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It’s a trend that is gaining steam around the world. People are increasingly interested in not just food, but the origins of their food. They want to know where their food comes from, how it’s grown and whether it’s organic, fair-trade and sustainable.
In Singapore, organic food can now be found everywhere you look. Local supermarkets have expanded their offerings to meet demand, and regional farms have seen an increase in sales. But organic food is also often more expensive than conventionally grown produce – are the benefits worth it? And what does “organic” mean anyway?
Simply put, organic produce means no pesticides or synthetic fertilisers were used in the growing process. Organic meat, eggs and dairy products are produced without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones.
A toxic stew
While it might be pricey, avoiding pesticides and synthetic fertilizers does sound like a good idea in general, doesn’t it? And the science backs it up. It might seem obvious to state this, but food grown in organic conditions will contain fewer residual amounts of those chemicals. Washing, soaking and peeling can reduce the amount of those residual chemicals that you end up consuming – but buying organic produce means reducing your exposure to zero.
Those chemicals can be toxic. Exposure to synthetic pesticides and fertilisers has been linked to increased risk of developing cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD and even birth defects. Pesticides can harm the nervous system if ingested in large enough quantities. Even if only a tiny amount is consumed with each meal, some of these chemicals can accumulate in your body and potentially cause harm after a long period of exposure.
Conventionally produced milk and meat are also laced with antibiotics and growth hormones. Almost all conventionally raised cattle in the United States are given steroidal hormonal implants to promote faster growth – the drugs given include natural oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone and synthetic versions. While these are FDA-approved, the use of hormones in cattle farming has been banned in the European Union for health reasons.
These toxic chemicals also damage the environment. Pesticides leech into the groundwater, poisoning water sources for the people who grow the crops. Excess amounts of fertiliser ends up in the local waterways, ruining the local eco-systems and causing large algae blooms that create “dead zones” in rivers, lakes and oceans.
Besides avoiding exposure to a slew of unnecessary synthetic chemicals with dubious health effects, organic food is simply better for you. For one, it’s packed with more nutrients. You might think an orange is an orange is an orange. But not all oranges are created equal, as it turns out. Various nutrient analysis studies have shown that produce grown under organic conditions often contain more micro-nutrients than their conventionally grown counterparts.
Organic growing methods also improve soil diversity and health, which means more nutrients are available to be absorbed by plants, and reduces the need for supplementary fertilisation.
These differences may be slight – large-scale dietary studies have yet to show a significant health impact when it comes to eating organic food. However, such studies are notoriously difficult to conduct, and they are usually only conducted on an adult population. Children – whose small bodies are still growing and developing – are at greater risk, especially if you take into account the potential for exposure to substances such as synthetic growth hormones, animal antibiotics or endocrine-disrupting pesticides.
If you decide to go the organic route, remember to read the labels, because there are no global standards when it comes to defining a food or product as “organic” – the USDA National Organic Program does regulate foods grown or sold in the US, but there is no Singapore equivalent. Be sensible and think critically when buying food.
Ultimately, eating organically is just a small piece of the puzzle in terms of figuring out what’s best for a young family. There’s no point in paying excessively for organic food if it’s still processed junk, or if you’re working double shifts to put food on the table. At the end of the day, it’s the big things that count most – home-cooked meals, made with love and eaten together as a family.