Organic vs. Conventional (Non-organic): What's the Difference?


Whether or not the organic label makes a significant difference in the quality of food we buy is debated among many. With cancer being very prevalent in our communities today, there seems to be a growing concern surrounding pesticides and our food system in general. Some only buy organic and others swear that it is a marketing scheme and the difference is minimal if not absent.

I have always believed that organic is better and try to buy organic when I have the opportunity. On the other hand, however, I have also heard that organic farmers still use pesticides, just to a lesser degree, which raises a bit of skepticism and uncertainty in my book. For this reason, I try to grow as much of my own food as possible, which is a slow process at this time but getting better the more I learn and the more I put into it.

Because I still need to go to the market and the grocery store at this time, I decided to do a bit of research to find out the specifics of what organic really means. I did a bit of research on produce, dairy, and livestock and will share a bit of knowledge from my Holistic Nutrition class as well.


Conventional agriculture uses synthetic pesticides and water-soluble fertilizers (which is incredibly bad for the environment because these chemicals enter our waterways, contaminating our rainwater, oceans, lakes, etc., Glyphosate is an example of this) while organic farms are only permitted to use natural pesticides and fertilizers, like pyrethrin, which is naturally found in the Chrysanthemum flower. In addition to more natural pesticides, organic farms use manure or compost to replenish and nourish the soil, which in turn keeps pests from getting out of hand. They also implement crop rotation, whereas conventional farms often have mono crops, which lead to an imbalance in the ecosystem causing an influx in pests. Organic produce is also not permitted to have any GMO (bio-engineered genes) which I find to be comforting due the myriad of health issues which I may cover in a future post.


The demand for organic cow’s milk has been increasing steadily, and this is primarily due to concern over the use of the bovine growth hormone, which is used to increase milk production on conventional dairy farms but has been linked to cancer in humans. In addition to not using any hormones or antibiotics, organic farmers are required to allow their cows to graze on fresh grass, unlike conventional farmers who typically feed their cows genetically modified corn and soy. When cows are fed grass, their milk contains omega 3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory, whereas when cows are fed corn and soy, their milk contains omega 6 fatty acids, which are pro-inflammatory. As human beings we need a balance of both, but with the Standard American Diet (aka SAD) we typically consume way more pro-inflammatory foods, resulting in health issues like arthritis and Crohn’s Disease which are due to inflammation. If you are experiencing inflammation, you may want to consider taking an omega-3 supplement, I personally love this Algae Omega from Nordic Naturals which is completely vegan.

The USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency release an annual report regarding the level of pesticides in our produce, which are then divided into lists called “The Clean Fifteen” and the “Dirty Dozen”. The Dirty Dozen have the most pesticide residue: strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes, and bell peppers. The Clean Fifteen typically have the least: avocados, sweet corn, sweet peas, papayas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplants, honeydews, kiwis, cantaloupes, cauliflower, broccoli, pineapples, cabbages, and onions.


As stated in the previous paragraph regarding dairy, conventional farms often use growth hormones and antibiotics to increase profit while preventing diseases. Disease is very prevalent with conventional livestock due to the close proximity of most animals (packed into cages in which they are unable to turn around) and the cross-contamination they are subjected to. This goes back to the previous idea regarding mono-crops, when there is too much of one thing it creates an imbalance in nature so nature will try to destroy the overgrowth to restore balance, by using forces like pests or disease, for example. In contrast, organic farms typically create an ecosystem of different animals and allow allow for their animals to roam more freely. Because of the diversity, the land and soil responds better, and everything works harmoniously, creating a healthy balance. For example, cow manure works as a fertilizer, and chickens eat maggots out of the cow manure. This cycle allows for the chickens to eat their natural diet (instead of corn and soy) and produce higher nutrients in both their eggs and their meat. This also eliminates diseases and contamination from the picture, so antibiotics don’t need to be administered.

As you can see, the organic label is a lot better in many different areas. I would like to note, however, there are still spectrums and loopholes within the “titles” that the FDA and the USDA approves. Keep in mind, the USDA was originally established to help farmers profit more from their crops, so their best interest isn’t always in that of the consumer. Look at Dole, for example. They have both organic and conventional banana farms bordering each other. In front of their conventional farms, they sell “organic” bananas. And for another example, to be certified grass-fed beef, the cow must only eat grass for 180 days. That still leaves 185 days, in which they could be fed corn or soy. There are farms out there that feed their cows grass for more than 180 days, you just have to ask questions and possibly look a little harder to find the ones that do.


So yes, organic is generally better, but for the best assurance I would recommend doing a bit of research into where your food comes from - whether organic or conventional - if you haven’t been doing so already. If you would like a visual comparison of the two different farming practices, I would highly recommend watching the documentary Fresh, which shows both. Also, if you want to eat organic, but find the prices to be a bit intimidating, there are companies like Imperfect Produce, which typically charge less than 30% of grocery store prices, which is due to the unique aesthetic of their produce. Whichever route you decide to take, I urge you to ask questions and don’t just assume that there isn’t a bigger story behind the label.