The authors report that studies that have examined the direct link between organic food and human health are limited, and those that have been published offer equivocal or weak findings concerning many issues, such as differences in nutrition. They did, however, identify three key public health concerns where strong scientific evidence supports the superiority of organic food and organic agriculture with respect to human health: Pesticide residues, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and cadmium exposure.
(On just a quarter-acre of land, you can produce fresh, organic food for a family of four—year-round. Rodale's The Backyard Homestead shows you how; get your copy today.)
Study after study has linked pesticide residue exposure to human health issues. (Here, for example, are 13 serious health conditions studies have linked to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.) Some of the strongest scientific evidence evaluated in this report suggests that exposure to certain man-made insecticides negatively affects children’s cognitive development and the authors of the report suggest that eating organic food, especially during pregnancy and infancy, has been shown to be a powerful tool to help reduce those risks. They go on to suggest that if conventional farmers adopt the tools and skills needed to produce food without persistent, man-made pesticides that organic farmers already routinely use, the entire food system would become safer.
Related: Conventional Farming Ruined The Soil On Our Farm—Here's How We Saved It
What’s being done
The European Union is already actively working to reduce the risks and impacts of pesticide use on human health and promoting the use of integrated pest management and of alternative approaches or techniques such as non-chemical alternatives to pesticides for all farmers (Directive 2009/128/EC, October 2009). (Organic gardening makes a difference, too! Here’s everything you need to know to start your first organic garden.)
Here in the U.S. we are also making progress toward reducing or ending the use of some pesticides, according to the EPA, though many people worry that the proposed cuts in EPA funding and programs may slow or reverse the already glacially-slow process of getting pesticide registrations cancelled. Not everyone agrees with the EPA’s perky PR, nor the USDA’s assertions that current levels of pesticides residues pose no risk to human health, and there is one area where we are definitely losing ground: herbicide use has been rising rapidly, especially on GMO soybean plantings.
The practice of feeding antibiotics to healthy livestock to prevent potential infections and to make the animals grow faster is prevalent throughout conventional agriculture, but prohibited in organic agriculture (where antibiotics can only be used to treat sick animals and then only for a limited time). Routine use of antibiotics on farms is a well-documented contributor to the development of antibiotic-resistant germs that can make people sick with infections that that standard (or even any) antibiotics can’t cure. The authors of the report say the evidence suggests that eating organic meats and animal products rather than conventional ones may help reduce the risk of exposing oneself to such germs through food. Workers on organic livestock farms have also been shown to be less likely to spread resistant germs into the community than workers on conventional livestock operations are.
Related: These Doctors Are Using Medieval Herbal Remedies To Fight Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria
What’s being done?
In May 2015 The European Parliament went on record, stating that prophylactic use of antibiotics in livestock should stop and is encouraging all farming operations to look for alternative ways to prevent disease in their animals.
Related: Can You Still Trust The USDA Organic Label?
Here in the U.S., in December 2013, the USDA asked drug companies to voluntarily change microbial drug product labels to omit non-therapeutic uses and to change the marketing status of microbial drugs from over-the-counter to Veterinary Feed Directive or Veterinary Prescription. A report released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in March 2017 concluded we need to do more to ensure that the antibiotics humans use are not rendered useless by careless agricultural use.
Cadmium exposure can damage kidneys, make bones more fragile, and increase the risk of certain cancers in humans. The report suggests there are two ways that organic methods can help lower cadmium levels, particularly in grains. (Here are the healthiest whole grains you should be eating.) A century of studies show that grain grown using manure to supply the majority of its phosphate needs tends to contain lower levels of cadmium than grain grown using mineral phosphorus fertilizer (which often contains some cadmium). Other studies show that soils with higher levels of organic matter (a prime aim in organic management) reduce the availability of cadmium to plants.
What’s being done?
In March 2016 the European Commission proposed introducing limits on the cadmium content of fertilizers and making those limits progressively stricter over the following 12 years, and the proposal is still being shaped (and hotly contested) over a year later.
In the U.S. the EPA regulates cadmium levels in sewage sludge used in agriculture under the Clean Water Act, but it doesn’t regulate them in commercial fertilizers, a task which appears to have been left to individual States. I was not able to find any ongoing efforts to unify or stiffen regulations concerning cadmium levels in fertilizer in the U.S.
The Bottom Line
Scientists agree: eating organic food is good for your health! While the evidence that organic food may or may not be more nutritious than conventionally grown food is still contradictory (some studies find it is, others don’t), science has shown that eating organic as much as you can does help protect you from the negative effects of pesticide residues, reduce your exposure to antibiotic-resistant germs, and help keep your cadmium intake down.