Is Organic Better?

What does organic mean?

The USDA oversees and regulates the term “organic.” They state, “Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest.” Produce must also meet requirements regarding production methods and pesticide use.


Both conventional and organic farming methods use pesticides. Organic farming uses naturally-occurring chemicals, while conventional farming uses both natural and synthetic chemicals. One is not superior to the other. Often, a higher volume of natural pesticides are needed to achieve the same effectiveness as synthetic chemicals. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tests all organic and non-organic pesticides and sets a tolerance level with a safety factor of 100 (the highest studied dose producing no adverse effects, divided by 100). Thus, the tolerance level is a conservative number; most of our food supply does not even come close. Aside from the presence of pesticides, similar amounts are detected on conventional and organic produce. USDA Certified Organic foods are allowed to have synthetic pesticide residue levels of up to 5% of the EPA tolerance. Based on USDA’s 2017 data report, 99% of organic produce and 96% of conventional produce in the U.S. met this standard. Basically, most conventional produce would meet the standards for organic if tested as such. Overall, 99% of all samples tested were well under the pesticide limit set by the EPA.1,2


In addition to organic farming often needing higher volumes of pesticides, most organic farming uses more land and yields fewer crops than conventional farming, because fewer crops can be grown in a given area. As with any controversial scientific topic, there are pros and cons to each side and we will continue to learn more. The bottom line is that we cannot say definitively which farming method is better for the environment.2,3


In a 2012 landmark study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers found organic foods are not nutritionally superior to conventional foods. We find more value in including more fruits and vegetables in our diet, regardless of how they were grown. As of 2018, only 1 in 10 Americans met the recommended amount of fruit and vegetable intake each day! The bigger problem is not choosing organic versus conventional produce, but rather choosing produce at all.4,5,6


This is not meant to persuade you one way or the other; it is meant to provide you with information about what you are (or are not) getting when you buy organic produce. Consider buying from local vendors who are transparent about their growing methods.

  1. Pesticide Data Program: Annual Summary, Calendar Year 2017. Published December 2018. Accessed May 10, 2021.
  1. Miller H. Viewpoint: Do organic farms really product ‘chemical free, healthier food’? Published February 7, 2019. Accessed May 10, 2021.
  1. Searchinger, T.D., Wirsenius, S., Beringer, T. et al. Assessing the efficiency of changes in land use for mitigating climate change. Nature 564, 249–253 (2018).
  1. Smith-Spangler C, Brandeau ML, Hunter GE, et al. Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives? Ann. Intern. Med. 157, 348-366 (2012).
  1. Brantsæter AL, Ydersbond TA, Hoppin JA, Haugen M, Meltzer HM. Organic Food in the Diet: Exposure and Health Implications. Annu. Rev. Public Health. 38:1, 295-313.
  1. State Indicator Report on Fruits and Vegetables, 2018. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Updated October 5, 2018. Accessed May 10, 2021.