This is a huge topic, and one which I can only imagine that I will have to split up into a series of posts. For this post, I think I would like to cover off the most obvious topic: the benefits of eating organic foods. Other topics for another day will include the downside of organics, organic skin and personal care, and maybe a post about the foods that it is best to pay extra for so that you can ensure they are organic, and the ones that are less important.
Let me just start by saying that any blog that purports to focus on the intersection of eco-friendliness and affordability will have to deal with this topic sooner or later. One of the huge issues with anything organic is that generally they will be more expensive than their non-organic counterpart. This being said, making choices that are are both eco- and wallet-friendly will have to come down to your own circumstance and how important each consideration is to you and your household.
When Tim and I shop for groceries, the gold standard for us is always to buy organic. That being said, since I make all of our processed foods (ice cream, granola, buns, bread, cookies, cake, lemonade, butter, even some cheese now) by hand, we are only concerned with basic ingredients: flour, sugar, fruits, veggies and milk/cream. We don't eat exclusively organic by any means, particularly during the winter when fresh produce is scarce and organics are nearly impossible to find in Canada. Buying processed foods that are organic usually adds extra costs, I find, and, of course, inevitably invovles packaging (my arch enemy). Even if we were to buy something like organic bread, I would be concerned about the ingredients, because from my experience, there may still be non-organic ingredients. The labelling of organic products is another topic I should tackle down the road. For now, suffice it to say, there is no trust lost between myself and the food industry, and I don't have any particular faith that processed items contain what they say they do. I also have a couple food allergies, which make eating processed foods a bit riskier for me than for the average person.
Apart from conspiracy theories about what is contained in food that we don't know about, there are many terrific benefits to eating organic foods, including benefits for your health, benefits for the environment and benefits to your community/society generally. The most obvious health concern around non-organic produce is the pesticides used to grow most fruits and vegetables. Technically, the pesticides aren't used to "grow" them, but to allow them to grow without interference from pests. If you are a meat eater, the hormones and antibiotics injected into the animals you eat are in many cases absorbed by you when you eat them. There are a lot of added "bonuses" in the foods we eat when we choose not to eat organic food. The problem with so many of them is that they are recent creations and we really don't know the long term effects of exposure to them, either alone or in combination. There are also risks that "safe" amounts of pesticides can accumulate in our bodies and eventually become toxic.
There are some claims that organic produce has more nutrients than non-organic produce, but I'm not going to dwell on that point as it seems that this is a controversial assertion and there is no definitive proof either way. Here is a scholarly article that goes over the issue in depth, if you are interested.
The other obvious concern with respect to non-organic foods from a health standpoint is genetic modification. In many countries, organic foods are not allowed to be genetically modified. Genetic modification, although commonplace in North America, has been embraced far less warmly in Europe than it has here. In fact, France has only allowed one form of GMO crop - a type of corn - and even that was highly controversial. Although the concerns around GMO foods are widespread and not particularly well-articulated due to the recent nature of genetic modification, the concerns are enough to make me hesitate before buying potentially GMO foods. If you're interested in reading a more comprehensive summary of the major concerns, click here.
The environmental benefits of organic food are tremendous, as pesticides aren't used and therefore do not end up in the soil, aquifers, rivers and waterways, oceans, etc. This in turn is beneficial for fish and wildlife. Although organic production methods result in more spoilage or unusable produce, this can be used to make compost which is then capable of being returned to the earth.
As far as the societal and community impacts of eating organic, depending on the types of food that you are eating, you could support local farms, which may in turn benefit your community, as the farmers and their hired help can all be positively affected. Organic farms tend to also use more sustainable practices, support fair trade and may be more inclined to pay their workers a living wage. By supporting organic farms, you in turn stop supporting non-organic farming, which will encourage farmers that do not produce organic foods to make the switch. As organic foods become less cost-prohibitive due to increased production, we all benefit!