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In the Battle of the Strawberries, Did Organic Win


9.3_800px_Strawberries__1__580053724.jpgYou're in the produce section of your grocery store trying to decide between conventionally grown strawberries and strawberries labeled organically grown.  Both containers are filled with beautiful red strawberries with supple green stems and smell wonderfully fruity and sweet. Both provide vitamins, antioxidants and are free of fat, sodium and cholesterol, but the "USDA Organic" labeled item can cost substantially more.

During an economic period where most Americans are tightening their budgets, including their food budget, is buying "organic" really worth it?  Is organic better, safer, more nutritious?  And what about the taste?

John Reganold, Washington State University (WSU) Regents, Professor of Soil Science and colleagues conducted the most comprehensive study of its kind, analyzing 31 chemical and biological soil properties, soil DNA, and the taste, nutrition and quality of three strawberry varieties on more than two dozen commercial fields – 13 conventional and 13 organic.

The current study of farms in California, where 90% of the nation's strawberries are produced is also the center of an ongoing debate about the use of soil fumigants.

Conventional farms in the study used the ozone-depleting methyl bromide, soon to be replaced by the highly toxic methyl iodide even though protested by health advocates, more than 50 Nobel laureates and members of the National Academy of Sciences.  California Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked the EPA to reconsider its approval of methyl iodide earlier this year.

Researchers assisting Reganold included Preston Andrews, WSU Associate Professor of Horticulture, along with seven other experts, mostly from WSU, creating a  multidisciplinary team spanning agroecology, soil science, microbial ecology, genetics, pomology, food science, sensory science, and statistics.

Reganold, lead author of the paper published in the peer-reviewed online journal, PLoS ONE said, "There is no paper in the literature that comprehensively and quantitatively compares so many indices of both food and soil quality at multiple sampling times on so many commercial farms."

Researchers revealed that the organic fields and fruit were equal to or better than their conventionally grown counterparts on almost every major indicator.

• The organic strawberries had significantly higher antioxidant activity and concentrations of ascorbic acid and phenolic compounds.
• The organic strawberries had longer shelf life.
• The organic strawberries had more dry matter, or, "more strawberry in the strawberry."
• Anonymous testers, working at times under red light so the fruit color would not bias them, found one variety of organic strawberries was sweeter, had better flavor, and once a white light was turned on, appearance. The testers judged the other two varieties to be similar.

The organic soils excelled in a variety of key chemical and biological properties, including carbon sequestration, nitrogen, microbial biomass, enzyme activities, and micronutrients, reported researchers.   Additionally, the organically managed soils exhibited profoundly more total and unique genes and greater genetic diversity based on DNA analysis, all of which are important measures of the soil's resilience to stress and ability to carry out essential processes.

Authors write, "Our findings show that the organic strawberry farms produced higher quality fruit and that their higher quality soils may have greater microbial functional capability and resilience to stress. These findings justify additional investigations aimed at detecting and quantifying such effects and their interactions."

While organically grown strawberries were found to be higher in antioxidants  and Vitamin C than the conventionally grown fruit, the contained less of the dietary minerals potassium and phosphorus which are equally important nutrients.

Reganold states, "We also show you can have high quality, healthy produce without resorting to an arsenal of pesticides."

In order to earn the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic Label, farmers and/or food manufacturers must meet the USDA organic certification program regulations as to how foods are grown handled and processed.  Only producers who sell less than $5,000 a year in organic foods are exempt from this certification; however, they must follow the same government standards to label their foods as organic.

Organic farming practices are designed to encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution by not using chemical fertilizers, insecticides or herbicides.  Relying on natural fertilizers, rotation of crops, manual managing of weeds and natural pest deterrents such as common household spices, there is no leaching of chemicals into the soil and roots of the food products.

Many factors must be considered when choosing organically grown versus conventionally grown produce; nutrition, quality pesticides, environment, cost and taste.  Equally important are essential food safety guidelines for all produce whether organic or otherwise.  For best quality, buy produce in season, wash all produce thoroughly with running water to reduce the amount of dirt, bacteria and possible pesticide residue.