Conservation Corner

Pauline Lee

Why is organic produce healthier than fertilizer grown produce? While they may appear no different from each other, their biochemical composition may have important differences. They both have common constituents such as carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Organic produce, however, has micronutrients that fertilizer grown produce lacks. These components are vital for total health.

Before fertilizers became commonplace after World War II, farmers learned to rotate crops among different plants and added compost to maintain good yields because they realized crops depleted soil fertility. When big agriculture farms came in vogue, manufactured fertilizers also developed into full production, enabling the farmers to add chemicals to make up for soil depletion caused by crops. But chemical fertilizers do not provide all that plants need to grow as maximally as they can. Soil scientists finally are beginning to understand the missing component: soil microbes. These microbes are a diverse group of bacteria, viruses and fungi. They live in, on and around plant roots in the soil; they are called the rhizobiome or microbiome.

The microbiome and the plants have a symbiotic relationship: the plants transmit exudates containing carbohydrates, amino acids, vitamins and phytochemicals into their roots to attract the microbes. The beneficial microbiome species feed on the exudates and, in return, enhance the plant’s immune system. For example, some microbes can produce a toxin that kills caterpillars on plant leaves; some soil fungi can kill and outcompete pathogenic fungi and can activate the plant’s own immune system. Furthermore, the beneficial microbiome can help the plants to tolerate heat, cold, drought, flood or very salty environments by making special hormones or chemicals. Some can take up heavy metals to allow plants to survive and grow; some turn nitrogen from air into biologically usable forms. In sum this symbiotic relationship between plants and the beneficial microbes promotes health and growth for both sides and drastically reduces the need for manufactured fertilizers and pesticides.

The organically grown plant products have more micronutrients than those grown with synthetic fertilizer. These micronutrients contain metal ions of copper, magnesium, iron and zinc. These metals are an important part of hundreds of enzymes that are essential catalysts to bring about necessary biological reactions for the growth and health of living systems, including human beings. There has been a five-40 percent decrease in the mineral content of fruits and vegetables over the previous 50-70 years as modern agriculture began relying on artificial fertilizers. While we may take metal ions in pill form as supplements in the hopes of replacing what may be deficient in our diet, it is possible that our system, like plants, can assimilate only specific metal forms. Just like plants need the microbiome to turn metals into usable forms, we can get these micronutrients when we eat organically grown plants. Until the unintended nutritional deficiency of industrial farm products is corrected, it’s best for your long term health to eat organic produce.