An overview

While health professionals recommend increased consumption of a variety of fruits and vegetables to help fight sickness such as heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes, concerns about the manner by which these foods are produced may deter people from following such advice.

Latest United Nations statistics show that around 60 million people in developing countries suffer pesticide poisoning incidents each year as a result of non-organic agriculture methods.[1]  In the UK, it is estimated that some 31,000 tons of pesticide are sprayed on land each year, with farmers having direct and dangerous contact with these chemicals.[2]

Furthermore, when plants and crops are treated with pesticides, tiny amounts of the pesticides or their metabolites, can remain in the produce until after it is harvested.  Often referred to as pesticide residues, these toxins are typically present in fresh or canned fruits and vegetables or in processed food and drink made from the exposed crops.[3]

In the United States, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported growing evidence of detectable concentrations of multiple pesticide residues in the bodies of majority of the US population.[4] 

In the UK, studies conducted on various fruits and vegetables show an alarming presence of pesticide residues on apples, oranges, lettuces, cereal bars and other fruits and vegetables that are regularly consumed.[5]

Health risks of pesticide exposure and pesticide residues

Excessive use of pesticides and other agrochemicals have already been shown to negatively affect the health of farmers, their families, and their communities.  There is enough evidence linking long-term pesticides exposure to incidences of serious illnesses such as cancer, and other health risks such as birth malfunction, birth defects and other reproductive problems.   

In the case of pesticide residues, the Environmental Protection Agency in the US considers these toxins as one of the country’s leading causes of health problems.  

A study conducted by the National Academy of Scientists foresees that consumption of produce with pesticide residues will result in an additional one million cancer cases in the US in the next 70 years.[6]

 Proponents of pesticide use in conventional farming systems maintain a contrary view, saying that the amounts of pesticides on the produce are not sufficient to cause harmful effects in the human body. These statements, however, are not based on appropriate studies involving lower doses of pesticide residue exposure.

Environmental impact of conventional farming methods

Farms that produce large quantities of food utilise high production methods that rely heavily on fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and irrigation. These methods, however, have resulted in the degradation of soil quality and water, loss of biodiversity and environmental pollution.  

The problem with agrochemical use is that much of the residue is left on the soil which may be eroded by irrigation, rain or flood waters.  Soil erosion affects water quality because it usually contains pesticides, phosphate from fertilizers, and metals which move from agricultural fields to surface water.[7] In the UK, approximately, 70% of sediment found in water comes from farming.[8]  Nitrogen and phosphate rich sediments that find their way into water sources promote the growth of algae and other aquatic plants which decrease oxygen levels killing fishes and other aquatic life.

These points, as well as other goals such as the support of small, sustainable farms, consumption of highly nutritious foods and enjoyment of better tasting food have provided enough reasons for various organisations worldwide to promote organic farming methods as well as the consumption of organic foods.

The rise of the organic food market

In response to the growing demand for organic food, mainstream growers in the last decade have been stocking more organic produce while healthy food chains have opened dozens of stores in the United States.[9] Sales in the organic food market are growing faster than any other segment of the food industry. In the US alone, annual sales of organic foods are estimated between $16.3 billion to $29.7 billion.[10]

In the UK and elsewhere in Europe, more shelf space is also being allotted for organic foods.  The European organic food industry which is currently dominated by the UK and Germany which experienced a growth rate of 26% between 2001 and 2004, with organic fruits and vegetables contributing largely to its continuing growth.  Industry experts foresee phenomenal growth in the organic foods market as more European consumers are expected to make quality food choices and ethical purchases.[11]

The Middle East has also started to emerge as a market for organic food.  While statistics on the growth of this market are currently unavailable, surges in the availability of organic products and organic farming efforts sufficiently demonstrate its rapid growth in recent years.[12]

Certified organic labels

Recognizing the increasing demand for organic foods and the tendency of conventional  food producers to capitalize on the organic bandwagon, government agencies in the US and UK set up certification procedures to ensure that foods being sold as organic are not misleading consumers.  

Generally, a business that is involved in food production can obtain an organic certification from authorized certifying bodies, if it can show that its products: 

  • Do not use synthetic chemical inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, genetically modified organisms, irradiation and sewage sludge;
  • Are grown on farmland that has been free from chemicals for a minimum period of three years or more
  • Are supported by detailed written production and sales records
  • Are strictly separated from non organic or conventional products.

Due to the high costs of obtaining organic certification, many small farms around the world are not certified. In the US, small farms or growers selling organic products worth less than $5,000 a year are exempt from the organic certification program requirements but must still comply with existing standards for organic production, product labeling, and handling. While they may label their products as organic, they cannot market their products as “certified” organic.[13] The exemption also helps small farms and growers to keep their costs of production down.

In the US, it is said that the organic food market is split into two: organic health, consisting of people who buy organic food for health reasons and traditional organic, composed of those who patronise organic food and farming practices for ecological reasons.[14]  

Consumers of the health segment are price conscious and tend to buy organic food from big retailers like Costco and WalMart where economies of scale help bring prices of organic food down.  On the other hand, environmentally aware buyers tend to buy local produce and are willing to pay a premium for food grown by small farms because they understand that the economic viability of these growers is essential to the environment.

Organic food as preventive medicine

The increasing prevalence of obesity, heart disease and cancer as among the leading causes of deaths  worldwide have led health professionals to call for a diet that is high in fresh fruits and vegetables as part of disease prevention. This in turn has led to a growing awareness of the high phytochemical and antioxidant contents of fruits and vegetables referred to as superfoods.  

Superfoods such as broccoli, bell peppers, berries, grapes, tomatoes and cacao are rich sources of polyphenols and flavanoids that have been proven to resist serious diseases like hypertension, heart attack, and cancer. Not just any fruit or vegetable will do as a number of studies suggest that natural organic food which are toxin-free are also more nutrient-dense than their conventional counterparts. [15]

Food safety

Rising global awareness of the health risks associated with pesticide residues that remain in common fruits and vegetables will continue to be the main driving force behind the explosive growth of the organic foods market in Europe, the US and the UAE.[16] 

Moreover, frequent reports of food contamination due to E-Coli and salmonella are causing more people to become careful of the food that they feed their bodies. People are turning to organic foods which are viewed as safe because of the sanitary and chemical free conditions that typically surround their production. Consumers feel assured that organic produce is not only free from toxins but from harmful bacteria as well.

Environmentally friendly system and packaging

The popularity of organic foods is partly due to its positive impact on the environment. Organic farming systems employ more farm hands and use 30% less energy than conventional methods.  Crop rotation, green manure application and intercropping are some of the natural methods used by organic farms which promote the environment through soil nutrition, nitrogen fixing and sustainable agriculture.

Organic food products are packaged in recyclable materials and reusable containers as well. More people are patronising organic food and its recyclable packaging as their way of doing their share in saving the environment.

Healthy eating

More individuals are eating organic food nowadays as part of a healthy lifestyle. Organic foods are automatically presumed to contain higher levels of vitamins, minerals, nutrients and antioxidants than conventional produce. This growing perception is validated by scientists who maintain that the same phytochemicals which provide optimum nutrition for the human body are also used by plants as natural defenses against disease, eliminating the need for agricultural chemicals to thrive. [17]

Obstacles in organic foods market

Obstacles in organic foods market  – High price 

One of the perceived drawbacks of buying organic food is its high price.  Organic products cost more because organic farming is laborious and natural methods bring less produce than conventional farming methods. Moreover, converting from conventional to organic farming systems is expensive and time-consuming. While price may dampen growth of the organic foods market, more people are willing to pay extra for organic foods because of the growing belief that organic foods are more nutritious, safer and taste better than conventional foods. In addition, environmentally conscious consumers will continue to patronise organic foods regardless of their prices.[18]

 

Obstacles in organic foods market  – Labour shortage

In the UK, it is estimated that there are only 534,000 persons in the farming labour force, down by 80,000 from the previous decade.[19]  While actual figures of farmers in the US are unavailable, the Department of Agriculture places the number of certified organic producers at approximately 13,000.  The number of organic farmers is expected to grow steadily alongside the growth of the US organic food industry which experienced a yearly growth of 20% in the past ten years.[20]

 

Obstacles in organic foods market  – Requirements of organic certification

As organic food production is not readily observable, consumers rely on certified organic labeling to help them know when a packaged or processed food is indeed organic.

Governments typically require prior certification by appropriate organizations for anyone to market a product as “certified organic.” Certification includes annual submission of an organic system plan, maintaining records and inspection of farm fields and processing facilities.  Inspectors verify that organic practices such as soil management and crop rotation are being observed.[21]  These requirements as well as payment of the high certification fee add to the burden of organic farming and can be a deterrent for those who intend to be certified. [22]

Future of organic foods market

The organic food market in most parts of the world such as the US, the UAE and Europe has not yet reached its peak. It is expected to grow steadily as the demand for organic products increases, with an annual growth estimated at $5 billion.[23] The most important markets for organic products will continue to be the European Union, the US and Japan.[24] An emerging market like the Middle East also possesses huge potential for growth.[25]

  

Organic food as the basis of good health

For many years, the organic community refrained from citing food safety as its main reason for promoting organic food. Buying organic was viewed more as a responsibility to the environment rather than to one’s health. As the results of many studies on pesticide exposure were published, food safety gradually became the main reason for buying organic foods.[26] Avoiding pesticide exposure by choosing organically grown foods instead of non organic produce is essential to reducing risks of developing diseases such as cancer and pesticide poisoning, as well as inflicting untold damage to the human body, most especially the developing organs of young children.

 

Benefits of organic farming

Benefits of organic farmingEco friendly

Organic farming uses 30% less energy than conventional farming methods.[27] Considering the global energy and fuel crises that are expected to worsen in the next few years, organic farming is clearly the better approach to food production.  Aside from being an energy-saving system, organic farming has the potential of becoming a self-sufficient energy generator using the “dream farm” concept of agro scientist George Chan.  Under this system, manure and waste from livestock and crop is fed into biodigesters which convert waste materials into methane-rich gas that can be used to create heat and electricity.  The residue produced by the biodigester is a nutrient rich material that can also serve as soil fertilizer.[28]

 

Benefits of organic farmingLower health risk for children

Some studies suggest a link between pesticide use in farming and neurological or reproductive damage in pregnant women and young children. [29]  The developing brain and endocrine system of young children are highly sensitive such that low doses of pesticide exposure are enough to cause damage or disturb their proper development.[30] Studies also show that pesticide exposure during pregnancy increases the risk of developing leukemia in children and lymphoma.[31]  As a young child’s diet is limited and usually consists of fruits and fruit juices, switching to organic produce can reduce a child’s pesticide exposure to negligible levels.

 

Benefits of organic farmingDelicious taste

Taste tests and surveys consistently show that organic foods taste better than those grown in conventional farms. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported that organically grown fruits like apples are firmer and received higher taste scores than conventionally grown apples.  In another study, participants found that organic tomatoes taste sweeter and organic carrots had more “carrot taste.”[32]  Consequently, organic food is preferred by those with discriminating tastes such as chefs and gourmet food lovers.  Similarly, gourmet chocolate makers use organic cacao because it gives their chocolate products a rich nutty taste that chocoholics crave.

 

Benefits of organic farmingNutritional content

While there may seem to be no end to the ongoing debate whether organically grown food is more nutritious than conventional food, respected health advisor, Dr. Andrew Weil, recently cited a 4-year study which found that organic fruits and vegetables contained as much as 40% higher levels of antioxidants, which are believed to reduce the risk of heart disease and many cancers.[33]

 

Benefits of organic farmingLow pesticide residues

Pesticide residue tests conducted in the US and the UK show that conventional food is 5 to 7 times more likely to contain pesticide residues than organic fruits and vegetables.[34] While the studies on the ill effects of pesticide residues are more conclusive in the case of young children, it is only a matter of time before scientific research can confirm the cumulative effects of constant and prolonged exposure to pesticide residues in adults. It is still prudent to avoid foods known to carry pesticide residues when these chemicals do not demonstrate any specific health benefits.  

Industrialisation, irradiation, pesticide use and genetic modification in food production seemed justified by the worsening food crisis as conventional methods were seen as appropriate solutions for the dwindling world food supply. Contrary to popular belief, organic farming methods do not produce less food than conventional farming methods that rely on machination, agrochemicals and genetic modification. In fact, food experts are currently rethinking their strategies for solving the global food crisis as more studies indicate that a worldwide switch to organic farming can increase food production by as much as 50%.[35]

Organic cacao

Chocolate is a popular food around the world with US, European countries, Australia and the United Arab Emirate leading the list of loyal consumers. In the US, it is estimated that nearly half of Americans eat chocolate at least a few times each week.[36] In the UK, while consumers appear to be consuming less chocolate than they used to, they have shifted their purchases to the more luxurious dark chocolate which is known to be healthier, albeit more expensive, than milk chocolate.[37]

 Organic dark chocolate has been positioned as a superfood because of its superior flavanoid, polyphenol and antioxidant contents.  Its health-giving qualities come from cacao beans which are fruits of the cacao tree, a shade tree that naturally grows in rainforests.  Enterprising groups, however, have devoted large tracts of land away from the rainforests to raise cacao trees.  These large plantations grow the cacao trees in direct sunlight, increasing the plants’ need for fertilisers and pesticides in order to adapt to its wrong environment. The high demand for cacao has made it one of the most heavily sprayed food crops.  This practice is not only harmful for the farmers but also for the farming communities, surrounding vegetation and the chocolate product that reaches the unknowing consumer.

 

Organic cacao beans

In recent years, gourmet chocolate makers entered the organic food market by offering small batches of premium quality chocolate products.  In both the US and UK, taste and health benefits appear to rank high among the reasons for buying chocolate, qualities that organic chocolate are known for. Thus, gourmet chocolatiers continue to tap the small organic cacao farms for supplies of chemical-free cacao beans.

 

Benefits of organic chocolate

 

No pesticide residue

 While those who patronise conventionally raised cacao maintain that the amount of pesticide residue in their beans is negligible, the reality is that the fat portion of cacao, as cacao butter, stores pesticides and other chemicals extremely well.  Pesticide residues that are stored in cacao fat are retained in the final chocolate product and are passed on to the consumer.  On the other hand, organic cacao is grown in naturally fertile soil making excessive agrochemical use unnecessary.

 

Nutritional content

 Cacao beans are rich sources of flavonoids that exhibit antioxidant qualities to help fight cardiovascular disease and resist cancer.[38]  The darker the chocolate, the higher is its cacao content, and the more flavonoids it has. Cacao is also a good source of magnesium which the body needs for protection against symptoms of hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, joint problems and pre-menstrual syndrome. Other trace elements and nutrients such as iron, calcium, phosphorus, potassium as well as Vitamins A, B-1, C, D, and E can also be found in cacao.  The use of pesticides and other agro chemicals, however, can negate the health benefits of chocolate so that only chocolate made from pure cacao can truly be considered as healthy.

 

Superior taste

 While the taste of  chocolate depends on the variety of the cacao beans used, post harvest treatment and further steps taken by the chocolate maker like roasting and conching, much of its flavour is related to the farming system surrounding the cacao such as soil quality, method of production and climate conditions.[39] Thus, organic chocolate which is made from cacao beans using natural methods is renowned for its rich flavour, fine aroma, low astringency and nutty texture.

 

Eco friendly solution

Patronising organic chocolate products indirectly supports the small farmers that avoid pesticides and synthetic fertilisers to increase their crop yields.  The viability of these farms encourage the farmers to continue using natural methods such as crop rotation and the application of mulch or manure to improve soil quality, reduce energy consumption and carbon footprint.

  

The natural way to grow cacao

Chocolate has been around for centuries and started as a medicinal drink, a far cry from the dessert favourite that it is today.  Its basic ingredient, the cacao fruit, is a native of tropical countries near the equator such as Africa, Cote d’Ivoire, Brazil and Ecuador.[40]  

Cacao is a perennial tree that thrives under the shade of taller trees particularly in rainforests.[41]  Over the years, the increasing demand for chocolate has led to the deforestation of the natural habitat of cacao, and in its place are large plantations devoted to the production of cacao.  Cacao growers cope with the production requirements of giant chocolate candy manufacturers by using chemical inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to increase yields and prevent plant disease. Others resort to developing hybrids of cacao beans also in an attempt to raise their production outputs. [42]

In contrast, small cacao farmers along the coast and inlaands  of Ecuador, Philippines and Papua New Guinea produce traditional cacao beans using un-irrigated systems, shade trees and low levels of chemical inputs. These farmers follow the traditional methods of cacao planting which relies on natural shade from taller trees to help manage soil moisture, soil fertility and control some weeds and diseases.  As the taller shade trees also serve as natural shelters of migratory birds, they also help in fertilizing the soil where the cacao trees grow. These shade trees need not be wild forest trees and can be planted and protected by the small farm communities.

References. This report was first written and published by BLYSS in 2009.

 

[1] http://www.organicpathways.co.nz/business/story/607.html

[2] http://www.organicfoodinfo.net/What_Are_The_Advantages_of_Organic_Farming.php

[3] http://www.pesticides.gov.uk/prc.asp?id=1085

[4] http://www.foodnews.org/reduce.php

[5] Ibid.

[6] http://www1.american.edu/TED/mexpest.htm

[7] http://www.extension.iastate.edu/Publications/PM1901E.pdf

[8] http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/research/library/data/112174.aspx

[9] http://www.organicrice.org/tag/eating-organic

[10] http://www.organicrice.org/31-the-rise-in-the-natural-organic-food-market

[11] http://www.foodnavigator.com/Financial-Industry/Fruit-and-veg-driving-European-organic-market

[12] http://www.naturalproductme.com/pdf/newsletter2008.pdf

[13] http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/organcert.html

[14] http://aec.msu.edu/product/documents/working/organicfood1.pdf

[15] http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/WBL02077/Organic-Foods-Have-More-Antioxidants-Minerals.html

[16] http://www.biotech-info.net/Ecofarm_Food_Safety.pdf

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] http://www.ukagriculture.com/uk_farming.cfm

[20] http://ofrf.org/resources/organicfaqs.html

[21] http://ofrf.org/resources/organicfaqs.html

[22] http://aec.msu.edu/product/documents/working/organicfood1.pdf

[23] http://www.ota.com/organic/mt/business.html

[24] Ibid.

[25] http://www.naturalproductme.com/pdf/newsletter2008.pdf

[26] http://www.biotech-info.net/Ecofarm_Food_Safety.pdf, p.1.

[27] http://www.organicpathways.co.nz/business/story/607.html

[28] http://www.twnside.org.sg/title2/susagri/susagri029.htm

[29] http://www.organicrice.org/tag/eating-organic

[30] http://www.foodnews.org/reduce.php

[31] http://www.biotech-info.net/Ecofarm_Food_Safety.pdf

[32] Ibid.

[33] http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/WBL02077/Organic-Foods-Have-More-Antioxidants-Minerals.html

[34] http://www.biotech-info.net/Ecofarm_Food_Safety.pdf, p.2.

[35] http://usfoodcrisisgroup.org/node/16

[36] http://www2.prnewswire.com/cgi-bin/stories.pl?ACCT=ind_focus.story&STORY=/www/story/07-06-2007/0004620846&EDATE=FRI+Jul+06+2007,+09:00+AM

[37] http://uk.reuters.com/article/idUKL0331049520080704

[38] http://www.greenpromise.com/food-nutrition/chocolate/organic-chocolate.php

[39] http://www.whatsupmag.com/dining/wine-column/09-02-11/Artisan_Chocolatiers_Crazy_for_Cacao.aspx

[40] http://www.xocoatl.org/tree.htm

[41] http://www.allchocolate.com/understanding/how_chocolate_is_made/tree_to_factory.aspx

[42] http://www.wrm.org.uy/bulletin/85/CotedIvoire.html

 

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