Organics about more than better health

Grayson SImmons

When college students go to the grocery store, one of the biggest decisions they face is the choice between conventional and organic foods. Organic foods are thought to be healthier and more environmentally friendly, but they also sport a heftier price tag. So the question remains: Are organic foods worth it?

Around campus, few people believe that they are. The majority of students shop at conventional grocery stores, stating that the exorbitant prices keep them from buying organic. But most say that they would buy organic if prices were lower. Why? Because they believe that organic products are healthier than their conventionally-grown counterparts. After all, organic farms don’t use the harmful pesticides that regular farms do. Right?

Well, not exactly. To obtain a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) certification, farmers must avoid “synthetic substances and ingredients,” but that still leaves most naturally occurring chemicals as unregulated and unidentified for the consumer. Organic farming operations that produce the foodstuffs in our local grocery store use pesticides, just with slightly different chemicals than synthetics. 

One chemical the USDA allows organic farms to use is called rotenone. Rotenone is a naturally occurring substance that has been used in the United States as an organic pesticide for years. It is isolated from certain Mexican vine plants, and like all pesticides, its usefulness lies in its toxicity. Similar to its synthetic counterparts, it is incredibly toxic to insects and aquatic life but only mildly toxic to humans. Using rotenone, organic farms can grow food and still not have to worry about pesky bugs eating their crops. Although rotenone has no “natural” business killing insects on fruit or vegetable farms, it’s found its way into multitudes of USDA-certified organic foodstuffs.

Many expect a natural pesticide to be better for you than the synthetic version, but this may not be the case. While it may not be as carcinogenic as some synthetic pesticides, recent studies conducted by Environmental Health Perspectives and the US National Institutes of Health are now showing a link between rotenone and the onset of Parkinson’s disease. However, it should be understood that the negative side effects of pesticides are very hard to track. Clinical testing has been limited to animal subjects.

As of yet there is no empirical evidence that organic foods are a more healthful option than the alternatives — the science just isn’t there. A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that “evidence is lacking for nutrition-related health effects that result from the consumption of organically produced foodstuffs.”

Health concerns aside, organic farming has many upsides.  Buying organic is usually a good way to source locally-grown food, as smaller natural grocers tend to carry more locally-grown produce. Environmentally, while organic farms may yield 20 percent fewer crops than conventional farms, pesticide input can be greatly reduced. Margaret Wellik, a Plan II sophomore and one of the coordinators for UT’s MicroFarm Project, says that the benefits include “the health of the land where [the food] is produced, and the health of the farmer.”

Wellik, a staunch supporter of organic foods, buys most of her fruit and other staples from organic grocery stores. The higher prices don’t deter her. She contends that they are products of “the regulatory and legislative bodies which control food subsidies and dictate the cost of organic certification.” In the long term, Wellik believes that organic farming could change Americans’ perception and appreciation of food. Beneath the surface, organic farming isn’t just about being inherently “healthier.” Through environmentally-conscious methods, organic farming promotes a less wasteful mentality. It advocates for soil and water conservation while minimizing pollution.  To some, these ambitions are more than worth the higher prices.

I don’t aim to discourage the masses from buying organic. Rather, you should know what your money is buying when you fork over the extra cash. An appeal to health benefits might likely be spurious, but organic foods find their worth in ways that extend beyond their price tag.

Simmons is an aerospace engineering junior from Austin.