Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
March 3, 2021

Organic vegetables and fruits are a marketing ploy

By AMY DE LURY | September 19, 2019

The appeal of organic food is rooted in the common misconception that equates natural production with ethical production. For me, organic food is simply a marketing ploy to convince consumers to purchase more expensive food.

This marketing ploy begins with the claim that organic food is healthier than food produced through conventional agriculture. A prospective cohort study of 68,946 French adults published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2018 reveals a correlation between organic food consumption and a reduced risk of cancer. However, a commentary by Elena Hemler and colleagues criticized the study for methodological flaws. 

One flaw was that the survey sent out to the participants was not validated. It is difficult to assess organic food consumption because a person’s socioeconomic status and health behaviors determine what they consider to be organic. The self-report method of determining consumption adds an additional layer of subjectivity.

When organic produce was compared to conventionally grown produce in terms of calories and macronutrients like proteins, fats and carbohydrates, organic was not found to have greater nutritional value. 

In addition, the paper “Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review,” published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, asserts that the supposed health benefits of organic food are easily confounded with eating produce in general. 

While people will benefit from eating more produce, organic produce may not be the way to go. 

Organic produce has been implicated in more bacterial outbreaks like Escherichia coli than non-organic fruits and vegetables because organic certification forbids the use of irradiation to disinfect. Irradiation is widely accepted as a technique to decrease the risk of microbial contamination. 

Research studies conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have deemed irradiation to be safe. 

Supporters of organic produce assert that the use of synthetic pesticides in non-organic farming harms the environment. While I agree that the runoff of synthetic pesticides has deleterious effects, the pesticides that organic farmers use are often worse. 

The weakness of the natural pesticides used in organic farming lies in the fact that it is often less effective and similarly toxic. 

For example, rotenone is a commonly used pesticide in organic farming. Not only is it less effective than its synthetic counterpart, imidan, but it is also extremely toxic to fish. 

Likewise, copper sulfate is often used to control fungal diseases in plants, but it has a track record of negative aquatic effects. 

In addition, organic farms often use more land and labor to create the same amount of crops as a non-organic farm. More land usage corresponds to a bigger carbon footprint. 

According to a literature review titled “Organic Agriculture, Food Security, and the Environment,” organic farming typically has lower yields than conventional farming. The authors of the paper found that lower yields make organic farming more detrimental to the environment per unit of output even though organic farming is technically less “polluting” when measured per unit of land. 

The high energy usage required to meet the demand for organic produce leads to greater greenhouse gas emissions and adds to both the environmental and monetary cost of the final product. 

But the primary complaint of organic produce-eaters is the use of biotechnology in non-organic produce. Suspicion of biotechnology like genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is unfounded. GMOs can greatly decrease land use and increase the food supply. 

Although GMOs have great potential to reduce health inequity in the world, organic farmers do not use GMOs to make a better product. 

Organic food has a disproportionate effect on the poor as well. Because more labor and land are put into less effective farming practices, organic food is significantly more expensive than conventional produce. 

Food deserts and food insecurity already plague cities like Baltimore. Buying into the notion that organic food is superior just exacerbates these problems.

Many people have often shamed me for not buying organic even though doing so would greatly reduce my family’s income and there are no clear benefits to buying organic. Here at Hopkins, organic food unnecessarily increases the costs of meal plans. 

It’s time to call out organic food for what it truly is: a misleading marketing campaign designed to take advantage of people’s discomfort with biotechnology.

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