By Kate Geagan
As both a nutritionist and a mother of two children, I believe that one of the most powerful levers you can press in the food system on Earth Day to promote a healthier planet is to buy organic foods. Evidence of the positive ripple effect of organic agriculture to promote cleaner soil, air, water, and healthier communities continues to grow. I’ve shared some of them below.
Over the past several years there’s been a sea change in how we think about "us" versus "the environment." It turns out there is no place that is "out there," completely separate from you and me. We are in the environment and it is in us. And it is in our children, even when our children are growing within us. This realization is changing the way we think about how we produce our foods -- and the impacts of different agricultural methods on both our health and the planet’s health. I hope you’ll join me in adding organic foods to your grocery cart on Earth Day -- and every day.
Why Organic Is Better for the Planet
Choosing to eat organically means a smaller carbon footprint. Depending on the food, research has found organic agriculture has a 30-60% smaller carbon footprint than conventional. This is primarily because conventional agriculture relies heavily on fertilizers and pesticides, which are petroleum-based, increasing the carbon footprint of the food that's being produced.
Choosing to eat organically supports a farming approach that rebuilds our soil and helps fight climate change. Research from the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial (America’s longest running side-by-side comparison trial of conventional versus organic agriculture) has found that organic soil can act like a carbon sink, storing 2-3 times more carbon in the soil than conventional. This makes it a more sustainable farming system, and even a possible tool for countering rising carbon levels in the atmosphere.
Organic outperforms conventional in years of drought. In 4 out of 5 years of moderate drought, organic systems were found to have more than 30% higher corn yields than conventional systems. Organic agriculture also uses compost, crop rotation, natural pest management, and other methods to build healthier, more vibrant land.
Choosing to eat organically means fewer toxins in our waterways, soil, and air. Because of all the things that are not allowed in organic agriculture (see my next point below), the result is a healthier farm, a cleaner community, and a greener planet.
Why Organic Is Better for You
Reduction of exposure to harmful pesticides. Buying organic ensures you and your family are consuming foods made without any toxic persistent pesticides, synthetic hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals. While the exact health benefits to all populations are still being studied, in May of 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel recommended people consume food grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, and growth hormones to help decrease the risk of contracting cancer.
The USDA Certified Organic seal is the most rigorous third-party certification program available to consumers. The most common mistake many people make is to think "natural" means free of things like genetically modified organisms (GMOs), synthetic hormones or antibiotics, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial colors or flavors. However, that’s incorrect; "natural" is more of a marketing term with very little regulation behind it. In contrast, USDA Certified Organic is a specifically defined, third-party certification and the only one that ensures these things (and more) aren’t in your food. For a complete comparison of natural vs. organic see this chart.
More nutrient-rich foods possible. The nutrient value of a food is strongly related to the soil in which it’s grown. However, studies suggest that certain organic foods may be higher in a range of nutrients -- from vitamins to minerals to phytochemical content. Organic dairy, for instance, has been shown to be higher in good-for-you nutrients such as omega-3 fats, CLA, beta carotene, and vitamin E.
More humane treatment of the animals. Organic standards ensure high standards of animal care and well being, with specifically mandated access to outdoors, grazing, fresh air, sunlight and more. This not only makes me feel better choosing organic for my family, but translates into better animal welfare; did you know that organic cows live about twice as long as conventionally raised cows?
To me, there’s an integrity to organic agriculture that embodies the very essence of what Earth Day is all about. You. Me. Our children. The planet. All the creatures we share it with. While conventional appears to have a cheap price at the checkout counter, it often comes with a very high cost down the road. As a mom, that’s not one I’m willing to "pay forward" in any respect.