various meat producing species with respect to lipid profiles and ratios, the effect of animal nutrition is quite significant."

A 2013 organic milk study12 also confirmed that dairy from cows raised on pasture is higher in many nutrients, including vitamin E, beta-carotene and CLA. Organic milk also contains about 25 percent less omega-6 fats and 62 percent more omega-3 fats than conventional milk. Research has also found that true organic free-range eggs typically contain about two-thirds more vitamin A, double the amount of omega-3, three times more vitamin E, and as much as seven times more beta carotene than conventional eggs.13

How Your Food Is Grown Matters

Studies such as these drive home the point that how food is raised makes a tremendous difference. You simply cannot cut corners during production without impacting the quality of the food and, by extension, human health. As noted by Leifert, commenting on the studies by Newcastle University that he led:14

"People choose organic milk and meat for three main reasons: improved animal welfare, the positive impacts of organic farming on the environment, and the perceived health benefits … Several of these differences stem from organic livestock production and are brought about by differences in production intensity, with outdoor-reared, grass fed animals producing milk and meat that is consistently higher in desirable fatty acids such as the omega-3s …

We have shown without doubt there are composition differences between organic and conventional food. Taken together, the three studies on crops,15 meat16 and milk17 suggest that a switch to organic fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products would provide significantly higher amounts of dietary antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids ...

[T]he fact that there are now several mother and child cohort studies linking organic food consumption to positive health impacts shows why it is important to further investigate the impact of the way we produce our food on human health."

Why Organic Foods Still Sometimes Contain Contaminants

The film also reviews European efforts to develop testing methods to authenticate organic food. It's a very complex endeavor, but a much-needed one to protect organic producers and consumers. Unfortunately, the higher prices demanded by organics invite cheating and fraud, which is why many will rely on a farmer's reputation over a label.

It's also worth noting that while organic farming does not permit synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, chemicals that should not be in the food supply can be found even in organic foods. The primary reason is not necessarily fraud; rather, it has to do with environmental pollution. As explained in the film, dioxins, for example, are deposited on land via rain.

A hen or other animal can then eat contaminated grass or insects, and since dioxins are fat-soluble, they accumulate in fatty tissues. Disturbingly, organic eggs in Germany often contain up to 30 percent higher levels of dioxin than conventional eggs, and the suspected reason for this is because they spend so much more time outdoors, and eat off contaminated soil. It's thought the contamination is then transferred into their eggs.

Organic Farming Is Sustainable and Environmentally Necessary

As noted by the filmmakers, "[O]ne thing is certain: Organic farming makes a major contribution to human welfare — by helping to mitigate climate change, protect the groundwater, conserve nature and promote animal welfare." Indeed, all of these factors are powerful reasons to support a systemwide transition to organic farming. While naysayers claim organic farming cannot sustain our current rate of population growth, the scientific evidence does not support this view at all.

A number of studies have come to the complete opposite conclusion — that organic farming is the only way forward, as chemical farming is simply too destructive and has too many adverse effects on human health. For example, a 2016 study,18 published in the journal Nature Plants, compared the benefits of organics versus conventional in terms of four key sustainability metrics, concluding that organic offers many benefits that outweigh the higher price.

Coauthor John Reganold, professor of soil science and agroecology at Washington State University, noted that in the 1980s when organic farming first began, very little research existed and many claimed it was too inefficient to feed a growing population. Today, at least 1,000 studies have looked at the benefits and differences between organic and conventional farming. The Nature Plants study analyzed data that has emerged in the past 40 years, with a focus on how organic farming impacts sustainability in terms of:

  • Productivity
  • Environmental impact
  • Economic viability
  • Social well-being

Overall, they found that organic farms produce equally or more nutritious foods with fewer or no pesticide residues. Organic agriculture also provides unique benefits to the ecosystem, as well as social benefits. A 2015 study cowritten by Reganold also found that organic farms were more profitable,19,20 earning farmers anywhere from 22 to 35 percent more than their conventional counterparts. According to Reganold:

"If I had to put it in one sentence, organic agriculture has been able to provide jobs, be profitable, benefit the soil and environment and support social interactions between farmers and consumers. In some ways, there are practices in organic agriculture that really are ideal blueprints for us to look at feeding the world in the future. Organic may even be our best bet to help feed the world in an increasingly volatile climate."

UN Calls for Global Treaty to Promote Organic Farming

Last year, Hilal Elver, the United Nations' special rapporteur on the right to food, and Baskut Tuncak, special rapporteur on toxics, also called for a global treaty to regulate pesticides, stressing the fact that these chemicals have now become a very troubling and pervasive food contaminant that is threatening the health of children everywhere.

They challenged the pesticide industry's "systematic denial of harms" and "aggressive, unethical marketing tactics," noting the industry is spending massive amounts of money to influence policymakers and contest scientific evidence showing their products do in fact cause great harm to human and environmental health.

Even more importantly, their report firmly denied the idea that pesticides are essential to ensure sufficient amounts of food for a growing world population, calling the notion "a myth."21,22 According to Elver and Tuncak:

"The assertion promoted by the agrochemical industry that pesticides are necessary to achieve food security is not only inaccurate, but dangerously misleading. In principle, there is adequate food to feed the world; inequitable production and distribution systems present major blockages that prevent those in need from accessing it …"

Their report also highlighted developments in sustainable and regenerative farming, where biology can completely replace chemicals, delivering high yields of nutritious food without detriment to the environment. "It is time to overturn the myth that pesticides are necessary to feed the world and create a global process to transition toward safer and healthier food and agricultural production," they said.

European Parliament Report Stresses Benefits of Organics for Human and Environmental Health

Similarly, a 2016 report23 by the European Parliament, "Human Health Implications of Organic Food and Organic Agriculture," detailed the many benefits of organic farming, based on a global literature search. The report is unusually comprehensive in that it also reviews a wide range of effects of organics, from nutritional content and the benefits of fewer pesticides to environmental impacts and sustainability.

Its conclusions are based on hundreds of epidemiological and laboratory studies and food analyses. Again, the clearest benefits of organics on human health were found to be related to lowered pesticide, antibiotic and cadmium exposure. As noted by the authors, "As a consequence of reduced pesticide exposure, organic food consequently contributes to the avoidance of health effects and associated costs to society."

Organic Food Resources

While it's easy to feel helpless, remember you can help steer the agricultural industry toward safer, more sustainable systems by supporting organic farmers and choosing fresh, local produce every day. Remember to buy organic, grass fed beef, poultry and dairy, as well. If you live in the U.S., the following organizations can help you locate farm-fresh foods grown in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner:

Demeter USA

Demeter-USA.org provides a directory of certified Biodynamic farms and brands. This directory can also be found on BiodynamicFood.org.

American Grassfed Association

The goal of the American Grassfed Association is to promote the grass fed industry through government relations, research, concept marketing and public education.

Their website also allows you to search for AGA approved producers certified according to strict standards that include being raised on a diet of 100 percent forage; raised on pasture and never confined to a feedlot; never treated with antibiotics or hormones; born and raised on American family farms.

EatWild.com

EatWild.com provides lists of farmers known to produce raw dairy products as well as grass fed beef and other farm-fresh produce (although not all are certified organic). Here you can also find information about local farmers markets, as well as local stores and restaurants that sell grass fed products.

Weston A. Price Foundation

Weston A. Price has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can easily purchase organic foods, including grass fed raw dairy products like milk and butter.

Grassfed Exchange

The Grassfed Exchange has a listing of producers selling organic and grass fed meats across the U.S.

Local Harvest

This website will help you find farmers markets, family farms and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass fed meats and many other goodies.

Farmers Markets

A national listing of farmers markets.

Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals

The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, hotels and online outlets in the United States and Canada.

Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA)

CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.

The Cornucopia Institute

The Cornucopia Institute maintains web-based tools rating all certified organic brands of eggs, dairy products and other commodities, based on their ethical sourcing and authentic farming practices separating CAFO "organic" production from authentic organic practices.

RealMilk.com

If you're still unsure of where to find raw milk, check out Raw-Milk-Facts.com and RealMilk.com. They can tell you what the status is for legality in your state, and provide a listing of raw dairy farms in your area. The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund24 also provides a state-by-state review of raw milk laws.25 California residents can also find raw milk retailers using the store locator available at www.OrganicPastures.com.