What is true? The rules for using the “USDA Organic” seal on food do not include the use of most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. The permitted methods are strictly regulated, are only allowed when other methods have failed, and must be shown to be safe for humans. Organic food is also grown without genetically modified organisms or the ionizing radiation sometimes used for pest control.
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For meat, poultry, dairy or eggs, animals are fed only organic feed and are raised without antibiotics or added hormones in “habitats that promote the health and natural behavior of animals,” says a Department of Agriculture fact sheet. But it can be difficult to say what is a fact and what is a myth when it comes to the benefits you may have heard of.
Here is the overview of four frequently asked questions.
It depends on. “In general, the proteins, fats, and carbohydrates are the same as those in conventional foods,” MacLean says. “The changes in vitamin and mineral content are also quite negligible.” A 2014 analysis of 343 studies published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that organic products contain higher levels of disease-fighting antioxidants than conventional products. Other studies have found no significant differences.
Disposing of products, conventional or organic, can have a bad effect on nutrients, says Mary Ellen Camire, a professor of nutritional science and human nutrition at the University of Maine at Orono. And the United States imports organic foods from many countries — nearly 100 by 2021, said Reana Kovalcik, director of public affairs at the Organic Trade Association.
Does it have less pesticides?
Yes. A small study published in Environmental Research in 2019 revealed that people who switched from a conventional diet to an organic diet had lower levels of pesticide metabolites in their urine. And while what we know about the harms of synthetic pesticides is limited, the Environmental Protection Agency says exposure to agricultural pesticides has been linked to asthma, bronchitis, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease and certain cancers. In addition, a study published in 2020 in JAMA Internal Medicine reported a higher risk of death from any cause and cardiovascular disease in people with the highest levels of pyrethroid pesticide metabolites in their urine. Some research also suggests that children with higher exposure to certain pesticides are more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder/hyperactivity and that synthetic pesticides can disrupt our endocrine systems, which are responsible for hormone regulation.
Is it bad for the environment?
Yes. Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers can damage the soil and pollute the water. “Many of the pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, if not managed and refined, often end up in our water and even our fish,” said Garry Stephenson, a professor of crop and soil science at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Nitrogen-based fertilizers, commonly used in conventional agriculture, are a major contributor to air and water pollution, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
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Today, however, some conventional farmers are turning to environmentally friendly methods. For example, some are switching to organic-friendly fertilizers, says Matt Ryan, an associate professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.
When it comes to farm animals, organic regulations require them to be outdoors year-round and raised on organic land, and grazing animals such as cattle must have access to organic pastures for at least 120 days a year. Room to move is required, but animals are not required to be given a certain amount of space or should never be caged, and generally, the animal welfare requirements for “USDA Organic” certification are minimal.
Do animals get antibiotics?
Generally not, with the exception of chickens and turkeys that are still in the egg and on their first day of life. But routine antibiotics are still widely used in conventional beef and poultry, which can lead to antibiotic-resistant infections.
“That means infections [in animals and people] that used to be easily curable can potentially become serious and even life-threatening,” said James E. Rogers, director of food safety research and testing at CR.
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