Andreas Späth

Why eat organic?

2015-10-26 14:00

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Growing food organically makes a lot of sense to me. Organic agriculture works with nature instead of trying to shoehorn it into an industrial framework, and in doing so it significantly reduces the amount of synthetic chemicals – from fertilisers to pesticides – dumped onto the soil and crops, many of which would otherwise make their way into our air and water.

But is there actually a qualitative difference if I feed my family carrots that were grown conventionally as opposed to carrots from an organic farm?

In January, the Swedish Environmental Research Institute (IVL) released an interesting study which sheds some light on this question by evaluating how much of the pesticide residue that remains on conventionally-grown food finds its way into our bodies when we eat it.

The researchers picked a family of five who didn’t normally consume organic food. On analysing urine samples from all family members, they found evidence for a variety of pesticides in their bodies. They then put the entire clan on a 100% organic diet for two weeks and used daily urine tests to assess any changes to the original baseline data.

The findings are telling: the test subjects’ bodies contained concentrations of pesticide residues that were on average 6.7 times lower when they were on a purely organic diet as compared to their conventional fair. The effect was especially noticeable in the family’s children, aged 12, 10 and 3.

According to the report, “the results of the survey clearly show that some pesticides are absorbed into the body through diet. By choosing organic products, it is possible by and large to avoid the consumption of these chemicals through food.”

While the authors of the study acknowledge that, taken individually, the concentrations of pesticides they found in the urine samples were all “well within acceptable levels” and therefore unlikely to “pose any risk to humans”, it is still worrying to think how many industrial agricultural chemicals we tend to carry around inside of us. In addition, relatively little is known about the possible health effects that may occur when these substances are present not on their own, but together with others in a complex cocktail of chemicals, even if each one occurs at an individually safe level.

A new research paper published this month widens the scope of the Swedish experiment. Scientists tested daily urine samples from 40 Californian children aged between three and six who ate their normal conventional diet for four days, then switched to an organic one for seven days, followed by another five days on conventional food.

Evidence of pesticides was found in over 70% of the urine samples analysed over the span of the experiment. Significantly, the concentration of some pesticide residues decreased by as much as 49% when the kids were only eating organic food.

One of the lead authors, Asa Bradman from the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health at the University of California, told the New York Times that “there’s evidence that diet is one route of exposure to pesticides, and you can reduce your exposure by choosing organic food”.

Whether or not it is realistically possible to convert all of our current conventional agricultural production to organic alternatives is a long and ongoing debate (we’d probably have to significantly increase the area of farmland under cultivation to account for the need to organically grow enough nitrogen fertiliser), but for you and me and our families, the benefits of eating organic fruit and vegetables are obvious. Given the choice, who wouldn’t want fewer synthetic chemicals in their children’s bodies and in their own? 

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.



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