If parenthood were a place it would be one of the old Dubai Souks: crowded and noisy, the route lined with eye-catching displays of things you probably don’t need but feel pressure to have, and hawkers at every turn desperate to convince you that you absolutely must buy this or that fancy new gadget or service, or risk eternal regret. Everything seems to have your little one’s wellbeing hanging in the balance, and absolutely Everything. Costs. Money. One of the most emotionally loaded areas in which this is true is the issue of food. As if simply getting your child to eat sufficient fruits and vegetables every day wasn’t hard, the topic of organic produce and whether the veggies you’re choosing are ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’ adds a whole new sense of moral judgement to an already thorny playing field.
But, although UAE consumer interest in organic foods has increased by almost 40 percent in the past year according to 2018 YouGov research, the same study shows that cost and convenience remain major barriers to UAE residents going fully organic – two things that are very close to a parent’s heart, yet could also potentially seem surmountable if only we saved a little more here or put in a little more effort there.
All of which results in a big fat dose of parental guilt if you aren’t a fully paid up member of the organic brigade. But is this anxiety misplaced? Some experts certainly think so. “The health and nutritional benefits of organic are hugely overplayed,” says Lovely Ranganath, senior nutritionist at Dubai World Trade Centre. “It really is a personal choice”
What is classed as organic?
Put simply, organic food refers to fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy or other produce that is grown using specific agricultural methods that comply with standards of organic farming. Although these vary worldwide, the general agreement is that organic produce must be grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes (GMOs), no routine antibiotic use in the case of livestock, no petroleum-based fertilizers, and no sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Will non-organic food harm my child? The reason most people go organic is to avoid the potentially harmful chemicals that conventional foods are supposedly laced with in the form of pesticides.
Certainly, multiple studies show that there are detectable levels of pesticides in conventional foods — one of the most recent, published in 2019 and led by the University of California and Friends of the Earth, followed four families in the US as they switched from a non-organic diet to a fully organic diet and tested their urine for the presence of pesticides.
Of the 14 chemicals tested for, every single member of every family had detectable levels. After switching to an organic diet, these levels dropped dramatically — in some instances by up to 95 percent — including the levels of chemicals thought to be potential carcinogens. This concurs with the findings from one of the most comprehensive meta-analyses on the health effects of organic and non-organic foods, led by Stanford University and published in 2012 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which compared the results from 237 past papers and found that overall, “organic foods are 30 per cent less likely to contain detectable levels of pesticide residues.”
However, it is also important to note that “levels [of pesticide residues] in both organic and nonorganic foods were within allowable safety limits,” says Ranganath.
Science writer and author Christie Wilcox, says, “Almost all pesticides detected on foods by independent scientific studies are at levels below one per cent of the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) set by US government regulators. This level isn’t random — the ADI is based on animal exposure studies in a wide variety of species. They determine the highest dose at which no effects can be found.
The ADI is then set 100 times lower than that level. “Lovely agrees: “Please don’t get worried seeing the figure 30 percent because you need to keep in mind that this is an extremely weak amount; like the lowest of the lowest amount of pesticide content possible. The level of pesticides that are making it into your body is hundreds if not thousands of times lower than any known factor that would cause harm.”
It’s also very important to realize that just because a food is organic doesn’t mean that no pesticide has been used on it – just that no synthetic pesticides have been used on it.
There are a number of natural pesticides allowable in organic farming – and indeed that are naturally created by animals and plants themselves as a defence mechanism against being eaten – that can also be potentially harmful to our health, and much more research is needed into the toxicity of these natural pesticides; as a 2003 review of food safety concluded, “what should be made clear to consumers is that ‘organic’ does not equal ‘safe’.”
Will organic food make my child healthier?
Although the general perception is that organic food is more nutritious and better for you, the 2012 Stanford meta-analysis cited above concluded that there was little significant difference in health benefits between organic and conventional foods. No consistent differences were seen in the vitamin content of organic products, and only one nutrient — phosphorus — was significantly higher in organic versus conventionally grown produce (although since few people have phosphorous deficiency, the researchers note this has little clinical significance). There was also little difference in protein or fat content between organic and conventional milk, although evidence from a limited number of studies suggested that organic milk may contain significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
Nevertheless, an even more recent meta-analysis by the University of Newcastle in 2014 reviewed an even larger pool of papers – 343 rather than Stanford’s 237 – and found that eating organic food could boost a person’s antioxidant intake by up to 40 percent. The researchers postulate that this could provide health benefits to human nutrition because many antioxidants have been linked to a lower risk for chronic diseases (although lead researcher Carlo Leifert admits that there is “no evidence of what the potential health impact may be”).
Most recently, a 2017 review of existing evidence on the impact of organic food on human health found that, although the nutritional difference between organic and conventional food may seem to be marginal at the moment, of greater concern is the prevalent use of antibiotics in conventional animal production as a key driver of antibiotic resistance in society. As antibiotic use is less intensive in organic production, this is likely to have a beneficial impact on human health.
Will organic food make the world a better place for my child?
While some of the farming practices that are commonly employed on organic farms are very positive from an environmental perspective, many of those practices are also used by progressive “conventional” growers, explains US-based sustainability consultant Steven Savage. “There are also quite a few farming practices with excellent environmental profiles which are difficult to implement under the organic farming rules (e.g. no-till farming, spoon-feeding of nutrients via irrigation),” he continues.
“Compost, which is a major input for organic farms, has a shockingly high “carbon footprint” because of methane emissions. The carbon footprint of “synthetic” fertilizer is much smaller.” Similarly, it might seem intuitive that organic farming’s shunning of synthetic pesticides should be more environmentally friendly, but a 2010 University of Guelph study found that some organic pesticides can actually have a worse environmental impact than conventional ones, because the organic pesticides are required to be used in higher doses.
Also, organic farms require significantly more land to achieve the same level of production, which some studies have said creates a higher carbon footprint due to deforestation and a higher degree of carbon dioxide as a result. Nevertheless, there are proven benefits to organic practices for animal welfare and for the welfare of those working on the farms, as occupational pesticide exposure is generally much lower.
In short? It’s complicated. There’s still much more research that needs to be done, and none of the studies into the health benefits or risks for humans of consuming organic food compared to conventional food have been properly long-term yet. “Having the entire world fed an wholly organic diet would be amazing though not realistically possible – an ever-growing world population and interlinked factors in itself are barriers,” says nutritionist Lovely Ranganath.
“So it really becomes a personal choice, based on factors like financial capability, your budgeting priorities and your ease of access to organic foods, amongst others.” The burgeoning organic market in the UAE can only be a good thing, as more attention is paid to locally grown fresh food and improving its quality. However, one thing is clear: Eating fewer fruits and vegetables due to fear of pesticides or the high price of organics does far more harm to our health than any of the pesticide residues on our food. Keep on trying to give your little one as many fruits and vegetables as you can, whether they are organic or not, and you’ll be doing something right.