The health benefits of organic farming

Farmworker applying herbicide to rice field

It is often hard to get an answer to the simple question “is organic food healthier?” The evidence-based answer is yes, but maybe not in the way that you expect. 

Many people buy organic food because they believe it reduces their (or their dogs’) exposure to toxins and a variety of resulting health issues. However, an often overlooked aspect of organic agriculture is its impact on the health of the farmworkers who produce the food and the communities nearby. While much scrutiny falls on the pesticide residue that makes its way to the consumer-ready food in the grocery store, the impact of chemical exposure on people who spend their days in pesticide-treated fields is rarely mentioned as a reason to shop organic. 


It is disappointing but not surprising that farmworker health receives very little attention or consideration, as farmworkers are largely ignored despite their critical role and significant challenges. There are over 3 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the United States - almost 1 in 100 people in America. They face work that is inconsistent (60% are employed seasonally), inaccessible (42% traveled further than 75 miles for a job), and dangerous (occupation is ranked third in workplace fatalities and first in toxic chemical injuries). Farmworkers face a number of daily hazards - including exposure to extreme weather and temperature, working with and alongside heavy machinery, and performing physically taxing jobs - but unhealthy exposure to toxic chemical pesticides is particularly preventable and dangerous.

A wildfire burns next to crop fields in Salinas, California
The River Fire burns near crop fields in Salinas, Califoria in August, 2020 (David Litman). Images of farmworkers working in smoke and scorched air brought attention to the extreme risks that farmworkers faced during the historic California wildfires and COVID-19 pandemic. However, a lack of PPE and daily pesticide exposure will remain a major health risk for farmworkers after the coronavirus and fires subside.

Chemical exposure may result from workers being sprayed directly, indirect contact due to wind drifts, skin contact from crop residues, or drinking contaminated water. Oftentimes, farmworkers do not receive proper training in the use of pesticides and are not provided adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), especially as it became scarce and more expensive during the coronavirus pandemic.

The health issues from pesticide exposure are both acute and chronic. The EPA estimated that 300,000 farmworkers suffer acute pesticide poisoning in the United States every year, the vast majority of which go untreated and unreported.

Farmworkers also consistently show significant levels of metabolized pesticides - i.e. pesticides detectable in blood, urine, and tissue - after prolonged exposure to “acceptable,” sub-toxic amounts. Years of pesticide exposure are correlated with loss of sensory and motor function, increased rates of cancer - particularly Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and damage to DNA.

Establishing causal links between pesticide exposure and illness has been difficult given farmworkers’ frequent location changes and inconsistency of healthcare providers that makes collecting data a challenge. As a result, there are a limited number of studies that are able to track the direct impacts of prolonged pesticide exposure on farmworkers. However, there are a number of studies that have examined the communities located near farm operations, and they provide evidence that pesticide exposure is significantly more harmful to those with direct exposure than the general population.

The families of agricultural workers face significant pesticide exposure in their home, which is particularly concerning given the increased health risks for small children. This occurs because of spray-drift and volatilization, which can result in up to 90% of the dose applied on crops ending up in the air. This places entire rural communities - not just those working in the fields - at risk of pesticide-associated health issues.  

Living in close proximity to farm operations is associated with higher occurrence of diseases and abnormalities. The rate of heart malformations is higher at birth in wheat producing counties, which often use hichlorophenoxy herbicides. Studies have also linked high amounts of exposure to various pesticides to occurrences of prostate cancer, non‐Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and adult leukemia. 


A wildfire burns next to crop fields in Salinas, California
Pesticide exposure traced with a fluorescent marker to demonstrate the proper use of personal protective equipment from the Pacific Northwest Agriculture Safety and Health Center (PNASH). Pesticide tracing experiments consistently find that significant levels of pesticides follow farmworkers into their homes and communities.

You may be asking (with good reason) - if many common pesticides actually have documented links with serious health problems, why do we continue to use them and why haven’t regulatory organizations stepped in? There is an understandable perception that if the substance is legally allowed for agricultural use, then it must be safe (or at least low-risk). 

However, many of the most popular pesticides - such as atrazine discussed in a prior post - are deemed safe and used at a massive scale for years before an organization like the Environmental Protection Agency or the World Health Organization is presented with enough evidence to classify the chemical as a carcinogen or other health risk. The World Health Organization has classified the pesticides DDT, glyphosate, malathion, and diazinon - four of the most commonly used pesticides while they were legally allowed - as probable carcinogens, and additional pesticides are frequently added to the list of unsafe and banned substances as regulatory bodies review growing bodies of evidence. 

Because farmworkers also must overcome other factors associated with shorter lifespans and poor health - namely poverty, insecure housing, and limited access to health services and insurance - some harmful effects of pesticide exposure can remain masked by other explanatory variables for decades before the real consequences (and strong evidence of causation) are revealed. 


Logically, it stands to reason that agricultural operations that do not use synthetic pesticides (like certified organic farms) will have fewer workers and surrounding community-members exposed to toxic chemicals compared to those that use large amounts. The additional scrutiny of the organic review process also provides those working in and around organic farms with more oversight and higher standards for safety. 

That said, there are very few studies examining the health outcomes of farmworkers on organic vs. conventional farms, with similar study challenges to those described above. In addition, organic farms represent less than 1% of U.S. cropland, and most workers that spend time on organic farms will also work on (and live near) conventionally-planted land. This means that it is very difficult to find a pure “treatment group” that exclusively works on organically-planted land and does not live near conventionally-planted fields.

While we cannot directly quantify the impact of sourcing organic ingredients on health outcomes, we believe creating more demand for organic products is unequivocally good for farmworkers and agricultural communities.

Many people are drawn to organic products for perceived benefits to their own health, although there is limited evidence linking consumption of organic food results to better health outcomes. While people who eat organic foods are healthier as described by a number of wellness metrics like cancer risk, the organic-eaters are also more likely to engage in healthy behaviors like more activity, increased fresh produce consumption, and lower smoking rates that make it difficult to isolate organic food’s role in better health. 

Pesticide residue present at the point of sale or consumption also varies dramatically by agricultural product. In addition, certain vulnerable groups (like pregnant women and infants) seem to be much more susceptible to the effects of pesticide exposure, which makes a generalized verdict about the health benefits of organic foods elusive. It is important to note that the levels of chemical residue on food dramatically decreases by the time it reaches the market where you buy it. Farmworkers are at an increased risk compared to general consumers because they are exposed to significantly higher concentrations and close proximity. 

The most significant nutritional difference between conventional and organic is actually seen in meat and dairy products. Organic products have about 50% more omega-3 fatty acids than their conventional counterparts. A study has also linked the consumption of organic milk to a decrease in eczema, potentially due to the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fats. Organic meat and dairy production also provide a community health benefit, as the lack of antibiotic use may alleviate risks of the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the massive risk of animal-originated diseases, and the widespread use of antibiotics in healthy livestock is a known cause of the proliferation of drug-resistant bacteria that kills over 700,000 people every year.   

The lack of quantifiable research makes it difficult to link consuming organic food with health outcomes for humans or dogs. Ultimately, we view buying organic ingredients as a meaningful way to protect farm workers and farm-adjacent communities from the significant health issues caused by exposure to toxic substances used in conventional farming.

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