There are solid reasons to support organic agriculture, but the differences between organic and conventional produce are far more nuanced than most people realize. Nutritionist Carrie Dennett breaks them down.

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On Nutrition

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the methodological issues with the Environmental Working Group’s annual “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” lists. Does this mean there’s no reason to purchase organic foods? Absolutely not. But it’s far too easy to succumb to black-or-white or even magical thinking about what the word “organic” represents.

Farming and agriculture are complicated, and most non-farmers don’t fully understand all of their complexities. Accordingly, “organic” often becomes a shorthand for everything good that we want our food to be. While there are solid reasons to support organic agriculture, the differences between organic and conventional are far more nuanced than most people realize.

Imagine a line on a piece of paper. On one end, you have a small organic farm that grows a variety of crops, and maybe some pasture-raised livestock. They use sustainable farming practices like crop rotation and row covers to manage pests and disease, and employ composting and other techniques to improve the soil’s nutrient and microbial content. On the other end on the line, you have a conventional “mega” or factory farm that grows a monocrop — one single crop year after year — and relies heavily on chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.

While farms like the two I just described do exist, these extremes aren’t representative of all organic farms and all conventional farms. As with many things, farming practices exist on a spectrum, and organic and conventional farms come in all shapes and sizes. There are huge organic megafarms that grow only one crop (some refer to those farms as “industrial organic”) and rely heavily on pesticides allowed under organic regulations. There are small family farms that meet the spirit of the organic rules—using sustainable farming methods that tend to be associated with organic agriculture—but remain “conventional” because the process of obtaining organic certification is too daunting.

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Modern agriculture feeds a lot of people — thank goodness — but it does have its issues. Monocropping reduces biodiversity and increases the risk that the development of a pest or disease could wipe out an entire harvest. This happened with papayas in Hawaii, and is occurring now with oranges in Florida and bananas in most places bananas are grown. Other notable concerns include farmworker exposure to pesticides and herbicides; destruction of crops due to herbicide drift (currently a big problem with peach trees in the Midwest); bioaccumulation of certain pesticides in the fatty tissue of food animals; and contamination of soil, air and water by pesticides and fertilizers. (Google “Gulf of Mexico dead zone.”)

So what to do? Here are my top three tips:

Think nutrition. We benefit from eating lots of vegetables and fruits, and organic produce isn’t necessarily more nutritious. Also, an organic cookie is still a cookie, and an organic potato chip is still a potato chip.

Lean toward organic with animal foods. To limit the effects of pesticide bioaccumulation, buy organic poultry, meat and full-fat dairy foods if availability and budget allow. If they don’t, prioritize leaner cuts of meat, and remove skin from poultry (actually, this is good advice even when buying organic). You can also include more meatless meals in your rotation.

Buy as local as you can. Imported organic produce may not be truly organic, and produce that doesn’t travel far tends to retain more of its nutrients. If you have access to a farmers market, it can be a great way to gain a nuanced understanding of how your food is grown while supporting smaller local farms.