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There’s a lot of confusion over what organic means, and food with that label might not be as healthy or environmentally friendly as you think.

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You’re at the supermarket, and you need to pick up a few ingredients for your favorite stew. Do you buy the organic carrots, potatoes and beef?

Or do you skip the upcharge and stick with the conventional stuff? There’s a lot of confusion over what organic means, and whether it makes sense to buy food with that label. Legally, organic food has to meet a variety of regulations having to do with how it was produced, including no synthetic fertilizers, no antibiotics or hormones, no food irradiation or genetic engineering, and most appetizing of all, no sewage sludge.

Which might sound good. Less sewage sludge, that’s always better. But whether these regulations are actually meaningful isn’t always clear.

So far, there’s no evidence that organic foods are healthier, as many people claim. And while they do offer some environmental benefits, they also come with some costs. So today, we’re diving into the complicated world of organic farming to help you make sense of the labels and figure out what should make it into your grocery cart.

To chemists, of course, “organic” means a molecule or compound that has carbon in it. But when you’re talking about food from the grocery store, “organic” is a legal term for marketing purposes. Without a standards program, anyone could use that word and it would be meaningless.

In the U. S., organic certification requires farmers to grow crops without chemical fertilizers and to use a limited number of pesticides. They also have to rotate crops, which is basically growing different plants on the same plot of land throughout the year.

And they can’t grow GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. This generally means they’ve had their DNA altered in a lab, often by adding a new gene from a different organism. For meat and dairy products to qualify as organic, the animals must be given organic feed.

Cows and other ruminants that naturally eat grass have to be able to graze for at least a third of the year, and animals like pigs and chickens need to have the option to go outside. Just like me, I have the option, do I take it? Vets also can’t give these animals antibiotics or growth hormones.

And there are a few other quirky provisions, like not using certain food sterilization techniques, and specific terminology if you’re only using some organic ingredients in your product. But that’s the gist. The rules are similar in other nations, enough that many countries have so-called equivalency agreements that allow organic food in one nation to count as organic in another, although there are exceptions.

The U. S., for instance, has equivalency agreements with Canada, the EU, and Japan. Now, the whole idea of organic food is to be easier on the planet.

And in many ways, organic food does that. No chemical fertilizers means organic farmers typically use manure as a source of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Plants need these nutrients to grow, to make amino acids, DNA, and cell membranes, for example.

And normal soil doesn’t have enough to support crop-level growth. Hence, fertilizer. Manure is less environmentally damaging because it takes a lot of energy to make chemical fertilizers, especially the nitrogen-rich ones.

They’re one of the largest sources of carbon emissions in the whole farming process. And because manure breaks down more slowly than chemical fertilizers in soil, the nutrients are released more gradually. So with manure, there’s less nitrogen-rich runoff polluting nearby streams and rivers, which lets algae overgrow and kill off fish and other creatures.

Less runoff is one of the big selling points of organic agriculture. Crop rotation cuts down on soil erosion and helps with soil quality, too. That’s because growing the same plant again and again saps specific nutrients from the soil.

But if you rotate plants with slightly different chemical needs, no one nutrient runs especially low. Rotation also reduces the needs for pesticides because no pest can get especially comfy. Some research also suggests organic farming can support more biodiversity, because fewer pesticides means a more diverse mix of plants and animals can hang around.

But the results vary depending on the crop and the conditions, so this finding isn’t for sure. All these benefits are great, and of course non-certified farms can and do practice these kinds of things too. But there are also real downsides to organic farming approaches.

The biggest of these has to do with yield. Using different fertilizers and being more susceptible to pests means organic farms aren’t as productive as conventional farms. And that cuts down on how environmentally friendly they are.

Because of lower yields, experts estimate that it takes about 25% more farmland to grow organic food than to grow the same amount of regular food. And that space could theoretically be left as a natural forest or other ecosystem. So even though skipping the chemical fertilizer helps with greenhouse gas emissions, these reduced yields mean organic farms aren’t chipping away at the total carbon footprint as much as you might think.

Even with researchers still looking into it, it’s hard to say exactly how much. Even if we wanted, we couldn’t just switch all farming over to organic because we wouldn’t be able to feed the entire planet. Ultimately, this comes down to the fact that we wouldn’t be able to make enough manure or other organic fertilizers.

Like, it takes a lot of farmland to raise animals that make gobs of nutritious poop. Some of the standards that define organic foods in the U. S. aren’t necessarily helping with sustainability, either.

Take the ban on GMOs. GMOs have a bad reputation, but as we’ve talked about before here on SciShow, they’re not inherently bad. And they have a lot of potential to reduce the amount of chemicals needed to grow food.

Or sewer sludge. It seems obvious that sewage and food don’t mix. But it turns out that using carefully treated sewage, known as biosolids, might actually be good for farms and the environment.

Crops are especially good at absorbing the nitrogen and phosphorus in biosolids, so there’s less runoff than with traditional fertilizer. And, since people poop anyway, we don’t need to increase carbon emissions by making synthetic fertilizer or use more land to rear animals for a bunch of manure. In this case, the organics label prevents a sustainable farming practice, which is kind of a waste.

Now, besides caring about the environment, which we should all do, people sometimes buy organic food because it sounds healthier. But there is no evidence that organic food has more nutrients or is better for you in any way. Scientists have checked this repeatedly, since it does make sense that if you have slightly better soil, maybe you’ll get a better apple or pepper.

But if you think about it more, that’s asking a lot from a relatively small change. A few studies have found slightly higher levels of certain nutrients, such as antioxidants in produce. But it’s not clear that it’s enough to be a health benefit.

And, to be totally transparent, those results have tended to be funded by the organics industry. A 2012 systematic review of 240 studies, for example, didn’t find any significant differences in vitamins or minerals in foods grown with organic and traditional methods, except for one. Phosphorus was higher in organic foods, but it’s unlikely that that difference would matter for us anyway.

Phosphorus is in a lot of foods, and deficiencies are really rare. So there’s no compelling case to be made that organic food is better for you. So don’t kid yourself.

Eating a whole organic cake is just as bad for you as eating any whole cake, and you don’t get an extra boost by chowing down on an organic banana. The one area where organics do beat conventional foods health-wise is pesticides. But the difference may not be all that meaningful.

When tested for pesticide residue, organic food usually comes back with fewer than conventional crops, which makes sense. The whole idea is to use fewer inputs, including pesticides, to grow food. But it’s not zero.

The review found that about 7% of the organic foods they tested had detectable pesticides, compared to 38% of conventional foods. It’s possible these small differences matter, but from everything we currently know, it’s unlikely. Virtually all foods are still within the EPA’s safety limits for pesticides, no matter how they’re produced, which we’ve talked about in another video.

And you should still be washing all your fruits and veggies to minimize exposure. In terms of preventing food poisoning, organic food also seems to match conventional food. In fact, it turns out that organic regulations forbid a perfectly good technique that could protect us against foodborne illness called food irradiation.

It’s not used much in conventional food, either, but some food scientists think it should be used much more widely. Irradiation might sound scary, like, is my grape gonna become a radioactive grape and then I’m gonna eat it and become Grape Man? but it’s not like the food becomes radioactive and dangerous. The CDC, the WHO, and the USDA all agree that food that’s been irradiated is safe.

Basically, ionizing radiation is used to break chemical bonds and kill contaminants like bacteria. That makes the food last longer and makes it safer to eat. Irradiation doesn’t solve all problems, like, toxins can still build up in food before a pathogen gets the axe.

Plus, it can reduce some nutrients and some people say it can change the taste of foods ever so slightly. Because it reduces spoilage, it’s possible irradiated food could be older when you buy it compared with non-irradiated food. Critics also say irradiation can cover up poor farming practices.

But the fact remains that irradiation is very effective for food safety. If you want to avoid getting sick from something you eat, it might be your best option. The proof is in the pudding; hospital pudding, that is.

Hospitals regularly irradiate food to make sure patients with weakened immune systems don’t get taken down by a bit of Staph. NASA also irradiates the meat it sends into space to feed astronauts. You know, because nobody wants diarrhea in space.

That sounds terrible. Irradiation is particularly useful for foods that are hard to properly clean before eating, like sprouts, shellfish, and things like spices. In fact, in recent years, organic spices have been a big food safety offender, because of contamination from microbes like Salmonella.

So, despite what you may have heard, organic doesn’t always mean safer, and at the end of the day, whether you should buy organic food isn’t a question science can definitely answer. You shouldn’t buy it because it’s healthier or tastier, that much is clear. But the truth is that while organic food includes some great sustainable farming practices, it excludes some others.

That's unfortunate, because if I'm going to pay extra for an organic apple,. I'd really like to know it's eco-friendly. And right now, you can't necessarily tell that by looking at the label.

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