Is organic produce worth the higher price?

You need to weigh your budget, but buying organic produce does have benefits. Including some that are not obvious. (Naomi Anderson-Subryan/The New York Times) — FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY SLUGGED SCI ORGANIC PRODUCE EXPLAINER BY SUSAN SHAIN FOR JULY 8, 2024. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. —

In 2022, organics accounted for 15% of all fruit and vegetable sales in the United States despite being far pricier than conventional produce.

But with today’s high grocery bills, even some committed organic shoppers are agonizing over which blueberries to buy and wondering: Is organic really worth the cost?

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Here are some facts to help you figure out what’s right for you and your budget.

First, what does ‘certified organic’ mean?

Unlike the terms “natural” or “sustainable,” the Department of Agriculture’s organic seal is highly regulated (though not entirely fraud-proof).

When you see the USDA Organic sticker on a banana, you can generally assume it has been grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified organisms and most synthetic pesticides. Its production may have involved organic farming techniques, such as rotating crops and planting cover crops, too.

It’s worth noting that not all organic farmers have the time, money or desire to pursue official certification. You can always ask at a farmers market how the food was grown.

Is organic produce better for the climate?

At first glance, organic farming seems like a clear climate win because it doesn’t use synthetic fertilizers, which require lots of energy, and thus lots of fossil fuels, to produce. (Both synthetic and natural fertilizers also release nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas, after application.)

But dig a little deeper, and the science gets stickier. Because they don’t use synthetic fertilizers, organic farms usually have lower yields than conventional farms. That means they often need 10% to 30% more land to produce the same amount of food, said Michael Clark, a food systems researcher at the University of Oxford.

If everybody started eating organic overnight, Clark said, “Much more land would be needed to meet our food demands.” Any resulting land conversion and deforestation would harm the climate.

Timothy Bowles, director of the Agroecology Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, agreed that the emissions caused by growing an organic apple might be pretty similar to those of a conventional apple. But he said that’s the wrong metric to focus on.

“At the end of the day, it’s not the per-unit yield amount of greenhouse gasses that matters,” he said. “It’s the total amount of greenhouse gasses that are produced in the food system.”

From that viewpoint, plant-based foods, whether organic or conventional, have much lower carbon footprints than animal products, in part because they require less land to grow. Today, around 80% of the world’s agricultural land is used to support meat and dairy production.

So, Bowles espouses a shift to organic agriculture in tandem with a reconsideration of what we are growing. If more of the available fields were used for human food, rather than grains for livestock and biofuels, he said, further deforestation could be avoided even when accounting for potentially lower yields.

Organic yields could be improved, too. In a farming study in Pennsylvania that’s been running for 43 years, organic yields have mostly kept up with conventional yields and have been 30% higher in periods of extreme weather.

Verena Seufert, a sustainability scientist who focuses on agriculture at the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany, said that, although such yields are “very rarely achieved” in the real world, she’s confident that things could change for the better with more research into organic management.

What about soil?

While some studies show that soil on organic farms sequesters more carbon than soil on conventional farms, just how much carbon, and for how long, is hotly debated.

That said, healthy soil is critical to long-term food security. Seufert hypothesizes that organic soils are more climate resilient but said there hasn’t yet been enough research to draw “solid and confident conclusions.”

So, what’s the bottom line?

If your only concern is climate change, the scientists agreed that the most impactful dietary choices you can make are reducing your consumption of animal products and wasting less food.

The scientists we spoke to all said they buy organic produce. But they cited people, rather than the planet, as their No. 1 motivation: On organic farms, workers are exposed to fewer pesticides.

“For me, that’s the key,” Bowles said. “The chemical exposure that conventional agriculture brings is very, very real for the people who are embedded in growing it. And that’s where I think organic has a very clear advantage.”

Organic food might be better for the people who eat it, too. One 2018 study suggested that organic food may lower your cancer risk, though the American Institute for Cancer Research says eating fruits and vegetables, organic or not, is what’s most important.

Seufert also noted that organic farming can benefit the environment in important ways, such as improving biodiversity and water quality. Ultimately, she hopes the rise of organics will push the industrial food system to consider environmental and human impacts, rather than yield and profit alone.

“I don’t think we can save the planet by eating organic,” she said. “But I do think it’s an important part of the solution.”

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