The Difference Between Organic And Conventional Fruit And Veg

lemons and mandarine limes on bushes

5 Minute Read    

One of the questions we are asked most often is whether our produce is organic, and if not then why not? The answer is that much of the fruit and vegetables that go into our FruutBoxes are conventional produce, not organic; our main focus is on providing quality produce free from single use plastic packaging, locally sourced wherever possible, that is affordable and appeals to as many people as possible. Many of our local growers that we source from are organic, but if our produce were exclusively organic then it would be more expensive, and less people would be able to access it and reduce their use of single use plastics. You have to pick your battles. Ours is against single use plastics.

Here we’re going to answer some of the questions that frequently crop up surrounding the organic/conventional produce conversation, using scientific sources. Sources to further reading are linked to throughout the article.

What Is The Difference Between Organic And Conventional Fruit And Veg?

Farming that does not use synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides in the production of food is organic; certified organic crops come from farms that have been proven to have not used any artificial chemicals on their land for a specified period of time. Organic farming uses natural or naturally derived fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides, rather than synthetic ones. Over the last decade or so, thanks largely to EU legislation, the difference between organic and conventional farming has narrowed. Many conventional farmers use organic fertilisers or pesticides on their crops despite not being certified or sold as organic (so the produce isn’t certified organic), and it is worth noting that a number of organic pesticides have in the past failed the European Food Safety Authority’s tests and been banned from use. A pesticide, herbicide or fungicide needs to be toxic to be effective, and just because something is natural doesn’t mean that it is better or not bad for human consumption (to believe otherwise is what is known as the “naturalistic fallacy”. Arsenic is natural. So is plutonium. Neither are good for human health.  Those are just two examples). The issue is that there is a difference between farming at scale for the mass market (supermarkets and so on, where most people shop) and market gardening for local consumption (farm shops, farmers markets and local box schemes). Large-scale farming will use fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides of either the natural (organic) or synthetic variety, or perhaps a mix of both, but only certified organic produce can be marketed and sold as organic. It is perfectly legal and quite common for the opposite to happen however, and organic produce is frequently sold as conventional produce where it has not sold as organic at a wholesale level and so is offered to a broader market and mixed in with conventionally grown produce. Yup, you could well be eating organic, but paying for cheaper conventionally grown fruit and veg! Win: win, if so.
If you are concerned about the use of pesticides and pesticide residues on produce then you can try to source your fruit and vegetables from a “no spray” or “no pesticide” farm, however operations that produce food in this way are often working at a very small and local scale, and will offer a limited range of produce and only within season. Luckily, when we offer organic produce as an add-on to your Fruutbox, it is almost always from a small scale local grower like this. Whether your buy conventional or organic fruit and veg though, we always recommend that you wash it before eating it.


Is Organic Fruit And Veg Healthier?

One of the reasons frequently cited by consumers about why they buy organic produce is because they believe it to be more nutritious.

“The reasons consumers are increasingly choosing organic over conventional food products are varied, including many reasons beside personal health and wellbeing, such as environmental concerns or animal welfare impact. However, the major determinants behind consumer purchase of organic products, is the belief that organic food is healthier or has a superior nutritional profile.”
Vigar et al. January 2020

A 2009 review of published scientific literature in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition attempted to find a consensus on the nutrient content of organic produce:

“On the basis of a systematic review of studies of satisfactory quality, there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs. The small differences in nutrient content detected are biologically plausible and mostly relate to differences in production methods.”

It is only in the last couple of years that systemic reviews of the health effects (as opposed to simply the nutrient content) of organic produce versus conventionally grown produce, have had access to enough peer reviewed scientific studies to be able to draw conclusions. This seems largely due to the long time scales required for many of these studies, and the number of variables involved that make comparisons challenging. One of the most recent, “A Systematic Review of Organic Versus Conventional Food Consumption: Is There a Measurable Benefit on Human Health?” by Vigar et al. in the journal Nutrients in January 2020 stated that whist the current evidence base is not sufficient for a definitive statement, numerous studies have shown “demonstrable health benefits with organic food consumption”.

We source organic produce for Fruutbox boxes whenever it is available locally and at a price that allows us to include it without making our products prohibitively expensive. We are confident in our decision to stock our boxes with majority conventionally produced fruit and vegetables, due to both the narrowing gap between organic and conventional farming methods and the current scientific consensus that there is very little difference in the nutritional values of either method.

combine harvester harvesting a field of wheat

Is Organic Farming Better For The Environment?

As touched on previously, organic farming at the sort of scale that supplies the mass market (supermarkets) is very different to small scale organic farming. The choice to farm organically is indicative of a farmer’s mindset and attitude to the environment, so whatever scale they are working at there are likely to be positive actions beyond the source of the fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides that they use that are geared towards reducing their environmental impact.

One of the largest negative environmental impacts of conventional farming are nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from the use of nitrogen fertilisers (agriculture accounts for 60% - other anthropogenic/human sources include the combustion of fossil fuels, biomass burning and the industrial production of nitric acid). Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas that is accumulating in the troposphere and stratosphere, and is over 300 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Nitrogen is an essential element for plant growth though, and is essential for growing food. Organic farms don’t use synthetic nitrogenous fertilisers, with many (especially smaller scale farmers) instead spreading manure on their fields and rotating their crops so that nitrogen-fixing plants such as legumes (beans, peas, lentils) or clover are regularly grown as part of a field’s planting cycle, to return nitrogen to the soil and maintain soil health and fertility. Environmentally, conventional farming’s reliance on nitrogenous fertilisers is a serious problem that needs addressing.

shoots in a vegetable patch

Are There Any Other Differences Between Organic And Conventional Fruit And Veg?

The main difference to most consumers, is price. Organic produce is often more expensive, and this can be a barrier for many people. A 2014 report in Academics Review studied over 200 published academic, industry and government reports and found that in America the organic sector has wrongfully used marketing to create the impression that products carrying the Organic Seal (certified by the United States Department of Agriculture) are healthier and safer. The Organic Seal is a certification of the production methods however, not that a product is safer or healthier.

“Consumers have spent hundreds of billion dollars purchasing premium-priced organic food products based on false or misleading perceptions about comparative product food safety, nutrition and health attributes.”
- Professor Bruce Chassy, PhD, Academics Review 2014

Here in the UK, the label “organic” has also been presented in a way that does not challenge consumers’ presumptions about what the term means. Perhaps the most concerning aspect of this is not so much the misinformation that might perpetuate, but the belief that what we eat and how it is produced needs to be a binary stance - you either eat organic, or you don’t. It isn't.  Many farmers use a blend of both technologies and methodologies, and as stewards of the land producing food, the vast majority of them do what they believe is best.  It is important that where there are clear environmental or health benefits to organic farming that methodology is incentivised and perhaps subsidised, and that efforts are made to reduce the cost gap between conventional and more expensive organic produce.

Cost should not be a barrier to consumers who wish to use their purchasing power to do something positive and reduce their impact upon the planet.