1 - 2009

Organic farming raises antioxidants, lowers impact on workers

This tidbit of information came in this week’s newsletter from our CSA provider, Grant Farms:

You might wonder why and how organic farming elevates antioxidant concentrations.  One explanation is linked to pest pressure.  When plants are under stress from pests, they produce a diverse array of natural chemicals called secondary plant metabolites (SPMs), many of which are antioxidants.  SPMs also are responsible for giving fruit and vegetables their bright coloring and distinctive flavors.  Plants on organic farms typically have to deal with higher levels of pests than plants grown on nearby conventional farms, where pesticides are routinely applied.  For this reason, plants on organic farms more fully engage their innate defense mechanisms and, in the course of doing so, elevate antioxidant concentrations.
A second explanation arises from the fact that antioxidant levels tend to be higher in organic fruit and vegetables because plants on organic farms tend to grow slower and mature at a smaller size than fast-growing, heavily fertilized conventional produce.  this explanation has its roots in the “dilution effect,” the tendency for vitamins, minerals and antioxidant levels to be reduced – or diluted – in large, fast growing high-yield crops.

-Compliments of the Organic Center
If you are looking for more persuasion about the healthfulness of organics, look back at a post I wrote last year summing up several articles about the nutrition value of organic foods, including this healthy nugget:
The study found that organic fruit and vegetables contained as much as 40% more antioxidants, which scientists believe can cut the risk of cancer and heart disease, Britain’s biggest killers. They also had higher levels of beneficial minerals such as iron and zinc.

And having just (finally) read Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, I will point out that in general, organic farming is healthier (although more labor intensive) for the workers who plant, weed, and harvest the produce we eat.

Love to Know Organic puts it this way:

Environmental protection is a huge benefit of organic agriculture methods. Pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and other chemicals used on conventional fields often run off into nearby water supplies, harming animals and the people who drink the water. Such chemicals are often responsible for huge fish kills or the altering of local ecosystems such that certain animal and plant life can no longer live there. Farm chemicals are also harmful to those who work with them. People who work with these chemicals tend to have more health problems like asthma.

In addition, organic farming tends to be more mindful of the farm workers’ needs to make a decent wage. This is not to say that all workers on organic farms are paid well or that all those on conventional farms are paid poorly, just that the good stewardship involved in organic farming methods seems to extend to the larger community as well.

It is thought that organic agriculture is generally better for the economic development of rural areas because wages tend to be better. More workers may also be needed for a smaller acreage than on a conventional farm because of the non-chemical methods used.

And the Organic Trade Association, on a page citing numerous studies about the advantages of organic farming (of course — they are a trade association!),  writes:

“Exposure to pesticides can cause a range of ill effects in humans, from relatively mild effects such as headaches, fatigue, and nausea, to more serious effects such as cancer and neurological disorders. In 1999, EPA estimated that nationwide there were at least 10,000 to 20,000 physician-diagnosed pesticide illnesses and injuries per year in farm work. Environmental effects are evident in the findings of the U.S. Geological Survey, which reported in 1999 that more than 90 percent of water and fish samples from streams and about 50 percent of all sampled wells contained one or more pesticides. The concern about pesticides in water is especially acute in agricultural areas, where most pesticides are used.”
Source: Agricultural Pesticides: Management Improvements Needed to Further Promote Integrated Pest Management, U.S. General Accounting Office [GAO-01-815, Page 4, August 2001].

So, the next time your hand is hovering over the apples — organic? non-organic? Should you pay an extra 50 cents a pound? — think it over and remember that in some ways, buying organic is not just a one-time choice, not just more expensive, but an investment in health — yours and other people’s, too.

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