The Organic Debate – Does Organic food contain pesticides.

Here is an experiment I would urge you to carry out. Visit a retail supermarket and head to the organic food section. Ask this simple question to anyone whom you see buying Organic food.

“What is the No. 1 reason for you to buy Organic food?”

In most cases, the answer would be, because the inorganically grown food contains harmful pesticides and chemicals. A similar exercise was carried out in the UK, and 95% of the respondents shred this very reason for buying Organic.

Myth Buster:
It’s time to bust some myths. Yes, food grown using conventional agricultural practices contains pesticides and chemicals. But does that mean that the produce grown in Organic farms do not?

Myth 1: Organic farms do not use pesticides.

The use of pesticides is one of the best-kept secrets of the Organic industry in India. General consumer perception is that Organic food does not contain pesticides. Since this perception helps the industry, no one wants to dispel the myth. Or else, if you knew that Organic food also contains dangerous chemicals and pesticides would you still be willing to give the 2x premium for Organic produce?

Myth 2: Organic farms use only Organic pesticides.

Let us first understand what one means by Organic pesticides. Organic pesticides are those that are derived from natural sources (plants or animals) as against synthetic ones. Along with Organic pesticides, the organic farms are allowed to use around 20 – 25 synthetic pesticides depending upon the specific country’s regulations. Of this approved list, many synthetic pesticides (like Copper Sulphate) are far more persistent (and hence detrimental to the environment) than the unapproved synthetic pesticides that provide the same impact.

Myth 3: Organic pesticides are safer than synthetic pesticides.

That pesticides of Organic origin are safer is one of the most widely accepted myth, even in regulatory circles. It is surprising that unlike for inorganic pesticides, there are limited guidelines or monitoring for usage of Organic pesticides. It is a foolhardy belief ignoring most available cues in nature all around us. The most of the deadliest known poisons to humans are of Organic origin. One of the Organic pesticides, ‘Rotenone,’ the use of which went unregulated for almost three decades, and was considered safe for Organic application, was finally banned in the US after it was found to be deadly to humans.

Unfortunately, as per NPOP  published standards for Organic Production, ‘Rotenone’ is one of the approved Organic pesticides for use in Organic cultivation in India.

Myth 4: Organic food has lesser pesticide residue than inorganic food.

From a health-conscious consumers’ point of view, whether pesticides were used on a farm or not is not as relevant a question as to how much of it ends up in the food one finally consumes. Thankfully, to answer this question, there are published studies that show the numbers. You can find the report of one such study conducted by USDA here.

All these studies unequivocally establish one fact. The amount of pesticide residue is much lesser in food grown organically (approx 25% of the samples) as compared to the one produced using conventional means (approx 60% of the samples). However, since most Organic pesticides are considered safe, these studies were designed just to check for the residues of synthetic pesticides. There is a general lack of consensus and clarity on how the numbers will look like if the scope of these studies included Organic pesticides as well.

Not Surprisingly, both, the believers and the detractors of the safety of Organic food, use the same set of studies to promote their arguments. The former citing the consistent findings on synthetic pesticides in all such studies. The latter, using the lack of any data on Organic pesticides in any of these studies.

What does it mean for you as a consumer:
When it comes to pesticides, both Organic and conventional food contains pesticide residue. If you are worried about synthetic pesticides, switching to Organic will help you cut your exposure to the same. However, if you are concerned about the overall level of pesticides (including organic pesticides also), there is no conclusive data available to be able to determine which side you should take and if and how much premium you should pay for organic food.

Parting Note:
Most of the data and facts mentioned above were for the US market where pesticide use is highly regulated. In India, with its unregulated use of pesticides, the data is expected to be far worse. Whether you buy Organic or inorganic food, the chances are high that your food will have pesticide residues. Do clean your food thoroughly before cooking and consuming it. Better safe than sorry.

Stay Safe!

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