Going organic? Buying organic fruits and vegetables is increasing in popularity as many people feel organically grown food contains less pesticides and the farming practices used to grow the food is better for the environment.  This may or may not be true depending on the source of the organic food. It is pretty much undisputed that organic fruits and vegetables contain less synthetic pesticides on them since synthetic pesticides are not allowed on organically grown produce. However, most of the fruit and vegetables grown by conventional methods contain little or no pesticide residues and the amount of pesticides they may contain have no human health consequences. Washing fruits and vegetables whether from an organic source or a conventional source is a recommended practice to remove both pesticide residues and harmful bacteria that may be present on the surface of the produce. 


Many organic producers use pesticides and fertilizers, just not the synthetic ones that are allowed in conventional agriculture. Over 200 different pesticides and fertilizers are allowed for use in certified organic produce. Many of these allowed pesticides are also harmful to humans, but as with conventional agriculture, any small amounts of residues that remain on the produce should be within safe limits if used according to organic guidelines and according to the pesticide label.


Many people assume that organically produced vegetables and fruits are better for the environment. This probably depends on the source of the produce and particular practices used on the farm. Most organic producers rely heavily on multiple cultivations for weed control, which destroys soil tilth, increases wind and water erosion, increases soil compaction, and decreases water infiltration. Cultivation also requires a large amount of diesel fuel for multiple trips across the field. It is far more difficult for organic producers to practice reduced tillage agriculture without some of the synthetic herbicides available to kill weeds without cultivation.


Another common practice of organic producers is the heavy use of animal composts and manures. Cow and chicken manure are high in salts and have unusually high levels of potassium and phosphorus compared to nitrogen. Many organic growers use animal manures and composts for the majority of there fertilizer needs and end up with soils extremely high in certain nutrients and salts that become unbalanced and less productive.  The use of legumes in the crop rotation will help supply some nitrogen and reduce the need for these high inputs of animal manures and composts.  Fish based fertilizers can also supply nitrogen, but are often cost prohibitive.


Some large organic growers put native or virgin ground into organic fields for a couple of years to avoid having to wait the required three year period to become certified organic, as these fields with no history of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides can usually be certified organic immediately.  Initially, these fields are often free of weeds, insects, nematodes and soil pathogens associated with agricultural crops until they have been farmed for several years.  Once the weeds and other pests become more prevalent and challenging to control with organic methods, these growers will begin farming those fields with conventional methods and no longer be organic.  These growers are simply taking advantage of the price premium for organic for a couple of years and then farming it like the rest of the farm once the weed and pest pressures become more intense. I worked for a major organic food company for several years and this was a common practice. It really makes one wonder if organic agriculture is sustainable or not on a larger scale.


So how does the average consumer, most of which have never been on a farm and know very little about farming practices, make smart decisions on what type of food to purchase and what type of agriculture to support?  One way is to buy locally produced food (either organic or conventional) and get to know your food supplier and how the food is produced. Ask the grower why he or she farms the way they do and how they make decisions on what to use for fertilizer sources or when to control pests.  Most growers (organic and conventional) use sustainable farming practices that are safe for consumers and the environment as they intend to be in the farming business for many years and can’t afford to use unneeded pesticides and fertilizers and can’t risk harming the health of their fields for future crops and generations.


Buying and eating good quality fresh fruits and vegetables that are not heavily processed is probably more important health wise than whether the food was produced organically or conventionally. Become more educated on how foods are produced.  Educated and involved consumers have influenced and improved farming practices as conventional growers that have tried organic farming to supply some of the new organic markets have begun incorporating some of the organic practices throughout their entire farms.  Blending the best of both conventional and organic practices into sustainable farming systems offers the best hope for the future of agriculture.