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Is Organic Really Better?

by Patrizia Marani

Organic grapes and squash

Brian Halweil of the Worldwatch Institute has compared the quality of products from current conventional farming with the quality of food produced in the 40s and 50s, and that of current organic foodstuffs. And here is what he has discovered.


The loss of quality of nutrition in "modern" foods, which Weston Price discovered in the first decades of the 1900s, has gradually worsened as industrial agricultural techniques and organic grapes and pearsprocessing of food has been increasingly "perfected", and has become more mass-oriented. It is due to these farming techniques that there is a profound difference in the quality of conventional food products and those that are organic or biodynamic. But why exactly is this?

TURNING FOOD INTO A COMMODITY

An important report by Brian Halweil of the Worldwatch Institute and co-director of the food think tank "Nourishing the Planet" responds to this very question. Garnering data from a large collection of studies, Halweil compares the quality of products from current conventional farming with the quality of food products produced in the 40s and 50s, and that of current organic food products. And here is what he discovered.

Conventional farming wheat field

THE HIGHER THE YIELD THE LOWER THE QUALITY

Conventional farming techniques have been able to double if not triple the yield of the main cultivated grains, fruits and vegetables in the last fifty years. It has succeeded on the one hand by cultivating more plants per acre, while on the other hand by selecting plants with a higher percentage of edible parts and plant species with higher yields. All of this has been done without considering the nutritional value of the selected plant species.

Comparative studies, consulted by Halweil, conducted on grain, corn, and broccoli have found that the modern varieties with high yield have a considerably lower concentration of vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants compared to the more ancient varieties that have a lower yield.
The selection carried out in the last 130 years with the sole aim of "improving" the grain variety - and by improving it was merely meant to obtain an increased yield - has resulted in tripling it. However, this has also resulted in minus 28 percent of iron and less than a third of the quantity of zinc and selenium.

The higher the yield, the lower the contents of macro and micro-nutrients. This phenomenon has been also observed in tomatoes: the yield and concentrations of vitamin C, lycopene and beta-carotene are inversely related. After all, this information is understandable: similarly, if a parent has to divide resources between 10 children and another parent between 2, the former offspring will receive less resources than the latter.

"Government studies in the USA and Great Britain have found that, in the last ten years, the concentration of essential nutritional micro-elements in a vast range of common foods has diminished with percentages in the double digits in terms of iron, calcium, selenium and other substances that are precious for our health. Consequently, the same quantity of spinach, potatoes, salad and so on now furnishes us with less iron, zinc and calcium"*.

NUTRITIONAL INFLATION

"The success of industrial agriculture has arrived with a cost: it can produce many more calories per acre, but each of these calories contains less nutrition than it did in the past " *. This process seems similar to inflation in economy: there is more money flowing around, but that money has a lower buying potential. Concerning food, yes we have more availability but the food products we obtain are less nutritious per every calorie consumed. We need to, for example, consume three apples to acquire the same quantity of iron found in an apple in the 40s, or consume various slices of bread to obtain the same quantity of zinc that was present in a slice of bread a hundred years ago.

'SPOILED' FARMING

Besides the yield, there are other factors that account for the drop in nutritional value of food:

- The fruit and vegetable products of modern day, like a child that has grown up on fast food, are cultivated in impoverished soil, nourished by only three main macro-nutrients- nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus (NPK);
- the traditional rotation of crops to refill the soil of the lost nutrients is not applied.

What's more, the use of massive water irrigation, of pesticides and fertilizers that characterizes conventional farming tends to "spoil" the plants, which grow very fast without growing deep roots in their search for water and nutrients. This implies a poor assimilation of the substances that are present in the soil.
Finally, the plants do not have to fend off pests and parasites: chemicals will do it for them, meaning that they will grow to be more fragile and won’t need to produce protective elements such as polyphenols, which again makes for less nutritious fruit and vegetable products. The more the plant suffers - within certain limits, of course - from drought, attacks from insects or else, the more it produces polyphenols, micronutrients essential to human health.
It is scientifically proven that to obtain fruits and vegetables that are more nutritious and to maximize flavor and aroma, a farmer has to limit the use of water and fertilizer, even animal-derived or organic ones, to make the plant develop a more robust and efficient root system. This is a strategy that is used for example by wine producers to obtain particularly tasty wine.

The same principle applies to animal breeding: what animals are fed is of great importance for the final product. For animal products to maintain their nutritional quality and tastiness of the meat, toxic pollutants should be absent and the use of antibiotics and growth hormones typically used as a means to increase “yield”, must be avoided. It is important that the animal leads a happy and free life: it will be more robust and need less care, especially in terms of the use of antibiotics. As we now know, stress weakens the immune system of animals, just as it does in human beings.

WHAT MASS DISTRIBUTION INVOLVES Another factor that lowers the nutrition of today's vegetables and fruit is the timing of mass distribution of produce that leads to premature harvesting. In reality, fruits and vegetables reach their maximum nutritional value when they have fully matured.
Those big, shiny and identical pieces of fruit without spots that are artificially created are consequences of chemical synthesis, industrial farming and mass-scale distribution. While these methods facilitate mechanical harvesting and product packaging, they also serve to lure the consumer into buying produce that has low nutritional value.

Price intro2

WHY ORGANIC IS BETTER: THE COMPARISON

All these "wrong" techniques have been eliminated in organic farming which the Rodale Institute defines as "a farming system that does not use chemical synthesis, and that imitates nature's modality. Such a method includes diverse organic farming entities of differing sizes, practices and philosophies which are united by a common denominator: the refusal to use toxic chemicals.Organic farming is the only sustainable farming system, because it does not pollute the environment and, far from impoverishing it, is "able to maintain or improve the fertility of the soil indefinitely."

Besides being "good" for the environment, organic products are good for us because they do not carry with them toxic pesticide residues or residues from various phytopharmaceutical products, or antibiotic-resistant bacteria that otherwise end up in our plates (which a recent study has found in conventional food products). But are organic foodstuffs also better from a nutritional standpoint?

A 30 year long study conducted by the Rodale Institute, that has applied side by side both conventional farming techniques and organic techniques, has found that the organic and fertile material found in the soil, instead of being depleted, has grown by 30 percent. Furthermore, the study reports that organic products are nutritionally superior in both presence of macronutrients (N, P, K, Ca and Mg) – by 6 to 27 percent – and micronutrients (Mn, Fe, Cu, B, Al, and Na) – from 17 to 287 percent. They contain many more minerals, vitamins and phytochemical elements such as the above mentioned polyphenols.

THE COLOR IN NATURE COUNTS: HOW TO RECOGNIZE ORGANIC BESIDES THE CERTIFICATIONSPom neri gialli small

Uniquely precious for our health, among other things such as their anti-oxidant, anti-carcinogenic and anti-inflammatory properties, polyphenols, which are present in the peel, are secondary compounds that are similar to vitamins. They give organic fruits and vegetables their typical but unique chromatic intensity as they are present in organic foods up to 50% more. The organic product makes up for the loss of nutritional capacity that was typical of fruits and vegetables 60-70 years ago, when perhaps people ate less but ate well.

A sure way to tell whether fruits and vegetables are organic, besides checking the appropriate certifications, is to learn to spot out the visual characteristics: generally speaking, the size is smaller because they grow more slowly (as already explained), but the taste is much richer, the shapes differ from one piece to the other, the colors are more intense and vivacious, the smell and taste are uniquely stronger and small imperfections are present.

TO BE CONTINUED 

SECOND ARTICLE IN THE SERIES: Why is Going Organic Worthwhile? More about the impact on our health of the loss of nutrients in conventional food and how to save money and still eat organic

FIRST ARTICLE IN THE SERIES: The Price of Not Eating Organic. Find out about the discovery of the Diseases of Civilization

SOURCES:

Still no Free Lunch, Brian Halweil, The Organic Center

Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food, Jo Robinson, The New York Times

Hortscience, Declining Fruit and Vegetable Nutrient Composition: What Is the Evidence? Donald R. Davis, HortScience February 2009 44:15-19

XI° Rapporto nazionale sulle politiche della cronicita', A cura di Tonino Aceti, Maria Teresa Bressi.

Annals of Internal Medicine 4 September 2012 Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review, Crystal Smith-Spangler et al.

In defense of Food, by Michael Pollan

Photographs by P. Marani