The term organic gets thrown around a lot when it comes to food, and this consistently begs the question if organic food is really better for you. We want to send this myth to its grave because there are pros and cons to organic food production and simply thinking anything labeled organic is better for you is the real problem. In reality, some thing are better organic and others are not, but as consumer you have almost no way of knowing which is which just based on a simple label. Additionally, if you want to grow your food at home, organic farming is an option, but it too is not as simple as it seems.
What Does Organic Mean Anyway?
The term organic is so broadly used as to be almost meaningless in modern society. This is mostly due to marketing people trying to stick the word almost anywhere that they can because some individual buyers will purchase anything that’s labelled organic no matter if it is actually better for them or not. Additionally, marketers love to use terms that can justify a higher price tag on a good without any additional expense to the manufacturer.
When it comes to food, the standard definition for organic is something being produced without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or artificial agents of any kind.
This definition is already misleading in that it does not mean that the food is produced without fertilizers or pesticides at all, just that chemical ones were not used. This of course gets worse because chemical is not a good clear definition of anything. An organic fertilizer is still made of chemicals, they are often just naturally occurring ones.
Those same organic fertilizers are still bad for you if you ingest them, just like organic pesticides are bad for you if you ingest them.
So what gives? Why is the organic word allowed to be used to flippantly and why do people eat it up as a blanket term for ‘better’?
Marketing Works: Organic Sells, So Companies Misuse It
Marketing is one of the worlds larger problems when it comes to misinformation. It’s easy to lie to or mislead people because individuals can’t be expected to know everything about everything. In the early 2000s big box tech stores were selling “gold plated” HDMI cables that were super expensive, but added no benefit to the consumer experience. The same goes for the use of the term organic now. If a company can get away with calling something organic they will because they can raise the price on the product and know that most people will not know how to evaluate that statement.
If you’ve fallen prey to misleading marketing, don’t be ashamed. We’ve all fallen for it at some point. The real problem does not lie with individual responsibility, but instead labeling regulations that fail to have standards high enough to actually help individual consumers make informed decisions.
In most cases laws that would enhance consumer product labeling regulations are shot down because they would be an “undue burden” on companies, but that’s a straw man argument as there are lots of ways to reduce the burden of changing labels in a near zero impact way to companies that are being honest with their consumers. (As an example, roll out periods to allow companies to adjust labels over several years.)
What About Organic Food Grow at Home?
If you choose to raise organic crops in your own backyard, that’s great. Organic foods that follow the spirit of the word organic get closer to what people think it actually means rather than the generic labeling companies tend to get away with.
But just because you want to go organic don’t think it’s all good. Organic farming is a lot more work than most people realize and the overall benefits are often smaller than people believe them to be in the first place.
We’re not advocating against organic gardening, just the opposite in fact, but we believe that people who want to grow organic produce at home should understand both the risks and rewards of doing so before they make the decision. There are lots of way to get similar benefits of organic gardening without going the organic route so let’s look at the pros and cons of organic gardening and the alternatives for those who want something else.
The Pros and Cons of Organic Gardening
Growing an organic garden at home means that you will be committing to using organic fertilizers, pest control methods, and growing mediums or deciding that you will grow your garden without fertilizers and pesticides at all. It’s a big undertaking, so let’s get right into it.
The Pros of Organic Gardening
- Avoids the use of chemical fertilizers that can expensive or hard to remove from plants before consumption
- Reduces the risk of harmful pesticides in runoff water that can effect local Eco-systems
- Better for pollinators and helpful garden insects
- Better for people who are intolerant of certain chemicals used in modern farming, though sensitives to these are rare
- Often more lucrative – Just like marketers marking up their products, so too can you mark up your crops which could be easier to sell
The Cons of Organic Gardening
- More labor intensive work without chemical pesticides and fertilizers
- Often more expensive as organic components are marked up or take more labor to produce
- Often lower yields with modern planting methods, requires more specialized care
- More knowledge intensive as solving garden problems organically is challenging
- Lots of myths and bad information online – many online organic farming “tips” actually harm plants and kill friendly garden insects
- Gardens are more susceptible to certain natural pests
It’s important to note here that we didn’t say anywhere that organic crops are healthier for you, because that’s simply untrue. Growing an organic crop does not mean it gets more nutrients and often without the use of some sort of organic fertilizer your organic crops will produce less.
It is such a common lie that organic crops are healthier for you that it ruins the good names of gardeners who actually want to produce organic crops for good environmental reasons. Many people who know the bad marketing standards associated with the overuse of organic labels start to look at organic gardeners as charlatans trying to make a quick buck. This really is a shame because organic gardening’s biggest impact is in keeping the local environment safe and healthy.
Weighing the Pros and Cons of Organic Gardening
If you decide to grow an organic garden you’ll work more for sure, but the good news is that if you commit to that work you can still have a great garden. In reality most of the tings we grow would be considered organic. We don’t hold ourselves to only growing organic food because we know that some problems can be solved through interventions that will have no impact on our health but simply aren’t organic solutions to the problems.
The real best way to grow organically is to understand how these systems of plants work together to make your garden require less fertilizers and pesticides. This means understanding crop rotation, companion planting, and which plants have the least risks for the most rewards.
It can be hard to treat certain types of pests organically, but it’s not impossible. Fungal infections in plants are often the hardest to treat without some use of chemical pesticides. There are outlier pests in every category that are simply not going to mind your organic solutions and would be better treated with chemical ones.
In the same vein, organic soil fertilization is something that gets easier with good composting and detailed notes about your soil use each year. We almost exclusively use and support organic composts as the main source of fertilizer for home gardens. You can generate a huge amount of it over the course of the year and it is quite easy to supplement once you understand the needs of your soil. Sure it’s more work, but it’s rewarding and one of the few cost savings you’ll find in organic gardening.
Organic Farming Alternatives
If you don’t want to commit to organic gardening, don’t worry, you’re not a monster. It’s just easier to use chemical pesticides and fertilizers. But, if you want to capture a lot of the benefits of organic farming still, you need to reduce the use of fertilizers and pesticides as much as possible and choose organic methods when they are available to you.
A home garden should be using composting, companion planting, and good crop rotation anyway, so don’t try and substitute these things with chemical treatments. If you do what you can when you can, you can cut the use of chemical fertilizers down while still gaining all their benefits. This saves you both time and money in the end as it is a balance.
With all that said, now we have to talk about pesticides and washing your produce.
Pesticides, Compost, and Washing Your Produce
We have heard countless stories of people deciding they’re going to start eating healthy organic foods and then immediately getting food poisoning. This is because people who buy organic foods or grow them at home sometimes think they don’t need to wash their produce. This is patently false.
While you might not have chemical pesticides or fertilizers on your produce in organic gardening, you do have natural ones on there. Compost itself, if ingested, can cause food poisoning depending on what waste went into the compost. If you fertilize with the natural use of manure, not washing this off your greens or root vegetables will certainly make you sick.
This is why we need to stress, organic does not mean safe. Organic does not mean healthy. Organic does not mean risk free.
You should always wash your food before you cook with it and always ensure you take care to reduce the risk or ingesting fertilizers and pesticides no matter if they are chemical or organic.
Final Verdict: Organic Foods are Not Magical
Organic foods are not magically better for you. They may reduce your risk of exposure to chemical pesticides and fertilizers, but that is the end of their major benefits in consumption. If you are gardening organically at home you are mostly helping keep the local environment and pollinators safe from potentially harmful chemicals, which is amazing and should be done where possible. Organic farming is hard, and the rewards are mostly external. Your foods not going to be “healthier”, but it might taste a little better to you if you know you put in the good work to grow it yourself.