Organic vs. Conventional Produce

There’s no doubt that “organic” is the buzzword. When it comes to fresh produce. But is it really better? We don’t take issue with this method of farming, but we also don’t believe that organically grown produce is necessarily better than that grown by conventional methods. In fact, we believe that conventionally grown produce may have an edge over organics when it comes to quality and safety. Here are some facts for your consideration that support this position.


MYTH #1: Organic means “chemical-free.”


  • Organic crops are treated with a number of toxic chemical pesticides, fungicides, and insecticides – just like conventionally grown crops. Those chemicals are considered organic because they are derived from nature, not because they are less toxic.
  • Organic methods actually use more chemicals because they are less effective than their synthetic counterparts. According to the latest statistics from the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy (NCFAP):
    • 13.7 million pounds of copper (a fungicide) were used annually to treat 3.3 million acres of organic crops at an average rate of 4 pounds per acre (1-1/2 ounces per thousand square feet).
    • Nearly 78 million pounds of sulfur (another fungicide) were used on 2.2 million acres, applied at an average rate of more than 34 pounds per acre (12-1/2 ounces – almost a pound – per thousand square feet).
    • By contrast, synthetic fungicides were used to treat 25 million acres at an average rate of 1.58 pounds per acre (1/2 ounce per thousand square feet).       That’s 1/3 the average for copper and less than 5% of the average rate for sulfur.
    • Oil, the primary pesticide in organic farming, was used at rates of up to 72 pounds per acre, with the average being 49 pounds per acre (18 ounces per thousand square feet).
    • In contrast, newer synthetic pesticides, such as imidacloprid, required less than 8 ounces per acre (less than 1/5 ounce per thousand square feet) – one hundredth the average rate for oil.


MYTH #2: Organic means “safe.”


  • The most comprehensive, peer-reviewed study to look at produce contamination, published in Nature Biotechnology (Volume 25, 165-165, February 2007), found that organic fruits and vegetables were 3 times more likely to be contaminated with bacteria than conventional produce. Of 15 farms that had E. coli-positive samples, 13 were organic and only 2 were conventional. Of the produce tested, salmonella was found only in organic lettuce and green peppers.
  • Some widely used organic chemicals are more toxic than the synthetics. For example, nicotine (an organic insecticide) is ten times more toxic than imidacloprid, a commonly used synthetic pesticide.
  • Oil, sulfur, and copper are all commonly applied to organic produce and all are toxic to a broad range of organisms.
  • Despite the fact that millions of pounds of organic pesticides and insecticides such as pyrethrum, neem, sabadilla, rotenone, and Kaolin are used each year on organic crops, government regulators and authorities have no statistics on their safety.
  • Whether a crop is organically or conventionally grown, the State of California monitors and regulates the use of all chemicals, whether natural or synthetic, to ensure safety. California, arguably, has the strictest agricultural regulation in the nation and produces some of the safest fresh produce available in the world.


MYTH #3: Organic means “eco-friendly.”


  • Sulfur and copper have much more persistent environmental toxicity than their synthetic counterparts.1
  • Because they are less effective than their counterparts, more organic chemicals are used per acre than their non-organic counterparts (See myth #1.) which places a heavier burden on the eco-system.
  • Organic farmers also use predatory insects or other biological agents, such as fungi or bacteria, to kill or control insect pests. While this is often promoted as being more natural and less environmentally damaging than chemical pesticides, in fact, they come with their own unique set of ecological hazards,2 resulting in significant declines of several native insect and plant species.3
  • Because organic methods result in 30% less yield than conventional cultivation, 40% more acreage is required to grow an equal amount of fresh produce.  That means the use of more organic fungicides (sulfur and copper), pesticide (oil), and biocontrol agents (predatory insects). These factors as well as greatly increased water usage all place an increased burden on our ecological systems.
  • Conventional farmers, just like their organic counterparts, use crop rotation, disease- and insect-resistant crop varieties, and soil fertility management to maximize plant health and minimize pests. Both are committed to preserving the environment – it is critical to their survival . . . and ours.


1 J. Kovach, C. Petzwoldt, J. Degni, and J. Tette, “A Method to Measure the Environmental Impact of Pesticides,” New York’s Food and Life Sciences Bulletin Number 139, New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, Cornel University, Ithaca, New York (1992).

2 C.E. Turner, in Proceedings of the Sixth International Symposium on Biological Control Weeds, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, 19 to 25 August; E.S. Delfosse, Ed. (Agriculture Canada, Ottawa, 1985). Pp. 203-225; F.G, Howarth, Annu. Rev. Entomol. 36:485 (1991).

3 S.M. Louda, D. Kendall, J. Connor, D. Simberloff, Ecological Effects of an Insect Introduced for the Biological Control of Weeds, Science 277:1008-90 (1997); D.R. Strong, Fear to Weevil, Science: 277:1058-59 (1997); G.H. Boettner, J.S. Elkinton, C.J. Boet, Effects of a Biological Control Introduction on Three Nontarget Native Species of Saturniid Moths, Conservation Biology 14:1998-1806 (2000).