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Greening Princeton
Promoting Environmental Sustainability at Princeton University
Organic? What's the Big Deal?

Princeton Dining Services would like to buy more organic and eco-friendly food, but they need your support!

You may have seen organic products on the counter or at your local supermarket, but have you ever really considered what it means to be organic? Do they have advantages over standard products?  If so, what are they?  What factors beyond "organic" define an eco-friendly food?

Organic food is grown without chemicals: no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, or herbicides.  Animals are raised without antibiotics, hormones, or other drugs.  Even some types of seafood are better to eat than others; you can avoid fisheries that are being overfished or harvested using environmentally harmful methods.  Click on the table below to find more information on the wide range of benefits of organic products.


Health Benefits | Environmental Benefits | Animal Welfare | Eco-friendly Seafood | Taste | Links


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HEALTH BENEFITS

Risks from chemical contamination

Most crops in the US are grown with the aid of various synthetic chemicals including pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides and fungicides. Toxic residues from these chemicals are found on conventionally grown fruit and vegetables. The Food Quality Protection Act (1996) recognizes that many of the chemicals used present unacceptably high health risks, particularly to infants and children.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 60% of herbicides, 90% of fungicides and 30% of insecticides are carcinogenic.

Chemical residues from crops contaminate water sources.  Agricultural runoff has affected the drinking water of over 14 million Americans in the Corn Belt and Chesapeake Bay regions alone.  A recent survey in America found that more than 90% of water sources (and more than 50% of wells) contained one or more pesticides.  The same was true for more than 90% of fish.  Reducing synthetic chemical use by supporting organic agriculture will result in higher quality, healthier water supplies.

Risks from supplemental hormones

To increase yields, conventionally raised farm animals are also treated with hormones.  These hormones may have harmful effects on human health.  For example, treating cows with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) results in a two- to tenfold increase in levels of another hormone, IGF-1, in their milk.  High levels of IGF-1 are associated with an increased risk of cancer in humans.  Organic farming practices, which ban the use of such antibiotics and hormones, avoid these serious health risks.

Risks from overuse of antibiotics

Antibiotics and other drugs are routinely given to conventionally raised farm animals to promote growth and prevent infections that spread rapidly under unnaturally stressful and crowded conditions.  Many of these antibiotics are also used to treat human diseases, and their widespread agricultural use significantly enhances the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  Humans can become infected with resistant bacteria through undercooked meat or contaminated soil and groundwater.  Antibiotic resistance threatens our ability to fight these infections.

An example of this public health threat is the use of antibiotics on poultry farms.  Since 1995, drugs called fluoroquinolones have been used to treat E. coli infections in chickens and turkeys.  This use has increased the number of fluoroquinolone-resistant pathogenic bacteria, which cause serious illness in humans.  Currently, fluoroquinolones (including Cipro, the drug used to treat anthrax) are among the most important drugs for treating human infections.  Unless we stop the widespread agricultural use of these antibiotics, they will no longer be effective for human medicine.  Although the FDA, with the support of the American Medical Association, has proposed a ban on the use of fluoroquinolones, currently the only way for consumers to avoid poultry exposed to these drugs is through certified antibiotic-free or USDA-certified organic meat.

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ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS

Conventional agricultural practices contribute to water pollution affecting not only our health but the environment as well. Only 1% of pesticides applied to crops actually reach the pests they target, and 99% of these chemicals enter the environment. Contamination of soil and groundwater changes the terrestrial and aquatic environment and poses threats to native wildlife. Many species dependent on high water quality are now endangered. Fertilizer run-off has contributed to an 8,000 square mile "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico that has killed tons of fish through oxygen deprivation.

Toxic residues build up in ecosystems through the food chain, as species at the bottom ingest the chemicals, then higher species ingest these animals.  Concentrations build until the diet of animals at the top of the food chain contains an elevated, sometimes lethal, level of toxins.  For example, before it was banned, the pesticide DDT almost caused the extinction of the peregrine falcon due to its detrimental effect on their eggshells.

Pesticides used in growing common crops such as fruit, corn, cotton, soybeans, and tobacco have been found to have high toxicity to birds, mammals, and fish.  Pesticide use kills not only pests, but also their natural enemies, many of which are now endangered due to ingested toxins and loss of food.

As pests continually develop new evasion tactics and resistance, we resort to stronger more powerful chemicals with more detrimental side effects. US farmers use more than 700 million pounds of pesticides on crops annually, more than double the quantity used 30 years ago (according to EPA estimates), with a 10 to 100-fold increase in potency.
 

The USDA's regulations for organic food also prohibit genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  Genetically modified crops have had specific parts of their genomes altered in order to improve growth, enhance their nutritional value, or increase their resistance to pests.  However, many of the risks of GMOs remain untested.  Environmental risks of GMOs include gene transfer to wild relatives, evolution of resistance to pest-control genes, and poisoned wildlife.  For example, pollen from corn genetically modified for pest resistance has been shown to reduce the growth of swallowtail butterfly larvae.

Organic agriculture protects both humans and the environment from these unknown risks by using sustainable methods such as crop rotation, natural soil enrichment, and pest predators.  These methods protect native biodiversity and promote soil stability and fertility without the leaching of essential nutrients that occurs in conventional systems.

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ANIMAL WELFARE

Conditions for raising animals on commercial farms and feedlots prevent them from following a normal rate of growth and development.  Battery farmed hens live indoors in cages too small for them to even turn around, and are bred to reach four pounds in just six weeks, twice as fast as they were raised 50 years ago.  Many birds die because their heart and lungs cannot support this rate of growth, and the unnatural indoor conditions compromises their immune systems, leading to increased use of antibiotics and vaccines.

Commerically raised cattle are fed diets high in grain to promote fast growth for marketable "marbled beef."  However, because high-grain diets have less fiber than a cow's natural diet, the animal suffers from high acid buildup (which favors pathogenic E. coli) and in some cases sudden death.

Organic farming uses natural methods to maximize production, such as keeping cattle on their preferred grass-fed diet and allowing chickens to free range.  Generally organic farming means better conditions for animals, and all certified organic meat comes from animals that have only eaten organic food.

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TASTE

While taste depends on many factors, such as the variety of the plant, when it is harvested, and how far it is shipped, organic foods have the benefits of being grown in healthy soil with no artificial additives.  Surveys have shown that people notice a significant improvement in flavor when comparing organic to non-organic products.  For example, a consumer taste test found that organically grown apples were less tart at harvest and sweeter after six months of storage than conventional apples.

Consumer surveys have also shown that people prefer the taste of grass-fed beef over conventional grain-fed beef.  Not only is grass-fed beef lower in fat, it also contains higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid and omega-3 fatty acids, both associated with reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

Even restaurants are becoming more aware of the advantages of organic food.  In a 1997 survey by Food and Wine magazine, 76% of chefs questioned said they "actively seek out organically grown ingredients."  And a number of the 50 best restaurants ranked by Gourmet magazine in 2001 support organic techniques and sustainable agriculture.

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ECO-FRIENDLY SEAFOOD

Another issue associated with organic and sustainable food production is eco-friendly seafood.  For centuries, people have assumed that the vast size of the oceans and reproductive capacity of fish and other marine animals would protect them from overharvesting and extinction.  But today, 22% of commercial fisheries are over-exploited or depleted and another 44% are fully exploited, meaning that fishing communities and the general public are currently paying for previous poor management in the form of lost jobs and significantly reduced catches.

One major problem is commercial depletion.  Most fisheries around the world are on the verge of collapsing, if they have not already.  For example, a massive decline in Northern Cod in the 1990s led to the collapse of the Atlantic ground fish fisheries.  This fishery collapse has had serious environmental and economic consequences, such as an apparently permanent change to the ecosystem and decades of severe recession in Eastern Canada. Unsustainable fishing practices may be causing irreversible declines in many species worldwide.

The second major problem with many fisheries is environmental damage.  Current fishing methods catch and kill large numbers of other marine species, often many more than the target species. Many species accidentally caught as "bycatch" are facing imminent extinction including sea turtles and albatrosses.  Fortunately, there are techniques that only catch individuals of a certain size and reduce the incidental catch of other species, thereby allowing juvenile fish and threatened bycatch species to grow and reproduce. Future generations also deserve the bounty of the oceans.

To find out which fish you can safely eat with a clean conscience get the Seafood Guide (NY region) from the Wildlife Conservation Society.

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LINKS

If you are concerned about what you eat and how it affects the world around you, find out about other environmentally friendly products. You can read more about these issues at:

The USDA National Organic Program

Mothers and Others' Top Ten List of Fruits and Vegetables to Buy Organic

Organic Food Benefits

A Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce

Top Ten Eco-Friendly Reasons to Buy Organic Meat & Dairy

The Organic Trade Association

Eat Wild (Information about pasture-based farming)

Food and Environment (Union of Concerned Scientists)

Genetically Engineered Foods Allowed on the Market

Antibiotic Resistance (Environmental Defense fact sheet)

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Issues

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This information on organic agriculture and sustainable seafood has been compiled by members of Greening Princeton.