These days, there are more health stores, organic markets, and natural products available to the average consumer. Many people question whether going organic is really all that beneficial or economical. A new study shows that it may very well be worthwhile. Your purchase power from the organic food aisle might just mean the difference between more nutritional food and an unhealthy meal for your family.
Researchers found that organic farms produced fruit that was more nutritious, flavorful, and had healthier, more diverse soil than conventional farms. The study focused on organic and conventional strawberry farms specifically in California because the state takes up 90 percent of the strawberry market in the United States. It compared 31 chemical and biological soil properties on 13 organic farms and 13 non-organic farms that used standard pesticides. Soil DNA, taste, nutrition, and quality were also examined, making this one of the most thorough and comprehensive studies of its kind.
Perhaps the most significant finding is that “the organic strawberries had significantly higher antioxidant activity and concentrations of ascorbic acid and phenolic compounds.” People in the study who were asked to taste-test the strawberries found the organic strawberries to be sweeter, more flavorful, and to have a better appearance than the strawberries grown on farms using pesticides. The study also found that the organic strawberries enjoyed a longer shelf life.
In addition to more nutritious and tasty produce, the organic soil had “dramatically more total and unique genes and greater genetic diversity, important measures of the soil's resilience to stress and ability to carry out essential processes.” Diverse, healthy soil leads to better crops, and produces a farm that can overcome environmental stresses more effectively.
The study comes at a critical time for California farmers as they debate whether to discontinue use of the ozone-depleting pesticide methyl bromide and replace it with the highly toxic pesticide methyl iodide. Health advocates, members of the National Academy of Sciences, and more have lobbied against the switch. This study could help affect that change.
While the evidence from this study might bolster the belief that organic farming produces more nutritious food, it will hardly end the organic versus non-organic farming debate. While just as many consumers question whether organic farming is worth all the hype, others still question the efficiency and environmental impact of organic farming. Studies have shown that organic farming could potentially feed the world, but there are significant obstacles to overcome, namely low yields and a lack of nitrogen. And another recent study from the University of Leeds, in the UK, shows that organic farming might not be as beneficial to wildlife as once imagined due to lower produce yields. Organic farms were found to increase biodiversity by 12 percent, much lower than previously thought because the lower yields outweighed the advantage from not using pesticides. While it’s still an advantage over conventional farms, it’s an advantage that might not help much when attempting to feed people on a very large scale.
Whatever side you take on the organic debate, the study is still groundbreaking in its depth, findings, and potential implications. The side-by-side comparison of organic versus non-organic produce shows clear cause and effect. With any luck, it may also show farmers their produce—as well as their business—can benefit from staying away from chemicals.
Image courtesy of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF).