Organic foods are a hot topic that many people have strong opinions on.
“Everything is chemicals.”
“There’s no difference between organic foods and normal foods.”
“Organic foods still have pesticides on them.”
And so on.
While many people focus on and debate the usage of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides, my reason for eating mostly organic produce lies elsewhere — fertilizer.
Fertilizer provides nutrients for plants. Like us, plants need nutrients to survive, not just the glucose they produce through photosynthesis. We require three macronutrients — carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, along with numerous micronutrients — vitamins and minerals. In the same way, plants require their own version of macronutrients — Nitrogen, Potassium, and Phosphorus — along with dozens of micronutrients.
While macronutrients are required for us to to survive, micronutrients are essential for us to thrive. “Surviving” means staying alive. Thriving means less sickness and disease, more energy, quicker recovery time from illness and injury, reduced chance of obesity, and a higher-quality, longer life in general.
The fertilizer used on conventional produce is made of fossil fuels. It provides plants with varying ratios of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium. It does not provide micronutrients.
To put this in human terms, this is like a human eating strictly the worst fast food. It has fat, carbs, and protein, but no other nutritional value. A person eating that diet might be able to survive, but they would not be receiving the micronutrients they need to function optimally.
Plants on this “fast food” diet of conventional fertilizer are able to grow and mature into adult plants, but because they receive little-to-no micronutrients themselves, they cannot provide many nutrients to the living creatures who eat them. Produce from these plants is lower in vitamins, minerals, and especially antioxidants than organic produce.
Organic farms do not use fertilizer made from fossil fuels. Instead, organic produce (especially on smaller farms), is grown using compost, seaweed, and animal products (fish meal, manure, feathers, blood). These non-synthetic sources not only provide the growing plants with NPK, they provide micronutrients as well.
When grown in a biodiverse environment, plants can also receive micronutrients from the soil and surrounding environment. While not all organic farms use biodiverse farming methods, virtually all biodiverse farms are organic. Regardless, organic farmers tend to be much more conscious of the soil in which they plant their crops, as well as the methods they use to grow them, such as companion planting.
For example, rather than planting a crop on the same land year after year, they will rotate onto fresh land and give areas a break. This allows the ground to recover, which readies it for the next time it will hold a crop. Rotating crops and giving soil time to rest makes for better, more nutrient-dense soil.
Conventional soil, completely stripped of nutrients from overuse, is merely a holding place for plants as they feed on a steady stream of synthetic macronutrients before harvest. Crops are typically not rotated.
This being said, not all organic produce is equal. “Organic” is a very broad statement, encompassing dozens of different growing techniques. Some industrial-sized organic companies use methods that are actually very similar to conventional methods, with just enough adaptations made to be considered organic. Produce from these companies will, of course, not differ incredibly from conventional produce in terms of nutrient-density.
This is one good reason to A: grow your own produce or B: shop at your local farmer’s market/subscribe to a CSA box. If you grow your own, you are directly in charge of the methods used. If you shop at your local farmer’s market, you at least have the chance to visit with the people who grow your food, learn how they do it, and visit the farms. Often, these farms are small and use biodiverse methods.
While some people may see efforts to “eat organic” and approach food sourcing with intention as “useless” and “trivial,” I am of the opinion that the US is in the worst shape we’ve ever been in and it’s time to make some changes. We need to care more about the quality of the food we are eating, and organic produce tends to be of higher quality than its conventional counterpart.