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An Illinois River Almanac

Jason Haupt's Energy and Environment Blog

An Organic Question Part 1

A few days ago, I was presented with a very interesting question. The person in question wanted to know if there was anything to the "Organic is Better" claim. And my answer was "well that is a complicated answer." There is a lot to unpack here and I will do my best.

The way that I see it, there are two major themes that need to be considered when we are talking about the advantages to organics. There is an environmental and health consideration.

Environmental issues are the ecological impact, carbon footprint, nutrient and soil erosion, and greenhouse gas emissions. There is research showing that there are advantages and disadvantages to organic farming. A paper published by a group of researchers headed by a US Department of Agriculture noted that under current practices, though there are advantages (higher soil nutrients, soil organic matter, and lower global warming potential), there are some disadvantages as well (higher soil erosion and higher nitrous oxide emissions).

The carbon footprint of organic food also tends to be a grey area. Though the production of organic food can be a smaller carbon footprint, organic food does not exclude the use of heavy equipment in its production. Much of the organic food that is found in grocery stores require significant transportation, further increasing the carbon footprint of the food.

Another issue with organic food is the labeling system. There is a certification process that must be done for food to be labeled "Organic" this is an expensive process and many small local farms that grow food using organic methods cannot afford to get this certification. This means that large "industrial" farms are the only ones that can afford to have this label.

Research regarding nutrients of organic and nonorganic foods showed no significant difference in the two. The biggest factor in nutrient content had more to do with how fresh the product was and not its production technique.

The biggest health concern is the presence of residual chemicals on produce. According to the USDA, the biggest danger that is presented here is on the surface of the produce not in the produce itself. If you can peel the produce you are removing the biggest danger of exposure to the residual chemicals. Check the Dirty Dozen List (based on USDA findings and published by the Environmental Working Group) for foods that are recommended you buy organic.

If you are truly concerned about the environment and reducing your exposure to chemicals through the food that you eat, the best thing that you can do is to buy local produce. Develop a relationship with the people who grow your food and you will have a great idea of how it is produced. Locally grown is fresher than what you would typically find in the grocery store increasing its nutrient value. Farmers markets are available throughout the state, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects are amazing ways to find fresh, local, and seasonal produce that tastes better and is better for you. To find a CSA near you check out

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