If you’ve experienced the pleasure of biting into a ripe organic strawberry, you don’t need scientific research to tell you that organic strawberries taste better than their conventionally-grown cousins.
At the store, the organic strawberries always look mouth-wateringly delicious and red. They are an appropriate size compared to some of the un-natural looking conventional monster “strawzillas” that take up half the punnet and end up tasting like paper.
Maybe you don’t need the research, but now it is there if you want it to justify their slightly higher price tag. The research also shows that the fruit from organic strawberry farms is more nutritious, it leaves the soil healthier and it has less environmental impact than conventionally-grown strawberries.
What exactly are organic foods?
Organic foods are grown without conventional chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. Natural animal waste fertilizers may be used to enrich the nutrient content of the soil, but sewage sludge, which may contain heavy metals and other toxins, is never used.
Organic foods are never genetically modified, and if animal waste-based fertilizers are used, those animals must never have been given antibiotics and growth hormones, like most livestock are.
The opposite of organically-grown food is conventionally-grown food. Most of the food eaten in the world today is conventionally-grown food. The nomenclature is absurd because food has been grown organically for most of humankind’s existence, that is, until very recently.
Organics – science and economics
Conventionally-grown strawberries are one of the most pesticide-laden fruits. Studies have shown that pesticides may be linked to a variety of modern health issues such as cancer, obesity and neurological effects. Millions of agricultural workers each year are poisoned by pesticides, and thousands die from it. Pesticides also cause problems for wildlife when they are left behind in the soil and run off into the water system.
It is desirable to decrease people’s and the environment’s exposure to pesticides, and a good way to do this is by eating organic food. The problem is that the current food supply network is entirely structured around conventionally-grown foods. This makes conventionally-grown foods much cheaper than organic foods, and for some families, eating even a partially organic diet is out of the question.
There are far too many economical and political issues that go into food as well. It is quite clear that large agricultural companies have no intention on letting organic farming take over, as there is a lot of money to be made on chemicals for agriculture. Powerful people from these companies are even part of the US government.
It can be argued that conventional farming gives a more stable food supply, since most external factors like disease and pests are exterminated at the site of the crops, so governments may be leery of steering away from conventional techniques. This is possibly a valid point in a tunnel-vision sense, but the overall impact of decades of conventional farming may be far more devastating than a summer’s worth of tomato rot.
The strawberry study
The strawberry study lead by John Reganold, a soil scientist from Washington State University, is one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind. Thirty-one chemical properties of the three varieties of strawberries and the soil they were grown in were analyzed in 13 organic and 13 non-organic commercial fields.
The main result from the study was that organic strawberries were overall equal or better to their conventional counterparts.
- The organic strawberries had a higher antioxidant content. Antioxidants are important in helping the body repair itself from natural and man-made free radical damage.
- Tasters, who were at times working under red light as to not be swayed by color, determined organic strawberries were overall sweeter than conventional strawberries.
- Organic strawberries had more dry matter than conventional strawberries, meaning they were firmer and meatier.
- A particularly surprising finding was that the organic strawberries had the longest shelf life based on water loss and mold growth.
The soil where the organic strawberries were grown was shown to contain more nutrients after harvest. In particular, the organic soil had dramatically more diverse genetic content than the conventional soil, meaning that the soil is more resilient. Good, rich soil is important to growing healthy crops.
The benefits of organic strawberries clearly outweighed the conventional strawberries, but conventional strawberries did have some benefits. The conventionally-grown strawberries were larger, though size is really a matter of preference. Though for most minerals it was a small difference, some conventional strawberries had higher mineral content – in manganese, for example.
The best part about the study
The bulk of the study was funded by the USDA and other government organizations. A small part was funded by a private organization, The Organic Center.
However, none of the funding bodies had any role in design or analysis of the experiment, or in the publication of the results. It is quite refreshing to have an unbiased experiment on food that is not funded and influenced by a corporation.
Reganold JP, Andrews PK, Reeve JR, Carpenter-Boggs L, Schadt CW, et al. (2010) Fruit and Soil Quality of Organic and Conventional Strawberry Agroecosystems. PLoS ONE 5(9): e12346. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012346 via Eurekalert!
Photo credit: Jeannie Moulton