ORGANIC AGRICULTURE & FOODSTUFFS
Proven to Be Healthier
More and more people prefer organic food. The reasons vary: better animal welfare, biodiversity, lack of negative effects of organic farming on the environment and, last but not least, the expected health benefits. However, there are claims that organic food products would have little or no advantages over those from conventional agriculture and husbandry. So which is true?
By C.F. van der Horst
August 17, 2015, updated October 4, 2022
Organic Farming: No Fertilizers, Pesticides or Genetic Engineering
The major difference from conventional agriculture is that organic agriculture does not use petrochemical pesticides, fertilizers, and genetic engineering (genetic modification of crops). Organic agriculture relies on natural principles such as biodiversity and natural manure and composting to produce healthy and abundant food. It’s a good thing that fertilizer is being left out of the picture, because if you use fertilizer, you can hardly escape pesticides. Both chemicals are bad for the soil and the life in it. And that has negative implications for the food chain of soil-plant-man or, in the case of husbandry, soil-plant-animal-man.
Plants thrive best in a full layer of humus from which they can extract nutrients to pass on to livestock or humans (and others). A rich layer of humus is essential for a nutrient-rich crop, healthy animals and ultimately a healthy human being—you. What Makes Humus Special?
Humus: the Ancient Soil for Cultivation
If you have ever been in a primeval forest and felt the soft, springy ground beneath your feet far from the trails among the trees, you know what humus is. It is decomposing organic material, the thick layer of dead plant debris that is converted by micro-organisms into nutrients for everything that grows. Since ancient times, it was this dark brown or black organic layer that gave farmers rich harvests. Whereas the very first farmers moved on to a new piece of land when the humus layer was depleted, later generations learned to cultivate the humus layer. This knowledge passed from father to son over the centuries and has only recently, since the widespread use of fertilizers after World War II, been virtually lost.
Humus has a combination of properties that is important for plant growth, as this topsoil
- retains water and plant nutrients and is itself the source of the latter.
- contains numerous (spore) elements.
- due to its structure, provides good gas exchange to the roots.
- provides a stable temperature.
- teems with worms and microorganisms, such as bacteria, protozoa, and fungi.
- Maintains stable acidity.
The power of humus as a fertile base is evidenced by the fact that in some managed natural areas, such as moors and dunes, people remove the humus layer, otherwise too lush vegetation will develop and turn the area into a forest.
The Living Soil
Humus is teeming with all kinds of organisms that are of enormous importance for both plant health and nutritional value. Bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms break down minerals and convert them into a form that can be absorbed by the plant. Planthealthcare, a company offering products for organic farming, emphasizes the importance of the interaction of roots, fungi, and other microorganisms: “As a result, the absorption capacity of the roots increases by as much as 700 %. The plants absorb nutrients and water much more easily. And just as important: the beneficial fungi and soil bacteria occupy the space around the roots, giving pathogens far fewer opportunities. Some fungi even actively kill nematodes*.” In addition, fungi provide the plant with antibiotics.
Worms are also particularly important for plant life: the creatures dig horizontal and vertical tunnels, improving the structure of the soil. This allows better gas exchange and allows roots to grow more easily. The worms eat large particles and excrete manure useful to the plant through the feces. Through their digging and defecation, they mix and fertilize the earth. A worm eats its own body weight per day and is the major and essential fertilizer of topsoil. In his book Secrets of Fertile Soils, the agronomist Erhard Hennig wrote, “A soil without worms is a dead soil.”
*Nematodes are microscopic worms in the soil. Some types damage the root system and thus reduce the plant’s ability to assimilate water and nutrients from the soil.
Chemical Fertilizer Upsets Balance
Plant health is determined by interaction between roots and microorganisms. Once this balance is disturbed, the vegetation becomes susceptible to disease. Because chemical fertilizer is salty and acidic, it harms soil life. As a result, the plant receives fewer nutrients and antibiotics and becomes susceptible to disease and attack by insects and microbes. To save the crop, the ‘solution’ consists of spraying pesticides. When grown organically (without fertilizers), the plants are more resilient and the need for pesticide use exists to a much lesser extent. For the record, pesticides are allowed in organic farming. However, they must be of natural origin. In addition, their use is subject to conditions and may not be used to control weeds.
Substrate cultivation, where crops are grown on rock wool, glass wool, or coir and given water, fertilizer (and pesticides), eliminates the important balance between soil life and plant.
In Deadly Lies: How Doctors and Patients Are Deceived you will find extensive and well-documented information about the delicate balance between soil life and plant roots, called the rhizosphere. Chapter seven of this book is devoted to how this ecosystem determines not only the health and nutritional value of the crop but also the health of the humans who consume it.
Organic Food Is Healthier
Organic crops and foods contain significantly more nutritional value than those grown ‘conventionally’, according to British researchers. Funded by the EU at a time when the UK was still part of it, their review of 343 studies was the largest on organic foods ever. Its outcome put an end to the debate over whether organic crops are healthier than their conventional counterparts. Carlo Leifert, professor of ecological agriculture at the University of Newcastle, argued: “We have shown without a doubt that there are differences in composition between organic and conventional foods. The three studies on crops, meat, and milk show that switching to organic vegetables, fruits, meat, and dairy products provides significantly more antioxidants and omega 3 fatty acids in the diet.” half a litre of organic full fat milk (or equivalent fat intakes from other dairy products like butter and cheese) provides about 39 mg omega 3 fatty acids, while conventional milk contains 25 mg, a difference of more than 55%. For antioxidants (in the form of phytonutrients), the difference was 18-69%.
The result was actually predictable because after several years of chemical fertilizer application, the soil has been leached out. After all, the plant absorbs all the minerals it needs, while only a limited number are replenished by chemical fertilizer. Artificial fertilization gives the plant the minerals needed for rapid growth (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium), but a lack of the entire spectrum of minerals eventually deteriorates the quality and thus the nutritional value of the crop.
A 2017 report by the Louis Bolk Institute, Trends in Soil and Crop Quality confirmed the decline in soil nutrients that was also mentioned in the book Deadly Lies: How Doctors and Patients Are Deceived was signaled.
In addition to higher nutritional value, Professor Leifert found on average 48% less heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, and arsenic in organic crops.
A subsequent study in 2016 had similar findings. Researchers from the University of Newcastle reviewed 196 studies on milk and 67 studies on meat. They found clear differences between organic and conventional milk and meat, especially in fatty acid composition and concentrations of certain essential minerals and antioxidants. “We have shown without doubt there are composition differences between organic and conventional food. Taken together, the three studies on crops, meat, and milk suggest that a switch to organic fruit, vegetables, meat, and dairy products would provide significantly higher amounts of dietary antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.” In addition, organic food reduces exposure to heavy metals, the researchers found.
Humus and the use of compost in organic farming are also proving to be quantitative winners. A University of Michigan study found that for the same number of acres, organic farming yields about the same or, in developing countries, up to three times as much as conventional farming.
Organic is better in quality and, in some areas, in quantity
Pesticides Can Make You Ill
There is another reason to eat organic. In 2019, Professor of Environmental Epidemiology Roel Vermeulen of the University of Utrecht reported on the TV program ZEMBLA that people who work with pesticides in agriculture are on average 60 percent more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a brain disease in which nerve cells slowly die. This degeneration manifests itself in symptoms such as trembling and shaking, stiffness, balance and movement problems and, in later stages, dementia. According to neurologist Bas Bloem of Radboud UMC, pesticides are a major cause of this disease. He warned that not only farmers but also consumers are at risk. Especially through tomatoes, potatoes, or strawberries, agricultural toxins can enter our food.
How bad is it with pesticides in food? In 2022, the action group PAN (Pesticide Action Network) warned of a sharp rise in pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables in its report Forbidden Fruit. Over the period from 2011-2019, PAN noted an average increase of more than 53%.
There is another aspect: through food, different types of pesticides enter our bodies to form a chemical cocktail there. No one knows to what extent the chemicals interact and thus can have even greater adverse effects on your health. A study suggests that the chances of that are very real.
Therefore, there are several reasons to choose organic.
Want to Know More?
What are the health aspects of organic foodstuffs? Can these prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer? What is the history of chemical fertilizers and how is it related to that of pesticides?
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