Misconceptions about organic farming

There are many reasons to eat organic animal products. Some people say they prefer the taste of organic foods. Others like to support their local farms and farmers’ markets.

Though many people choose organic products for health reasons, a 2012 study shows that organic products may not have any impact on health. Stanford researchers found that organic products are not more nutritious than conventionally raised products. For the study, the researchers compared data from 237 previous studies of fruits, vegetables and animal products.

Click here to read more about the study

Though many organic producers work to educate people about their products, the public still has some misconceptions. With the scientific evidence that there is no significant nutrient difference, now is a good time to look at other organic claims.

The claim: Animals grown in organic systems are not genetically modified.

The truth: This claim implies that animals raised in conventional systems are genetically modified. Actually, no animals sold for human consumption are genetically modified. All domesticated animals have been bred through special selection for certain traits, but no products come from animals that have been altered through modern DNA technology (e.g. “gene splicing”). This is true for all animals in organic and conventional systems.

We may one day have genetically modified animals for sale. In 2009, the FDA announced that it would consider genetically modified animals for approval. No animals have been approved yet, but there are some interesting possibilities. For example, the fast-growing AquAdvantage salmon could reduce pressure on wild salmon and make fishing more sustainable.

“Genetic engineering is a cutting edge technology that holds substantial promise for improving the health and well being of people as well as animals,” said Randall Lutter, Ph.D., deputy commissioner for policy at the FDA.

The claim: Animals in organic systems are healthier.

The truth: Multiple studies have shown higher rates of certain pathogens in organic systems.

Based on analysis of farm conditions, a 2001 study predicted that almost 100 percent of organic chicken flocks in Sweden could be infected with Campylobacter bacteria, compared with only 10 percent in conventionally raised flocks. Another often cited example is the increase in intestinal diseases in turkeys and broiler chickens when Denmark ceased using antibiotics as growth promotants.

In the United States, an increase in pathogens could also be related to the requirement that organic animals have access to the outdoors. In some cases, time outdoors is not beneficial. Poultry raised outdoors are at higher risk of predation and can catch avian influenza from wild birds. The USDA reports that pigs raised in outdoor systems are at higher risk of food-borne parasites.

Pathogens in live animals can make their way to the market. A 2005 analysis of chicken for sale in Maryland supermarkets showed that 66 percent of organic samples were contaminated with Salmonella, compared with 44 percent in conventionally raised chicken samples.

These results show that both organic and conventional systems have pros and cons. Though the organic chicken in the 2005 study had more Salmonella contamination, the Salmonella in organic chicken was less likely to be resistant to antimicrobials.

Organic and conventional systems each come with health challenges. When either system is poorly managed, there can be big consequences.

“Important health problems in organic livestock farming are often related to the outdoor access area, exposing the animals to various viral, bacterial and parasitic infections some of which may only influence the animals’ own welfare whereas other ones may also endanger the health of conventional livestock (e.g. Avian Influenza) or pose a food safety (Campylobacter, Toxoplasma) problem to the consumer” wrote researchers from Wageningen University in a 2006 paper titled

The claim: Non-organic food comes from “factory farms”

The truth: The majority conventional farms are small and family-owned.

There are many reasons for small farms not to go organic. Many farmers use conventionally grown ingredients to save on animal feed costs. Conventional systems also let farmers intervene with antibiotics if an animal gets sick.

It is important to note that many aspects of organic farming are also common in conventional farming. For example, USDA Organic beef comes from cattle that grazed outside during the grazing season. This is also a common practice in conventional beef cattle systems.

Organic farmers often work with conventional farmers. They can use non-organically raised males to breed with female livestock. USDA also allows poultry farmers to purchase chicks from non-organic farms, as long as chicks are raised in an organic system “no later than the second day of life.” Organic beef cattle are also likely to spend some time in feedlots.

To learn more about the Stanford study, go to: http://takingstock.asas.org/?p=5073

Learn more about USDA Organic Certification: http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?navid=ORGANIC_CERTIFICATIO