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Organic Within Reach: What does organic mean?
A third party must certify food labeled organic to ensure that it meets the stringent criteria set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These rules work to protect natural resources, preserve agricultural biodiversity, reduce the use of synthetic pesticides, and support animal health and welfare.1 If the product does not carry the USDA organic seal, it is not organic.
Organic foods cannot be irradiated; genetically modified; or grown with synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, chemical additives or sewage sludge. Organic livestock and poultry cannot be treated with hormones and antibiotics. (Sick animals must be treated but their meat cannot be sold as organic.) Livestock and poultry must be fed only certified organic feed, with no genetically modified corn or soy, and no animal byproducts. Poultry must have access to the outdoors. Cows, sheep and goats must have access to pasture.2
Why organic is better for people and the planet
Fewer pesticide residues
Lab tests conducted in 2013 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture identified 165 different pesticides on samples of common conventional fruit and vegetables – even after washing and, in some cases, peeling.3
Synthetic pesticides, used on conventional but not organic produce, have been detected in measurable levels in people who eat conventional produce. Researchers at Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley, reported that when children switched from a diet of conventional food to organic food, pesticide levels in their bodies dropped significantly.4,5,6 Researchers have found that American children with higher concentrations of synthetic pesticides were more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD,7,8,9 and that pregnant women with higher readings of these chemicals had shorter pregnancies and smaller babies.10
Farmworkers are at special risk. Between 1997 and 2000, pesticides poisoned an average of 475 California farmworkers a year.11 Agricultural chemical companies have developed pesticides that are supposedly less toxic to farmworkers, but some of these same chemicals are likely contributing to the collapse of bee colonies.12
Unlike technologies to stave off insects and weeds approved for organic agriculture, many synthetic pesticides used on conventional produce have been banned or otherwise phased out over the years due to potential human health and environmental risks.
EWG helps people find the conventionally grown fruits and vegetables that test low for pesticide residues, as well as the fruits and vegetables that test high and should be bought organic when possible. Learn more by reading EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in ProduceTM.
Avoid Monsanto’s Roundup and GMOs
Many scientists are convinced that the pesticides used in the cultivation of GMO corn and soybeans are dangerous to humans.
Farmers spread 95,000 tons a year of glyphosate on an estimated 154 million acres of corn and soybeans genetically engineered to withstand this potent weed killer.13,14 A Monsanto chemist invented glyphosate; the company markets it under the brand name Roundup.
In December 2015, the World Health Organization classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”15
In 2014, Dow AgroSciences introduced a new weed-killer called Enlist Duo,16 which aims to kill so-called superweeds that have evolved to survive glyphosate alone. Dow’s product contains both glyphosate and an older chemical called 2,4-D. Last June, the World Health Organization called 2,4-D a “possible” human carcinogen.17 The Environmental Protection Agency approved Enlist Duo in 2014 and then sought to revoke that approval late in 2015 amid concerns about the potential synergy of the two main chemicals, which could make it more toxic.18
Young children are especially vulnerable to pesticides. In 2014, EWG determined that 487 elementary schools across the U.S. are within 200 feet of a corn or soybean field where glyphosate and other toxic pesticides are regularly sprayed.19
Reduce your exposure to so-called ‘superbugs’
Bacteria and viruses20 have evolved to survive pharmaceutical drug treatments developed to cure common infections. These so-called superbugs have developed in part because conventional growers routinely feed antibiotics to healthy animals to keep them from getting sick in crowded, unsanitary conditions.21 In contrast, organic livestock producers rely on preventative care, good sanitation and stress reduction – not antibiotics – to keep animals healthy. Consequently, Stanford scientists concluded in a review paper that the bacteria on organic meats aren’t as likely to have developed antibiotic resistance.22 Learn more by reading EWG’s Tips to Avoiding Superbugs in Meat.
More disease-fighting antioxidants
A 2014 study by scientists at Newcastle University and Washington State University suggested that eating a single serving of organic produce could provide as many cancer-fighting antioxidants as two conventional servings of the same foods.23
Healthier balance of fats
A 2011 EWG report highlighted studies that found organic, pasture-raised animals have a healthier balance of fats.24 In 2016, Scientists at Newcastle University confirmed this finding again after conducting a meta-analysis on 67 published studies.25 Learn more by reading EWG’s Meat Eater’s Guide.
Fewer environmental impacts
Organic production methods reduce fertilizer and pesticide runoff, and build healthy, productive, water-conserving soil by using compost, cover crops and rotating the fields on which livestock graze.26,27 Organic agriculture allows pollinators to thrive and helps farms adapt to changing conditions.28 And since organic agriculture doesn't use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, it’s more energy-efficient and can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.29,30 Raising animals in pasture reduces erosion and water pollution, stores more carbon in soil, and preserves wildlife habitat and biodiversity.31,32,33
 U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA Organic. Available at usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentidonly=true&contentid=organic-agriculture.html
 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Pesticide Data Program. Available at www.ams.usda.gov/datasets/pdp
 C. Lu et al., Organic Diets Significantly Lower Children's Dietary Exposure to Organophosphorous Pesticides. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2006, 114(2):260-263.
 C. Lu et al., Dietary Intake and its Contribution to Longitudinal Organophosphorous Pesticide Exposure in Urban/Suburban Children. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2008, 116(4):537-542.
 A. Bradman et al., Effect of Organic Diet Intervention on Pesticide Exposures in Young Children Living in Low-Income Urban and Agricultural Communities. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2015, 123(10):1086-1093.
 M.F. Bouchard et al., Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Urinary Metabolites of Organophosphate Pesticides. Pediatrics, 2010, 125(6):e1270-1277.
 M. Wagner-Schuman et al., Association of Pyrethroid Pesticide Exposure with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in a Nationally Representative Sample of U.S. Children. Environmental Health, 2015, 14(44):1-9. Available at ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4458051/
 J.R. Richardson et al., Developmental Pesticide Exposure Reproduces Features of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal, 2015, 29(5):1960-1972.
 S.A. Rauch et al., Associations of Prenatal Exposure to Organophosphate Pesticide Metabolites with Gestational Age and Birth Weight. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2012, 120(7):1055-1060.
 Margaret Reeves et al., Fields of Poison 2002. Californians for Pesticide Reform. Available at beyondpesticides.org/assets/media/documents/organicfood/health/documents/FieldofPoisons2002.pdf
 European Food Safety Authority, ERSA Identifies Risks to Bees from Neonicotinoids. 2013. Available at efsa.europa.eu/en/press/news/130116
 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Acreage. 2013. Available at usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/nass/Acre/2010s/2013/Acre-06-28-2013.pdf
 G.M. Dill et al., Glyphosate-Resistant Crops: Adoption, Use and Future Considerations. Pest Management Science, 2008, 64(4):326-331. Available at enveurope.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s12302-016-0070-0
 World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer, IARC Monographs Volume 112: Evaluation of Five Organophosphate Insecticides and Herbicides. 2015. Available at www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/MonographVolume112.pdf
 Dow AgroSciences, Dow AgroSciences Announces Launch of Enlist DuoTM Herbicide in the U.S. Available at newsroom.dowagro.com/press-release/dow-agrosciences-announces-launch-enlist-duo-herbicide-us
 World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer, IARC Monographs Evaluate DDT, Lindane, and 2,4-D. 2015. Available at www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2015/pdfs/pr236_E.pdf
 Andrew Pollack, E.P.A. Revokes Approval of New Dow Herbicide for G.M.O. Crops. The New York Times, 2015. Available at www.nytimes.com/2015/11/26/business/epa-revokes-approval-of-new-dow-herbicide.html
 Mary Ellen Kustin and Soren Rundquist, Elementary School Students at Increased Pesticide Risk. Environmental Working Group, 2014. Available at ewg.org/agmag/2014/08/elementary-school-students-increased-pesticide-risk
 Alan Sipress, Bird Flu Drug Rendered Useless: Chinese Chickens Given Medication Made for Humans. Washington Post, 2005. Available at washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/06/17/AR2005061701214.html
 World Health Organization, The Evolving Threat of Antimicrobial Resistance: Options for Action. 2012. Available at http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/44812/1/9789241503181_eng.pdf
 C. Smith-Spangler et al., Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review. Annals of Internal Medicine, 2012, 157(5):348-366.
 M. Barański et al., Higher Antioxidant and Lower Cadmium Concentrations and Lower Incidence of Pesticide Residues in Organically Grown Crops: A Systematic Literature Review and Meta-Analyses. British Journal of Nutrition, 2014, 112(5):794-811.
 S.K. Duckett et al., Effects of Winter Stocker Growth Rate and Finishing System on: III. Tissue Proximate, Fatty Acid, Vitamin and Cholesterol Content. Journal of Animal Science, 2009, 87(9):2961-2970.
 D. Średnicka-Tober et al., Composition differences between organic and conventional meat: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Nutrition, 2016: 115(6):994-1011. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4838835/
 N. El-Hage Scialabba, Organic Agriculture’s Contribution to Sustainability. Crop Management, 2013:1-3. Available at fao.org/docrep/018/aq537e/aq537e.pdf
 J.P. Reganold and J.M. Wachter, Organic Agriculture in the Twenty-First Century. Nature Plants, 2016, 2(15221). Available at nature.com/articles/nplants2015221
 Organic Farming Research Foundation, Organic Farming for Health and Prosperity. 2012. Available at ofrf.org/sites/ofrf.org/files/docs/pdf/HP-report-web.pdf
 D.E. Johnson et al., Methane, Nitrous Oxide and Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Ruminant Livestock Production Systems. In Eds. J. Takahashi and B.A. Young, Greenhouse Gases and Animal Agriculture. Elsevier, 2002.
 Food and Agriculture Organization, The State of Food and Agriculture 2009: Livestock in the Balance. 2009. Available at fao.org/docrep/012/i0680e/i0680e00.htm
 N. Pelletier et al., Comparative Life Cycle Environmental Impacts of Three Beef Production Strategies in the Upper Midwestern United States in Agricultural Systems. Agricultural Systems, 2010, 103:380-389. Available at www.leopold.iastate.edu/files/pubs-and-papers/2010-04-comparative-life-cycle-environmental-impacts-three-beef-production-strategies-upper-midwestern-unite.pdf