What Are Organic Foods and Are They Really Better for You? The Pros and Cons of Organic Foods

Over recent years, organic foods have taken the American market by storm. What does this really mean for farmers, consumers, and our environment?


NRD / Unsplash

The organic food industry, previously seen as a small and rather insignificant market has exploded. As the American public begins to see the link between diet, health, and the environment many turn to organic foods. What was once a small, niche line of products can now be found throughout 75% of conventional U.S. grocery stores.

Walking down a grocery aisle, you pass the poultry section and pick up a packet of chicken cutlets. Scanning through the nutritional label, you might find yourself asking a question many Americans have begun to pose in recent years: “Is this organic?” What was once sold exclusively by small-scale stores has now become a mainstream staple amongst a majority of American grocers.

America’s growing appetite for organic foods and products has led to the largely unprecedented growth of the organic industry. Economists at Grandview Research, a U.S.-based market research and consulting company, project the industry will have a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13 percent. To put this into perspective, as of today, the global organic food and beverages market size is valued at a whopping 208.18 billion USD. If the industry continues to grow at a rate of 13% CAGR, then the market will expand to an approximate value of 564.22 billion dollars by the year 2030. 

Despite this, it seems as though many consumers still do not know what exactly ‘organic’ means. In chemistry, the word ‘organic’ simply means a substance containing carbon. However, in the world of food, it is not that simple. 

BFG, a brand consultancy firm, in a national poll, found that while 70% of the people surveyed purchased some organic products, only 20% could accurately define what organic meant in the context of food, pointing to a general lack of understanding among Americans.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines ‘organic’ as “the application of a set of cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” To elaborate, “a farmer’s land, crops, and feed cannot have any prohibited substances,” said Cori Skolaksi, the CEO of MOSA Certified Organic (MOSA), one of roughly 30 USDA-accredited organic certification agencies. 

“The label, organic, is highly regulated. It is the most highly regulated food label that there is. So there is a long list of prohibited substances that cannot be used,” said Skolaski referring to The National List of Organic of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. This list, codified in federal law, contains hundreds of stringent requirements that truly define what the label organic means. 

Driven by consumer demand and the prospect of a growing global market, local farms and industrial agriculture corporations alike have jumped at the opportunity to engage in the cultivation of organic produce. The first step in this significant transition is organic certification. 

“First, you have to establish a market because switching to organic is time-consuming and can be quite expensive,” said Skolaski. In the United States, farmers are faced with a difficult choice because the National Organic Standards state that land used to farm organic products must go three years without having any prohibited substances applied to it. “Essentially, farmers must farm organically for three years without receiving marketing money for it,” said Skolaski. In this case, marketing money refers to the large premiums that farmers and grocery stores charge for organic products. The excess capital that organic products can yield, or lack thereof, in this instance, has an overwhelming impact on a farm’s profitability. 

In a study published by PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, researchers concluded that organic farms that did not or were not able to charge these premiums were significantly less profitable than conventional, non-organic farms. This meant that farmers in the process of converting to organic missed out on significant profits. The prospect of this loss of income during the certification process eliminates organic farming as an option for many local operations. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for those who can commit to the process.

The aforementioned study, in which researchers conducted a meta-analysis of data on the sale of 55 crops in 14 countries, found that organic farms that charge premiums were 22 to 35% more profitable, far outpacing conventional farms under similar conditions. These lucrative premiums made possible by the organic label are the primary reason for the increase in organic farming. 

In the U.S., once initial certification is complete, the process is far from over. In fact, for growers and ranchers, the process of maintaining a valuable organic label is never-ending. “Every organic operation must be inspected annually by a qualified organic inspector,” said Skolaski. “These inspectors are then required to perform a thorough audit of the farm’s practices throughout the year.” Additionally, due to organic farming’s place under federal jurisdiction, misuse of the organic label qualifies as a federal offense with heavy civil penalties. 

Despite the evolution of the flourishing organic industry, the future seems bleak for small, local farming operations. The concept of a wholesome existence on a small family farm is one that has been explored throughout American literature, film, and music. Yet, the idea of this simple, fulfilling “farm life” that has been woven into American culture, seems to be coming apart at the seams. “What we are beginning to see is the collapse of the small family farm which is becoming more of a commodity at this point,” said Skolaski. “As large retailers and agricultural corporations are finding that there is a lot of money to be made in organics, we are seeing a lot of consolidation.” 

According to the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. alone lost over 190,000 individual farms between 2007 and 2021. Even more revealing is data from the 2017 Census of Agriculture indicating that two-thirds of U.S. food production came from farms making over a million dollars a year. While the process of consolidation in business is far from a novel concept, it may spell the end for most small farmers running localized operations. The majority of small farm owners have stood at a crossroads over recent years and many are opting to sell, a process that has been exacerbated due to the economic collapse caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The pandemic was like the straw that broke the camel’s back. During the pandemic, it was easy for large corporations to swoop up land from small farms that could not keep up,” said Skolaski. With farm real estate debt reaching an all-time high and the intense competition for control of the organic market, this decade just might see the extinction of the family farm. These circumstances notwithstanding, there is still hope. 

One thing we can do, Skolaski points out, is to vote for politicians, typically Democrats that support keeping cost share in the National Farm Bill. The national farm bill is a bill passed roughly once every four years that has an enormous impact on how food is grown as well as the livelihoods of U.S. farmers. The Organic Certification Cost Share Program (OCCSP) is a governmental initiative that gives farmers back 75% of their certification cost. For large cooperation, this means next to nothing, but for farmers running small-scale operations that want to certify, “it means everything,” said Skolaski. 

Senator Stabenow (D-MI), whom many would consider a fervent supporter of farmer’s rights, among other Senators, looks on as former President Obama signs the 2014 Farm Bill.
(Senator Stabenow, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons )

Allowing small farms to make the switch to organic farming with greater ease may allow them to keep up with the rapidly changing agricultural industry. Additionally, as consumers, people can support local, organic farmers by continuing to buy into local cooperatives. Supporting local organic farmers is also beneficial because it keeps approximately 65% of your dollar within your community as opposed to 40% when shopping at large chains. Going forward, the support of small farmers will be crucial to producing an equitable organic industry in addition to keeping the idea of “farm life” tangible in the U.S.

Due to the organic industry’s relatively recent emergence, many consumers and competitors are skeptical of the myriad of claims regarding the benefits of organic food. Despite some skepticism among consumers surrounding organics, there are clear benefits to buying and consuming organic food. One major benefit commonly associated with organic food is the positive environmental impact.  

Organic farming correlates with lower land-use efficacy which relates to issues such as deforestation that can cause a significant loss of biodiversity. Moreover, organic farming on average has lower energy expenditure per unit of land than conventional farming which lowers the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. 

“One of the greatest advantages of organic farming is preserving the environment. Organic farming just has a lot of things built into it that allow for carbon sequestration,” said Skolaski. Carbon sequestration in this context means the process of storing carbon in the ground as opposed to releasing it into the atmosphere. Things built into organic farming namely, extended crop rotation, rotational grazing, and fallowing, promote soil and plant health. Healthy soil has been identified as an exceptional way to trap carbon and reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture. These processes that promote carbon sequestration in organic farming when juxtaposed with the vast amount of chemicals employed on conventional farms rendering soil barren clearly illustrate the differences in sustainability. 

“One of the largest consequences of chemicals used on farms is that they end up getting into the groundwater which can tear apart entire ecosystems. Not to mention, over time, these chemicals end up in our food and in our water,” said Ms. Coombs, Nutritional Science and Biology teacher at Bronx Science. “These chemicals don’t just hurt plants and animals, they hurt us too.” 

Foods that have non-organic chemicals applied to them during the growing process nearly always absorb these chemicals. That is not to say that the consumption of non-organic food is inherently bad or dangerous. However, the absorption of these chemicals over time has been linked to certain cancers and other health problems.

In fact, a recent Friends of the Earth study found that switching to an organic diet decreased levels of glyphosate, a cancer-causing chemical, by 70% in only one week. As it just so happens, glyphosate is the main ingredient in Roundup, a commonly used pesticide created by Bayer Monsanto. 

There you have it, an easy fix. Just switch to an organic diet. They are better for the environment and in many cases are proven to be significantly less harmful and more nutritious. For some, it may in fact be that easy. 

However, for most of us in America, it is simply not possible. Disregarding the fact that the agricultural industry still relies on conventional farming, organic food is significantly more expensive. Depending on the product, buying organic is usually between seven to eight-two percent more expensive. The price coupled with the disproportionate inflation of grocery store items disqualifies organic food as an option for a majority of American consumers.

With that being said, as food standards in America continue to fall behind those of many other wealthy nations, the rise of organic food may have come at just the right time. In an age where technology seems to outpace our understanding of its effects getting back to a sustainable, healthy, organic diet in any capacity seems to be beneficial, especially for cautious individuals.

“I would prioritize buying organic produce, especially mainstream produce items like strawberries, apples, and tomatoes since they typically have the highest pesticide absorption rate,” advised Skolaski. A good place to start might be buying the organic variety of items found on the Dirty Dozen, an annual list of conventional foods that typically contain the most harmful chemical additives, and therefore pose the greatest risk to consumer health. 

“One of the largest consequences of chemicals used on farms is that they end up getting into the groundwater which can tear apart entire ecosystems. Not to mention, over time these chemicals end up in our food and in our water,” said Ms. Coombs, Nutritional Science and Biology teacher at Bronx Science. “These chemicals don’t just hurt plants and animals, they hurt us too.”