Organic vs. Conventional Growing

Organic vs. Conventional Growing

By Erika Shaver, University of Michigan Dietetics Intern

The Farm at St. Joes follows organic practices, and I wanted to find out if organic produce was healthier and more nutritious than conventional produce, or produce that was grown using non-organic practices. This has been a hotly debated topic in the last decade, and during my rotation here at the St. Joes Farm, I wanted to explore the pros and cons so that I could make a conscious decision for myself.

Before we begin with the debate, let’s talk about organic farming. According to the USDA, organic crop production is a set of practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity (1). Examples of organic crop production include maintaining or improving soil and water quality; conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife; and avoiding use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering (such as GMOs). In general, organic growers aim to use natural processes and materials on their farm (1).

To enhance soil quality at the St. Joes Farm, the Farm applies compost, organic fertilizer, and a natural supplement called azomite once per year. Compost is organic material, such as food scraps and yard waste, that is broken down by microorganisms to give nutrients to soil (2,3). St. Joes also tests its soil each year. This helps reduce the use of fertilizer because the farmer knows how much nutrients are needed in the soil for the upcoming season (4). St. Joes also helps maintain its soil quality by practicing crop rotation, which essentially means that the type of crop grown in one plot rotates each year (1). This prevents pests from becoming too comfortable with a particular area of land and can prevent soil erosion (1).

To control pests, the St. Joes Farm practices integrative pest management, which is an environmentally friendly way to reduce pest problems. The first goal of this practice is to prevent pests by following practices such as removing overgrown and rotten crops. If this does not work, then the goal is to control pests by physically removing them, trapping them, or applying pesticides if these methods do not work (5).  Yes, it is true! Organic farmers are allowed to use organic pesticides if needed. However, they must use organic pesticides, not synthetic pesticides. Weed problems are handled with a similar mindset. One practice St. Joes Farm used to control weeds was good old-fashioned weeding. I had some experience with this one afternoon on the farm! St. Joes also tries purchasing organic seeds when possible. Organic seeds are seeds that have not come in contact with conventional growing practices that may have exposed them to pesticides (1).

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The carrot beds we weeded for an afternoon. It took some time!

Pros and cons of organic produce

In the past decade, the academic community has debated whether organic produce is more nutritious than conventional produce.  Some review articles support this argument (6,7). One article describes that there is 12 percent more vitamin C and most phytochemicals, such as phenols, in organic produce compared to conventional produce. These nutrients often have antioxidant properties that can help reduce the risk of diseases such as cancer and heart disease (8,9). However, other review articles suggest that conventional produce is as nutritious as organic ones (10, 11). The challenge with review articles is that they include studies with many different crops from different years. Nutrient content can vary greatly by weather and variety (7), and, thus, it can be hard to tell how much impact the growing practice (conventional or organic) has on nutrient content when it’s being compared to produce of a different variety or season (7). However, there does seem to be enough information to demonstrate that organic produce provides more nutrients than conventional.

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An example of  variety on the farm. These are red, orange, and yellow snack peppers.

In regards to pesticides, there is general agreement that organic produces has less about 30% less pesticides than conventional produce (11,12). However, most conventional produce has pesticides levels below the allowable limits for consumption (12). Yet, the greatest exposure to pesticides is not by eating produce that is sprayed but by being a farm worker on a farm spraying chemicals regularly. Farm workers exposed to pesticides can develop breathing problems, skin rashes, miscarriages, birth defects, depression, and neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s (12). Lastly, pesticide exposure also has environmental impact. Certain insect and bird populations and the balance of predators and prey in the environment, for example. In particular, honeybees’ immune systems are weakened in the presence of pesticides, which make them more vulnerable to their enemies (13).

So which should you choose? It is a challenging question that often comes down to personal choice. This rotation with the St. Joes market has reminded me how close and personal a worker gets with the plants he or she harvests from. This is humbling for me, and reminds me to try purchasing organic as often as I can. Even if it doesn’t affect my health as much, it affects others, whether that’s the farm worker or the honey bee. From a dietitian’s perspective, however, I want to mention that buying any produce, whether organic or conventional, is better for you than choosing to buy none at all. I know I struggle at times to purchase organic over conventional, particularly when the price is higher. However, I often find certain produce, such as organic carrots, to be comparable to their conventional counterpart. These are the small wins I always shoot for, and if I can purchase more, I will definitely try.

References:

  1. US Department of Agriculture. (2015). “Introduction to Organic Practices.” Retrieved from https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Organic%20Practices%20Factsheet.pdf
  2. Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.) “Compositing Basics.” https://www.epa.gov/recycle/composting-home
  3. Rueb, E. (2017). How New York is turning food waste into compost and gas. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/02/nyregion/compost-organic-recycling-new-york-city.html?_r=0
  4. Oklahoma State Soil, Water, and Forage Analytical Laboratory. (n.d.). “Benefits of Testing.” Retrieved from http://soiltesting.okstate.edu/benefits-of-testing/
  5. Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.) “Introduction to Integrated Pest Management.” Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/managing-pests-schools/introduction-integrated-pest-management
  6. Baranski, M. et al. “Higher Antioxidant and Lower Cadmium Concentrations and Lower Incidence of Pesticide Residues in Organically Grown Crops : A Systematic Literature Review and Meta-Analyses British Journal of Nutrition British Journal of Nutrition.” British Journal of Nutrition (2014): 1–18.
  7. Brandt, K et al. “Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences Agroecosystem Management and Nutritional Quality of Plant Foods : The Case of Organic Fruits and Vegetables Agroecosystem Management and Nutritional Quality of Plant Foods : The Case of Organic Fruits and Vegetables.” Critical Reviews in Plant ScienceDecember (2015): n. pag. Web.
  8. Higdon, J. V., Delage, B., Williams, D. E., & Dashwood, R. H. (2007). Cruciferous Vegetables and Human Cancer Risk: Epidemiologic Evidence and Mechanistic Basis. Pharmacological Research : The Official Journal of the Italian Pharmacological Society, 55(3), 224–236.
  9. Cornelis, M. C., El-Sohemy, A., & Campos, H. (2007). GSTT1 genotype modifies the association between cruciferous vegetable intake and the risk of myocardial infarction. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 86, 752-8.
  10. Dangour, Alan D et al. “Nutritional Quality of Organic Foods : A Systematic Review 1 – 4.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 90 (2009): 680–685.
  11. Smith-Spangler, Crystal et al. “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier than Conventional Alternatives.” Annals of Internal Medicine 157 (2012): 348–366. Print.
  12. Forman, J., and J. Silverstein. “Organic Foods : Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages Abstract.” Pediatrics 130 (2012): e1406–e1415. Web.
  13. Horrigan, Leo, Robert S Lawrence, and Polly Walker. “Review How Sustainable Agriculture Can Address the Environmental and Human Health Harms of Industrial Agriculture.” Environmental Health Perspectives5 (2002): 445–456. Print.

 

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CSAs: Health Impacts and Barriers to Use

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Hoop House and Cherry Tomatoes

By Alyson McAdams, University of Michigan Dietetics Intern

When I started at the farm, I had heard the term “CSA” before, but didn’t know what the letters stood for. In the first couple days, I finally found out – “community supported agriculture”. In a CSA, the consumer pays the farmer up front for a ‘share’ of the produce, and the farmers provide fruits and vegetables each week through the season. The community supporting farmers, farmers providing food to the community–all great things I could get behind.

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CSA preparation and packing

The farm runs their own collaborative CSA with help from some local farmers and prepares weekly shares for their participants. They run a CSA in partnership with Parkridge Community Center in Ypsilanti that is fully subsidized CSAs for folks who otherwise may be unable to afford it. Each week I watched beautiful fresh fruits and veggies being packed into bags and distributed, while doing some recipe demos and sampling. All of this sounds so beautiful in theory — so I wanted to see the research to back it up. What were the individual health and wellness  impacts of participating in a CSA? If it was such a great program, what was getting in people’s way of participation?

What is preventing Americans from eating enough produce? The answer is long, complex, and ever-evolving. Income influences what and how people eat, and low-income consumers often have more barriers to fresh produce. However, most CSA members across the country are in middle- to high-income households, and the cost of CSAs prevents those with a lower income from participating (1), especially when they don’t know what or how much they will get from the CSA each week (2). However, cost-offset CSAs have been shown to be more accessible (1). Cost-offset CSAs are those which have had the price reduced in some way, either partially or fully. Reducing the price of CSAs, or accepting benefits such as SNAP, helps to remove the barriers to healthy food for many people.

What are the health benefits of getting a CSA? Eating a diet rich in fruits and veggies is good for our bodies and leads to better health outcomes over time (1). Eating vegetables can help lower our risk of chronic diseases while also maintaining a healthy weight (3).However, the average American’s fruit and vegetable intake is less than half of what is recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans(1), and a third of the vegetables we eat are potatoes and tomatoes (3). This means we are missing opportunities to eat more vegetables, and we aren’t getting enough colors, vitamins, and minerals. A review done at Montana State University found that among CSA members, the amount AND variety of fruits and veggies eaten increases and more people are meeting the Dietary Guidelines standard, across socioeconomic status (4).

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Harvesting Greens

In studies comparing CSA and non-CSA members, CSA members ate more dark greens and yellow fruits and vegetables, and were taking in more fiber and Vitamin A (4). Fruits and vegetables contain many amazing vitamins and minerals, and the more variety we eat, the more nutrients we get. Many of the foods given out in CSAs have high levels of phytochemicals and antioxidants–which can be protective against cancers and inflammation. Increased fruit and vegetable intake over time is linked to lower risk of chronic disease, specifically heart disease (4). Through its amount and variety of produce, the studies found that a CSA is positive for individual health. Furthermore, in studies focusing on low-income CSAs, less than eight percent of the sample said that they had difficulty physically accessing fruits and vegetables, a marked difference from the control (1).

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Families at Farm to Table Camp

Participation in a CSA can also positively impact family life and health habits. Studies have shown that while participating in a CSA, families increasingly cook at home, cook as a family, and have family meals. Family meals increase the health and well-being of adolescents, while cooking together helps to teach children skills about food and cooking (4). Fruits and vegetables were more often served at snacks and meals, presumably replacing less healthy options (5). Eating at home means that families eat out less; Restaurant eating is associated with bigger portions and more calories, so switching to eating at home and preparing meals together is a great improvement (5).

Overall, CSAs appear to be linked to improved health, community, and well-being. More work needs to be done to conduct more research and make CSAs accessible to all people of all backgrounds, since the benefits apply to all. CSAs are an effective way for people to connect with their food, connect with a farm, and connect with each other.

References: 

(1) Hanson, K. L., Kolodinsky, J., Wang, W., Morgan, E. H., Pitts, S. B. J., Ammerman, A. S., … & Seguin, R. A. (2017). Adults and Children in Low-Income Households That Participate in Cost-Offset Community Supported Agriculture Have High Fruit and Vegetable Consumption. Nutrients, 9(7), 726.
(2) Cotter, E. W., Teixeira, C., Bontrager, A., Horton, K., & Soriano, D. (2017). Low-income adults’ perceptions of farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture programmes. Public health nutrition, 1.
(3) Wilkins, J. L., Farrell, T. J., & Rangarajan, A. (2015). Linking vegetable preferences, health and local food systems through community-supported agriculture. Public health nutrition, 18(13), 2392-2401.
(4) Harmon, A. H. (2014). Community supported agriculture: A conceptual model of health implications. Austin J Nutri Food Sci, 2(4), 1024.
(5) Vasquez, A., Sherwood, N. E., Larson, N., & Story, M. (2016). A novel dietary improvement strategy: Examining the potential impact of community-supported agriculture membership. Public health nutrition, 19(14), 2618-2628.

 

Why you should not store tomatoes in the refrigerator?

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By Maymona Al Hinai, University of Michigan Dietetics Intern

During my dietetic internship rotation in The Farm at St. Joe’s, I learned a lot of amazing things about farming, how to deal with plants, preparing health recipes, and CSA (community supported agriculture). I also try new things for first time such as kale, collard greens, basil and farmer market! One of the interesting things that I come across while I am here was to keep harvested tomatoes outside and not in the cooler. Coming from a very hot county like Oman, I always stored tomatoes in the refrigerator to extend their life and keep the molds away, I only keep them outside if it is green or unripe.

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To fill my research curiosity, I decided to make a very simple experiment to test whether the tomatoes left outside the refrigerator has any differences than the tomatoes in the refrigerator. I pick up some red and ripe cherry tomatoes from the farm and divided them to two groups (group A and group B, 7 cherry tomatoes in each). I stored group A on the counter at room temperature around 77 F and stored group B in the refrigerator at 41 F for 5 days. After I take off the tomatoes from the fridge and let their temperature down to room temperature, I blinded the groups and let my friends in the farm taste the tomatoes and notice any differences. The result was unclear as some found tomatoes in the fridge sweeter, softer, and riper where others found that these are the features of tomatoes left in the counter. Because the results were mixed, I try the experiment in different verity of tomatoes, the slicing tomatoes. For the slicing tomatoes, the difference was more clear and obvious as the tomatoes stored on the counter was more flavored and softer compare to tomatoes stored at lower temperature. This means that low temperature can affect the tomatoes and induce certain changes.

Well, unlike me maybe you already know that you should not store tomatoes in the refrigerator and keep it on the counter, but do you know why? Or what is the scientific evidence of this practice? Here are some of the research conducted to study this issue.

A study in New Zealand investigated the nutritional implication of storing harvested tomatoes in three different temperature at 45 F in a refrigerator, and at 59 and 77 F in temperature controlled incubators for 10 days (1). The results showed that tomatoes stored at 59 and 77 become redder than tomatoes stored at 45. This is because lycopene accumulation – a compound responsible for the red color of tomatoes and good for heart health too- was 2-fold more in tomatoes stored at higher temperature compare to tomatoes stored in the refrigerator. Moreover, the tomatoes acidity was higher in tomatoes stored at 59 and 77 F than at 45 F which may be due the decrease in acid production at low temperature.

Another study published in the Journal of Food Science found that the tomatoes ripe smell, flavor, and sweetness was significantly lowered at temperature below 55 F compare to 68 F, an effect caused by decline in the production of specific compounds at low temperature (2). In a more recent investigation, researchers found that storing tomatoes at low temperature induce a chilling injury that decrease their smells (3). Chilling injury is  physiological changes caused by improper storage temperatures of postharvest fruit and vegetables (4). Chilling injury makes tomatoes welt, change their texture, fail to fully ripe, loss flavor and smell, and decay (4).

So given what was discussed, what is the ideal temperature to store tomatoes? Well, according to the FAO, ripe tomatoes should be stored at 55-60 F (13-15 °C) whereas mature-green tomatoes can be stored at 65-72 F (18-22 °C). Storing tomatoes at proper temperature is important to preserve the nutrients, flavor, and quality of the tomatoes.

Now you know why they always say keep the tomatoes out of the fridge!

PS:

The Farm at St. Joe’s has a farmer market in the main entrance of St. Joe’s hospital every Wednesday. Stop by on Wednesday, to pick up a super delicious cherry tomatoes with other good veggies:)

Also, Check this link for other proper fruit and vegetable storage temperature: http://www.fao.org/WAIRdocs/x5403e/x5403e09.htm.

References:

  1. Toor RK, Savage GP. Changes in major antioxidant components of tomatoes during post-harvest storage. Food Chem. 2006;99:724–7.
  2. Maul F, Sargent S.A., Sims C.A., Baldwin E.A., Balaban M.O. HDJ. Tomato Flavor and Aroma Quality as Affected by Storage Temperature. J Food Sci. 2000;65:1228–37.
  3. Farneti B, Alarcón AA, Cristescu SM, Costa G, Harren FJM, Woltering EJ. Chilling-Induced Changes in Aroma Volatile Profiles in Tomato. Food Bioprocess Technol. 2015;8:1442–54.
  4. Misael O. Vega-Garcı´a, Greici L´opez-Espinoza JCO, Jos´e J. Caro-Corrales, Francisco Delgado Vargas and JAL-V. Changes in Protein Expression Associated with Chilling Injury in Tomato Fruit. J Am Soc Hortic Sci. 2010;135:83–9.

 

Summer Salad + Dressings

Two weeks ago at the market, we sampled a kale and blueberry salad and taste tested some different homemade salad dressings.

One cup of cooked kale contains 1328% of your daily vitamin K and 354% of your daily vitamin A. Kale has anti-cancer and detoxifying properties. Kale contains over 45 different flavonoids, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Blueberries are similarly rich in antioxidants.

Additionally, many delicious salad dressings can be made from ingredients we already have in our cupboard and we hope these recipes inspire some salad dressing creativity!

Salad Dressings – Olive Oil Vinaigrette and Mustard Vinaigrette

Kale Salad and Honey Garlic Vinaigrette

Summer Camp Fun!

We just had an amazing week of Farm, Field & Forest summer camp!

Campers got to explore how we can sustain ourselves with good nutrition and our environment with responsible actions.

We also got an unexpected tour of a medical helicopter!

There are more spots open for Farm to Table morning camp the week of August 14-18 from 10am-noon for ages 4-7 with an adult; register here: http://aarecedsummer.weebly.com/farm-to-table-cooking-with-kids.html

CSA week 4

Greetings everyone!

As the summer progresses, The Farm is a hopping spot! The tomatoes are starting to come on (visit the Farmers market tomorrow), the peppers are starting to set, and I spied a baby eggplant the other day! I’ve attached the newsletter for the CSA pilot that we’re running for low-income families. There are lots of great pictures!

This week’s share includes:

Kale

Green Onions

Blueberries (conventionally grown)

Zucchini

Cucumber

Parsley

Head lettuce

Green beans

Fruit spotlight: Blueberries

Blueberries are nutritional powerhouses, packed with Vitamin C, Vitamin K, manganese, fiber and numerous health-inducing phytonutrients. Blueberries contain high levels of diverse antioxidants and are believed to provide many health benefits, including boosting brain and heart health, protecting against  pathogens, reversing damage caused by toxins, preventing and fighting cancer, and improving gut health.

Recipe suggestions:

Kale Tabbouleh

Farm highlight: Ann Arbor Seed Company

Ann Arbor Seed Company is your local source for quality garden vegetable and flower seeds. Our farm is located just west of Ann Arbor, so the seeds we sell are proven to thrive with our local climate and soil conditions. We’re involved in all steps of the process, from selecting for the best taste and vigor, to cleaning and packaging seeds, so we can be sure of the best quality. Our seed packets can be found at local retailers, the downtown Ann Arbor farmer’s market (seasonally), and on our online shop.  Please visit www.a2seeds.com for more details.

We would be honored if you would give our seeds a try in your garden this year! Sincerely, Eric, Meredith, and Stacy

Fun Facts: 1.Seed farming allows us to see our crops in all stages of their lifecycle. We enjoy letting lettuce bloom, over-maturing our zucchini, and letting carrots flower in their second year over 6 ft tall. 2.Eric’s favorite crops are the biennial root vegetables like carrots, beets, and onions. He feels rich having so much good food at the fall harvest. They are such dynamic seed crops, fast growing and beautiful in their second year. 3.We keep bees to help promote pollinating of our crops. It’s also fun to observe the great diversity of wild pollinators buzzing or crawling about in a patch of flowering vegetables.

 

Thanks as always for being a part of The Farm family,

Amanda and the Farm team