Organic produce

Living Well & Understanding the Body:

What Does Organic Really Mean? (Part One)

Margaux Thieme-Burdette February 9, 2020

The word “organic” is everywhere. It’s stamped on our bell peppers and peaches at the grocery store, it makes appearances in snack commercials, and it shows up in recipes requesting “juice from one organic lemon.” Even businesses like airlines and gas stations are stocking up on the surging trend.

We’ve heard that organic produce is higher in nutrients, reduces our exposure to toxic pesticides, and that it’s better for the environment than conventional produce. Those of us with chronic illnesses (like autoimmune disease) are encouraged by friends, practitioners, and a cacophony of internet voices to eat organic fruits and veggies.

We are inundated with all this information and many of us are still left scratching our heads. While checking our apples for brown spots and trying desperately to avoid the candy aisle, we can’t help but wonder, what does organic really mean?


For the purposes of this article, we will primarily discuss farms that are “certified organic” by the USDA. When the term “organic” is used, it means “certified organic,” unless otherwise specified. “Big organic” signifies large-scale operations—ones supplying grocery stores like Whole Foods with a high volume of produce. Conventional agriculture is similar in scale, but relies on synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and monoculture crops, and benefits from government subsidies.

To pare down such a complicated topic, we will describe what organic really means according to the United States Department of Agriculture National Organic Program. Organic certifications like Canadian Organic Standards (COS) in Canada, the Société Générale de Surveillance (SGS) in the EU, and others in Asia and Oceania, have their own unique standards that can vary greatly from those of the USDA.

There are also third-party certifiers of everything from organic and humanely-raised, to gluten-free and Kosher.

History of Organics in the US

The organic movement began in the early twentieth century as a way to eliminate problems created by modern agriculture like soil erosion, decrease in biodiversity, deteriorating food quality, and pesticide accumulation (1).

In the wake of World War I and the onset of the Great Depression, farmers were searching for ways to secure higher yields and profits. The use of mechanized farming techniques saw a sharp rise as tractors plowed acres and acres of fertile grasslands, breaking up the soil into a fine powder to plant wheat and other monocrops. Years of this practice, while immediately benefitting the farmers, stripped the soil of moisture and nutrients, and removed native grasses—top soil that had protected the land from erosion for millennia.

When the first drought hit in 1931 and the plain winds kicked up speed, large swathes of arid American soil consumed the sky, corrupting air quality and reducing visibility for hundreds of miles. Throughout the Southern Plains—the epicenter of this disaster—crops failed and hundreds perished as the delicate ecosystem was thrown off-balance.

Deemed, the “Dust Bowl,” these alarming impacts of large-scale farming forced the government to review the country’s land management practices, instilling new conservation policies. One such measure was the initiation of the Soil Conversation Service (now known as the National Resources Conservation Service or NRCS), an educational organization focused on teaching farmers about soil conservation (2, 3).

Around the same time, Jerome Rodale (a.k.a. the grandfather of organics), began to spread the idea that soil health and human health are intertwined. He emphasized to the public, through his Organic Farming and Gardening magazine, that farming with compost and without the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers was the key to living healthier (4).

By focusing on the health of the soil instead of the crop and its yield, organic methods of farming promised to develop sustainable systems for the long-term health of both the environment and the population.

By the 1940s, organic farming, which had until then only been popular in Europe, slowly gained ground in the US. Since techniques like crop rotation and composting inherently challenged the philosophy of mainstream farming (now known as conventional farming), it took time to earn acceptance in the greater agricultural community. However, starting with the federal government’s 1972 ban on the toxic insecticide DDT (5), and Oregon’s adoption of its own organic regulations, other states followed suit and the movement drummed up support from consumers across the country. The demand for organic food continued on an upward trend through the last decade of the 21st century, when Congress passed the Organic Food Production Act and the seeds of the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) began to sprout (5).

Overview of What "Organic" Means

Since 2002, our understanding of the word “organic” has been shaped by the USDA’s NOP, when national standards for organic food production came into effect. The USDA defines organic produce as crops grown in certain conditions, adhering to a strict set of standards laid out by the NOP. Organic farmers must take care to avoid contamination from conventional crops, and keep detailed records of their growing practices in preparation for a yearly inspection (7).

Certified organic fruits and vegetables are meant to be produced with only naturally-derived substances, without the use of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, growth hormones, or antibiotics. Instead, organic farms use alternative methods, like crop rotation and providing habitats for insect predators, in order to mitigate pest problems, nourish the soil, and reduce erosion.

That little green and white USDA Organic seal, however, does not describe to what extent the standards are followed. Chemical inputs, like pesticides, are considered a last line of defense. Especially regarding the 25 synthetic chemicals allowed in organics (versus 900 in conventional), farmers are encouraged by the NOP to use them only if they’ve exhausted other methods, and only in very limited amounts (8). One of the most commonly known synthetic fungicides used in organic farming, copper sulfate, is harmful to farm workers and consumers at certain volumes, and is therefore regulated (9). As the NOP cannot monitor their every move, organic farmers may choose to use synthetics earlier on in a pest outbreak, or they may decide to never head down that road at all.

While there are limits on the amount of synthetic pesticides used, the same cannot be said for organic ones, like diatomaceous earth and neem oil. Since many of these naturally-derived substances have lower toxicity levels, there is no limit for the amount of residue allowed on food (10). To be clear, a large volume of organic chemicals is not necessarily better than a small amount of synthetic chemicals. Plus, certain synthetic chemicals, like chlorine and sulfurous acid, are frequently used in pre- and post-harvest preparation of grocery store organics (11). An apple is not an apple is not an apple. The amount and types of chemicals used on our fruits and vegetables can vary wildly depending on the particular farm, even if they all display the green and white seal.

Thus, it is up to us—the consumers—to be aware of these limitations. Some farms fulfill the minimum requirements, acknowledging the financial benefit of growing organic. Others go above and beyond what the certification demands and are focused on creating a sustainable system. Many more, however, fall somewhere in between.

If you want to understand what organic really means for you personally, it can come in handy to talk to your farmers—via email, phone, social media, online articles, or in-person at the farmer’s market. Getting to know their philosophies on pesticides and the agricultural practices used on their land will give you a glimpse into what’s behind that ubiquitous USDA Organic label.

Is Organic Really Better?

A lot goes into bearing the USDA’s seal of approval. Not only does this certification affect the processes farmers have to use, but also the prices consumers have to pay. It garners the question of whether or not buying organic produce is worth the cost from both an environmental and a human health perspective.
In terms of whether “organic” means better for the environment or our health, we will mainly focus on big organic vs conventional agriculture, since these are the choices most of us face when grocery shopping for ourselves and our families.

The Environment

There are three main tenets of big (and small) organic farms, which set them apart from conventional ones:

  1. To build soil through composting rather than synthetic fertilizer;
  2. To avoid the use of synthetic pesticides;
  3. To avoid genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) (12)

There is much room for interpretation, here. The difference in how these principles are followed means that big organic farms can generate an environmental impact not unlike that of conventional farms.

Big organic farms are large-scale operations, and are thus more likely to use similar practices to their conventional counterparts like planting one plant variety at a time and relying more heavily on the use of chemical inputs to fix problems. There are no effective organic herbicides to control weeds, but organic fungicides and pesticides, which are less toxic, are also less effective (13). This can lead farmers to spray a greater volume onto their crops. As in conventional farming, these chemicals leach into the surrounding environment, and can put soil health on the back burner, potentially affecting the nutrient content of their produce (14)

Organic farms also require more space to produce a yield equivalent to that of conventional farms. Thus, if farmers aren’t pulling out all the stops when it comes to carbon sequestration (trapping the element in the soil rather than letting it escape into the atmosphere), the amount of carbon released can be quite worrying (15).

While big organic farming can have a negative effect on the environment, not all of these operations are doing the bare minimum as described above. Organics are under pressure from the NOP to employ more environmentally-friendly techniques in the name of conservation, biodiversity, and soil health—a focus that does not see as much support in conventional agriculture. Plus, organic pesticides (with a few exceptions) take less time to break down than synthetic ones (1617).

If we put the impact of carbon emissions aside, even large-scale organic farming demonstrates less environmental harm than conventional.
Organic systems are not without flaw, but they do lead to better soil, more diverse ecosystems, and a lower risk of environmental contamination and toxic chemical exposure than most conventional ones.

Is Organic Produce More Nutrient-Dense?

We may never have a black-and-white answer to this question. As of 2010, a comprehensive analysis of a number of studies showed that there are no nutritional differences between organic and conventional produce that you find in a typical grocery store (18).

Nutritional studies can be finnicky, however, and do not tell the whole story. Nutrient levels vary depending on the farmer, the season, and even the seed used (19). More often than not, exactly how the produce is farmed (what chemicals were used) and who is eating it (their genetics and environment) are two other factors not taken into account when examining nutritional differences in produce. We also have to consider who is funding the study in question, and their specific interests.

Another point of consideration is soil fertility, which is the diverse population of microorganisms, organic matter, nutrients, and minerals that creates the optimal environment for plants grow. According to the UN, intensive farming practices, deforestation, and climate change have degraded a third of the world’s soil health (20). This is a problem, since healthy, fertile soil feeds healthy plants, and higher quality plants means an increase in bioavailable (or easily absorbed) nutrients for us humans (21).

Since organic farming is more focused on soil health, the connection can be made that plants grown in a rich, thriving medium may offer more nutrients than those grown in depleted soils. Note that at farmer’s markets, some smaller farms promote being “sustainable,” “regenerative,” “biodynamic,” or “pesticide-free.” These producers take it up a notch when it comes to soil health, and may or may not possess a USDA Organic certification (due to cost, need, resources, or other factors). So again, the best information will come from talking to your farmers and doing your own research about the farms you purchase from.

Are Organics Less Harmful?

When we consume fruits and vegetables, we are not just consuming the nutrients that are in the food, but also the residual chemicals that went into farming it, from the time the seed was planted, to the time it was plopped in the produce aisle of the grocery store. We, the eaters, are largely unaware of the chemicals used, the doses we’re consuming, and which of those substances bioaccumulate (pile up in our systems faster than our bodies can expel them).

The USDA Pesticide Data Program (PDP) has found synthetic pesticide residue on 21% of washed, organic U.S. produce and on a higher percentage of conventional produce (22). The fruit and vegetable samples were taken from distribution centers “close to the time and point of consumption, reflecting what is typically available to the consumer throughout the year” (23). In other words, they tested produce from larger scale operations, produce fit to be sold in your neighborhood grocery store. There is less data on organic pesticide residues, however.

Various forms of pesticides are used in all stages of food production. Even regarding organic produce, Consumer Reports “Pesticide Report” states that “on some fruits and vegetables, one third to one half of the residues are from pesticides that were not applied in the fields or orchards but in storage” (24) to kill insects or extend shelf life. Acceptable post-harvest chemicals include those 25 synthetic chemicals permitted on the field (25). Thus, even if USDA certified organic produce escapes pesticide use on the farm, it may be treated post-harvest.

Now to make this topic even more complex, there is the issue of cross-contamination. Some big organic farms use land parallel to their own conventional ones, which leaves room for pesticide drift in the air and water. Just like neighboring operations and shared facilities, processers or distributers also play a role in chemical application, which risks accidental contamination. This unfortunate but completely natural kind of event is impossible to stop.

Research has borne the bitter truth that just because produce is labeled “certified organic” it does not necessarily mean that it has been spared from exposure to synthetic pesticides. With that knowledge the question then becomes, how much of a concern are those pesticides?

In the US, chemicals are given the presumption of innocence, and accepted as safe until they’ve been proven otherwise. The worrying part about this, is that there is not quite enough data out there. The EPA’s 2018 Annual Cancer Report classifies a chemical as either likely or not likely to be carcinogenic to humans. Definitive answers are hard to come by, and is more concerning considering that synthetic pesticides, some of which are carcinogenic or endocrine disruptors, have been found on 21% of organic produce. Even some organic pesticides, like the aforementioned copper sulfate, can also pose health risks.

Guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allow certain “tolerance levels” of these chemicals, measured in parts per million (ppm). For instance, apples may contain up to .5 ppm of an insecticide called diazinon, declared as safe in that amount. However, there are numerous other chemicals, like acephate, imazalil, and kresoxim-methyl, that are classified as “likely to be carcinogenic in humans” (26) but have no established tolerance levels. Tolerance levels are often based on what is healthy for an average male adult; this is not the same as what’s safe for a child, a pregnant woman, or an individual with autoimmune disease or other chronic health condition. Despite this fact, many pesticides are allowed in food production and can be found on produce tested in the 2014 USDA Pesticide Data Program (23).

To complicate things further, there are countless pesticides allowed in the growing of our food (especially conventional), that do not have sufficient data to condemn them as health risks. Research is ongoing but also lacking, as studies investigating chemical toxicity in agriculture are complicated, costly, and time consuming to carry out. The sheer number of variables involved in this area of research means we still don’t have a clear picture of the health impacts.

A few topics demanding further investigation are:
1. The synergistic effects of multiple chemicals
2. The long-term cumulative effect of chemicals that remain in the body
3. The effects on individuals with chronic health issues like autoimmune disease.

Organic agriculture is a broad spectrum, ranging from big organic operations to small regenerative farms. By buying organic, you may avoid a higher volume of pesticides, and also encounter less toxic ones (like apple cider vinegar, baking soda, rosemary, etc), thus minimizing health risks.

As the broken record states, however, the best way to get a clear picture of how your organic fruits and veggies are grown (and to decide if you should shell out more cash for organics in the first place) is to gather intel about the farms that produced them.

Organics & Chronic Health Conditions

The way your body reacts to chemical inputs on produce may be different than that of a typical research subject (typically a healthy male). Depending on your state of health, you may be more or less susceptible to environmental triggers. This is of special importance to anyone living with a chronic health condition as chemical intolerance is a growing concern in autoimmune disease and related issues.

Chemical intolerance means that symptoms flare up or are triggered by low-level chemical exposure (e.g. residues on food, cleaning products, fragrance in detergent, etc.). It develops overtime as health issues persist, and even appears as other conditions begin to heal. Then there is the more severe version, which can have serious consequences on quality of life: Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). Chemical intolerance and MCS are largely unknown in the medical world, although the level of knowledge is slowly shifting. A lack of diagnostic tools and acceptance of this condition leads practitioners and loved ones to dismiss and doubt sufferers of chemical intolerance and MCS (27). Thus, many are self-diagnosed and forced to manage this condition on their own.

The Bottom Line

Eating organic or conventional is a personal choice, heavily influenced by resources, location, lifestyle, and health concerns. Organics are better for the soil and surrounding environment, and are potentially better for your health. Still, there is no definitive answer, since the produce you encounter at your local store may differ greatly from produce sold in a different part of the country. Ultimately, the best thing you can do is make informed decisions based on what’s best for you and your family.

Organic systems are not without flaw, but they do lead to better soil, more diverse ecosystems, and a lower risk of environmental contamination and toxic chemical exposure than most conventional ones.

Plants grown in a rich, thriving medium offer more nutrients than those grown in depleted soils soaked with chemical inputs. Small farms labeled sustainable, regenerative, biodynamic, or pesticide-free use fewer pesticides and exhibit healthier soil. Even regarding big organic farms, the USDA Organic label generally indicates lower pesticide use. This could mean more nutrient density; however, the most recent studies show no evidence of this.

Organic grocery store produce may contain synthetic pesticides due to large-scale farming practices, processing requirements, and farm and storage contamination. Research on the safety of synthetic pesticides is lacking, as chemicals are deemed safe until proven otherwise. Organic pesticides are considered less toxic; they are also only used as a last resort, especially on smaller farms. Again, buying sustainable, regenerative, biodynamic, or pesticide-free produce at your local farmer’s market is your best bet if avoiding all varieties of chemical inputs.

Do your own research
The USDA Organic label does not spell out the types of chemicals and amounts used, nor how committed the farms are to pesticide-free practices and why. Get to know the farms you purchase from by talking with the owners or workers, asking friends and neighbors, and scouring the internet for articles and videos. The more you know, the more power you have in contributing to safe, healthy practices in the growing of your food.
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  1. Article Sources and Footnotes
    1. Kuepper, G. (2010). A brief overview of the history and philosophy of organic agriculture. Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

    2. Kay, K. (2016). The dust bowl demanded sustainable agriculture. Late Bloom America.

    3. Honoring 85 years of NRCS- A brief history.” Natural Resources Conservation Service, United States Department of Agriculture.

    4. Heckman, J.R. (2006). A history of organic farming. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 21(03), 143-150.

    5. DDT – A Brief History and StatusUnited States Environmental Protection Agency.

    6. Tucker, W. (1979). The next American dust bowl—and how to avert it. The Atlantic.

    7. Coleman, P. (2012). Guide for organic crop producers. Agricultural Marketing Service, United States Department of Agriculture.

    8. Roseboro, K. (2017). Debunking ‘alternative facts’ about pesticides and organic farming. EcoWatch.

    9. Porterfield, A. (2018). Organic fungicide copper sulfate endangers humans, animals and insects. Genetic Literacy Project.

    10. Brooks, L. (2019). Organic regulationsSafe Fruits and Veggies.

    11. Electronic Code of Federal Regulations.” (2020). Office of the Federal Register.

    12. Porterfield, A. (2017). There’s ‘Big Ag’ and ‘Big Organic’—How much does ‘big’ matter when it comes to sustainability? Genetics Literacy Project.

    13. Brazeau, M. (2018). Do organic farmers really use more pesticides than conventional farmers? Not even close. Genetic Literacy Project.

    14. Organic pesticides not always ‘greener’ choice, study finds.” (2010). University of Guelph.

    15. Organic food worse for the climate?” (2018). Chalmers University of Technology.

    16. Mark, J. (2011). Myths: Busted–clearing up the misunderstandings about organic farmingScientific American.

    17. Hanson, B.; Bond, C., Buhl, K.; Stone, D. (2015). Pesticide Half-Life Fact Sheet. National Pesticide Information Center, Oregon State University Extension Services.

    18. Dangour, A., Lock, K., Hayter, A., Aikenhead, A., Allen, E., & Uauy, R. (2010). Nutrition-related health effects of organic foods: a systematic review. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 92 (1), 203-210.

    19. Bionutrient-rich food & healthBionutrient Food Association.

    20. Arsenault, C. (2014). Only 60 years of farming left if soil degradation continuesScientific American.

    21. Scheer, R., Moss, D. (2011). Dirt poor: have fruits and vegetables become less nutritious?Scientific American.

    22. Savage, S. (2016). Inconvenient truth: There are pesticide residues on organicsForbes.

    23. Pesticide data program, annual summary 2014. (2016). Agricultural Marketing Service, United States Department of Agriculture.

    24. From crop to table pesticide report. (2015). Consumer Reports Food Safety & Sustainability Center.

    25. Substances Used in Post-Harvest Handling of Organic Products.” (2016). Agricultural Marketing Service, United States Department of Agriculture.

    26. Chemicals Evaluated for Carcinogenic Potential Annual Cancer Report 2018.” (2018). U.S. Environmental Protection
      Agency Office of Pesticide Programs.

    27. Harsh, C. (2018). The organic industry isn’t perfect, but it’s transparentCenter for Food Safety.

    28. Cernansky, R. (2018). We don’t have enough organic farms. Why not? National Geographic.

    29. Wilcox, C. (2011). Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional AgricultureScientific American.

    30. Mark, J. (2011). Myths: Busted–clearing up the misunderstandings about organic farmingScientific American.

    31. Efretuei, A. (2016). How do you restore degraded soil?. Permaculture Research Institute.

    32. Coleman, P. (2012). Guide for organic crop producersAgricultural Marketing Service, United States Department of Agriculture.

    33. Accredited certifying agents.” Agricultural Marketing Service, United States Department of Agriculture.

    34. Wait, Organic Farmers Use Pesticides?” (2019). Rodale Institute.

    35. Haspel, T. (2018). The truth about organic produce and pesticidesThe Washington Post.

    36. OrganicNet. (2016). The History of Organic Farming. OrganicNet.

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