Recently, consumers have become increasingly concerned about how their food is grown and what pesticides and fertilizers have been used during the farming process. With so much information available on the internet and in the media, it can be confusing to discern what is accurate, and what causes unnecessary fear about what’s in our food. Feeding ourselves and our families a healthy, high quality diet has never been easier. We are provided with a variety of safe, nutritious foods from many sources.
We all have heard the term “clean eating” but what exactly does that mean? In my experience as a Registered Dietitian, clean eating can mean different things to different people. For the purpose of this article, I am defining it as “eating foods that are nutrient dense and free of harmful ingredients.”
One of the most common misconceptions I see is the belief that in order to maintain a healthy diet, one must buy only organic produce and whole grains, while avoiding any conventional varieties. Some people believe an organic certification is synonymous with clean eating. However, both organic and conventional products are good choices. To clear up any confusion, I interviewed Jeremy Brown, a fourth-generation farmer who works with his wife and three children on 3000 acres in West Texas, using both organic and conventional methods. He grows cotton, sorghum, wheat, rye, corn, peanuts and sesame.
How do organic and conventional farming practices differ?
Jeremy: At the end of the day, whether you’re planting organic crops or conventional, we’re all farmers. We’re all trying to grow crops the best way we can. I consider myself a steward of the land. I’m very sensitive to the practices that I’m using to preserve the land and the environment in both organic and non-organic farming.
Preserving soil health can be done using both methods of farming. Though we’re not using synthetic fertilizers or chemicals on our organic crops, we till that land because it’s the only form of weed management we have. As a result, we’re using more diesel fuel and more labor to plow the land. Research has shown that if you can reduce tilling, you can cultivate healthier soil because you’re not disturbing the earthworms, microorganisms and things we can’t see beneath the surface. We also plant cover crops and perform crop rotation to try to promote organic matter. Unfortunately, tilling destroys natural matter when growing crops.
What people don’t realize is that there are benefits to both practices. Because I farm both organic and non-organic crops, I see both practices from a soil health perspective. I really focus a lot of my farming on keeping the soil flourishing, because it’s going to be here after I’m long gone. It’s going to need to continue to yield crops.
How does using more conventional practices on your non-organic crops help the environment?
Jeremy: By using chemicals to help with weed management, we can build our organic matter quickly, because we don’t need to plow the ground, or go across it with tractors as much.
Some years, we have worse pest problems than others. Organic and conventional pest management systems have unique challenges; despite this, both methods of pest control are necessary. In some cases, we can plant GMO, pest-resistant, crops around organic crops. This method is effective because the GMO plants act as a pest-resistant barrier around our organic crops. Because of this method, we have decreased our use of organic pesticides.
I don’t think people understand what it’s like to have a pest problem in an organic field. Three years ago, we had a sugarcane aphid pest in our sorghum field, and we had to use a pesticide because if we didn’t we would have lost our entire crop within 48 hours. That’s how fast the aphids will destroy that crop. We could have used some more natural forms of pesticides, but they have not been as successful at keeping the aphids under control.
What are the differences in the fertilization of organic and conventional crops?
Jeremy: We can only use natural substances or approved synthetics substances on organic crops. So, I use compost on my organic land and mix it with cattle manure that is OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) certified. Actually, I believe in compost so much I also use it on my conventional crops. It’s a natural way to get the nutrients you need into the soil. On the non-organic land, if we need more fertilizer during the growing season, we can compensate it with a synthetic. The difference between fertilizers is that organic tend to not break down as fast, so we don’t see quick results; whereas, the non-organic fertilizer is formulated to break down faster and go directly to the plant.
We appreciate Jeremy’s help in understanding a farmer’s perspective on how our food is produced. Scientific research and evidence agree that including more fruit, vegetables nuts, seeds and whole grains in your diet has tremendous health benefits. if you’re “eating clean,” both organic and conventional are safe and smart options. SafeFruitsandVeggies.com can help people make healthy food choices based on facts. Their pesticide calculator demonstrates how much produce you would have to consume for it to be harmful. For example, a woman could eat 850 servings of apples PER DAY without any pesticide residue harming her health, even if the apples contained the highest pesticide content deemed safe by the USDA. Pesticide usage, within allowed safety limits, are safe and not be harmful to health.
To read more from Kim, please visit NutritionPro Consulting.
Kim Melton is part of U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance’s Digital Voices Council. All opinions expressed are the writer’s own. Funded by one or more checkoff programs.
- National Center for Biotechnology Information, Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: a systematic review.
- Stanford University, Little evidence of health benefits from organic foods, study finds
- Taylor & Francis Group, Organic Food: Buying More Safety or Just Peace of Mind? A Critical Review of the Literature
- Taylor & Francis Group, Organic food: nutritious food or food for thought? A review of the evidence
- Wiley Online Library, Journal of Food Science, Organic Foods