Here’s a shocker for you: Several recently released studies independently and concurrently reveal that the quality of food is directly related to how it is grown. Who’d have thought?
Says Elaine Ingham, chief scientist at the Rodale Institute, which conducted one of the studies: “The current toxic-chemical approach to growing our food destroys the life of the soil with pesticides, herbicides and high levels of inorganic fertilizers. [Today's so-called conventional farmers and the giant agribusiness companies that supply them] are destroying the support system, developed by nature over the last 4 billion years, that grows healthy plants.”
Though long believed by many, it is no hastily drawn conclusion. The Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial has been tracking the performance of both organically grown grain crops and conventional, synthetic-chemical-reliant grain crops for the past 30 years. This study represents the country’s longest-running side-by-side comparison of these farming systems.
The FST has revealed that crops grown organically are truly healthier and hardier in the long run and better able to cope with weather extremes than genetically engineered crops.
Despite naysayer claims that organic farming uses more resources to produce less food, the study clearly shows that organic fields produce just as much as the chemical-reliant fields. The Rodale Institute’s organically managed fields also produced between 28.4 and 33.7 percent more corn than conventionally managed fields, even under drought conditions.
It was concluded that the natural support system of organic practice was responsible for making those crops more drought-tolerant. Fertile soil, rich in organic matter and microbes, creates a more stable environment for plants. In times of stress, the organically cultivated plants can rely on the soil to provide what the weather has not, according to the institute’s report.
“The organic matter in soil acts like a sponge,” says Rita Seidel, an agroecologist and project leader of the FST, “providing water reserves to plants during drought periods and preventing water from running off the soil surface in times of heavy rains.”
This is a significant finding, given that the devastating drought that hit the United States in 2012 is still raging on in many parts of the country. It is estimated that drought conditions are already costing U.S. citizens $6 billion to $8 billion a year on average, according to a study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research. In California, farmers struggling with the drought left nearly 430,000 acres unplanted this year, costing California’s economy $2.2 billion and 17,000 jobs, according to a University of California, Davis Center for Watershed Science study.
In times of severe water shortage, organic fields not only can produce a more successful crop, according to the FST, but also contribute to our drinking water reserves. In the study, the organic fields recharged groundwater at rates 15 to 20 percent higher than the conventional fields.
At the same time, in most comprehensive studies to date, the nutritional advantages of organic food over conventionally grown food have been emphatically shown.
Consumption of organically grown food reduces exposure to contaminants commonly found in foods that have been grown using conventional agricultural practices.
These contaminants may include not only pesticides, but also heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, and solvents such as benzene and toluene. Minimizing exposure to these potential toxins is an obvious and important benefit for human health.
According to Dr. Jessica Shade, director of science programs for The Organic Center, which conducted another recently released study, conventional crops are four times likelier to contain pesticide residues, especially fruit (75 percent have detectable residues), and in concentrations 10 to 100 times higher than on organic foods. Organic food has 48 percent lower cadmium levels and much lower nitrogen levels than conventionally farmed foods. Cadmium, which accumulates in the body, can cause kidney failure, bone softening and liver damage, and nitrogen has been linked to increased risk of certain cancers, including stomach cancer.
The international team of researchers assembled for this study found that organic crops are 18 to 69 percent higher in key antioxidants. Antioxidants have long been associated with a number of health benefits, especially in helping to prevent a number of age-related diseases. In addition, organically grown foods, on average, contain higher levels of many nutrients, including vitamins and minerals.
“If an individual were to switch from a conventional to an organic diet, they could have a 20-40 percent increase in antioxidants without a simultaneous increase in calorie intake,” says Shade.
When you combine a significantly lower exposure to food contaminants with a greater intake of nutrients and antioxidants, what’s not to like?
Sadly, these findings come as organic consumption is under attack, an assault that can be expected to be ratcheted up with the release of new data supporting growing organically.
As I noted last week, demand for organic products is booming, with sales in the United States jumping to $35.1 billion in 2013. This marked a 12-percent increase from the previous year and a sales record. That’s excluding small local growers who gross less than $5,000 worth of food a year, a key and unmeasured part of this movement to grow and eat organic foods.
Yet one’s enthusiasm for this trend must be tempered by the fact that even though the organic farming industry has grown rapidly worldwide, organic agriculture still makes up less than 1 percent of the world’s farming acreage. Conversely, in the U.S., conventional farming netted $63 billion last year with its corn crop alone.
There are powerful market interests at play here, and there’s an entire agrochemical industry behind it, driving it ever forward along an increasingly genetically engineered path. This powerful train, relentlessly focused on feeding its corporate bottom line, will not be derailed easily.
So when you hear the corporate rhetoric, balance it with the knowledge that regulations on organic foods are quite extensive with respect to prohibited substances, and lower levels of contaminants in “certified organic” foods make perfect sense as a consumer choice. Foods depend on soil and water for their nourishment, and having cleaner soil and water means having cleaner food. It’s that simple, says an editorial for The George Mateljan Foundation.
Organic foods deserve a place on your table.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.