What does organic mean?
Marion Nestle has the answer for this one: “The organic seal tells you that the producers of the foods followed a long list of rules: they did not use any synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers; they did not plant genetically modified seeds, use fertilizer derived from sewage sludge, or treat the seeds or foods with irradiation; and they kept records of everything they did and showed the paperwork and everything on their farms to inspectors from a USDA-accredited state or private certification agency any time they were asked to, announced in advance or not” (2006, P. 42).
Are organics better?
“Given the potential size of the organic market, you can understand why the idea that these foods might be better for you or for the planet so annoys critics. One is Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington D.C., think tank that receives funding from, among other sources, agribusiness corporations like Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, ConAgra, Monsanto, and the National Agricultural Chemicals Association. No wonder these groups fund the institute’s work. Mr. Avery argues that organic methods are so unreliable that they reduce productivity, cause higher prices, and therefore, threaten the food security of the world’s most vulnerable populations. Organic farming, he says, is an environmental disaster, an imminent danger to wildlife, and a hazard to the health of its own consumers. Strong words, indeed.
Consider first what is at stake. If farmers switched to organics, the makers of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides would suffer. If you decided to buy organics, you would buy fewer conventionally grown foods. And if more of your friends bought organic foods you all might go as far as to demand government subsidies for organics rather than for conventionally grown corn and soybeans. Research on the kinds of issues Avery raises also cannot help but have political biases. … Fortunately, some questions about organics have been researched and do have clear answers. One such question is about productivity. As early as the mid-1970s, studies began to question the idea that agricultural efficiency necessarily depends on fertilizers and pesticides. In 1981, a review of such studies came to surprising conclusions: farmers who converted from conventional to organic methods reported only small declines in yields, but the loss in income was offset by lower fuel costs. The study found that the farms were equally profitable, but the organic production kept the soil in much better shape. More recent studies confirm these results. Overall they show that organic farms are nearly as productive, leave the soils healthier, and use energy more efficiently. The productivity issue seems settled” (Nestle, p. 45).
What are the benefits of organic produce?
Again, I defer to Nestle and the What to Eat bible for the answer: “If crops are grown without pesticides, it seems self-evident that fewer pesticides will get into the soil and water, foods will contain less of them, and people who eat organic foods will have lower levels of pesticides in their bodies. Plenty of research confirms these obvious connections. Organically grown foods do have lower levels of pesticides, and children and adults who eat them have lower levels in their bodies. Avery and his fellow critics say: ‘So what? Pesticides are safe.’ As evidence, they say that nobody has ever died from eating the small amounts of pesticide residues on food. Oh, please. Pesticides are demonstrably harmful to the farmworkers and ‘nontarget’ wildlife, and they accumulate in soils for ages. If they kill pests, can they be good for you? If they really were all that benign, there would be no reason for the government to bother to regulate them, but it does. Scientists may not be able to quantify the degree of harm they cause, but that does not mean that pesticides are safe for you. This is also a settled issue. Pesticide-free produce may not look as pretty, but if you want fewer pesticides in your body and in the bodies of your children, buy organics. If you want fewer pesticides in soil and water, organics are also a good idea” (p. 45)
Pollan also echos this sentiment that organic is better for the environment, farmers, and public health: “If the high price of my all-organic meal is weighted against the comparatively low price it exacted from the larger world, as it should be, it begins to look, at least in karmic terms, like a real bargin” (2006, p. 182).
Great! Organic looks like “the answer”! Let’s all switch to eating organic produce!
Hmm, not so fast. Even with all of the benefits of farming organically, there are still problems: “And yet, and yet… an industrial organic meal such as mine does leave deep footprints on our world. The lot of the workers who harvested the vegetables and gathered up Rosie for slaughter is not appreciably different from that of those on nonorganic factory farms. The chickens lived only marginally better lives than their conventional counterparts. … But perhaps most discouraging of all, my industrial organic meal is nearly as drenched in fossil fuel as its conventional counterpart. … Today it takes between seven and ten calories of fossil fuel energy to deliver one calorie of food energy to an American plate. And while it is true that organic farmers don’t spread fertilizers made from natural gas or spray pesticides made from petroleum, industrial organic farmers often wind up burning more diesel fuel than their conventional counterparts … All told, growing food organically uses about a third less fossil fuel than growing it conventionally, according to David Pimental, though that savings disappears if the compost is not produced on site or nearby” (Pollan, p. 183).
The other issue that comes up with the topic of organic is cost. Produce in general is far more expensive than processed foods. For example, a salad is going to cost more than a fast-food cheeseburger, whether or not that salad is organic. This all has to do with federal policies (e.g. The farm bill) and the fact that the U.S. government subsidizes corn and soy, the main ingredients in a cheeseburger.
After all of this reading this quarter, here are my thoughts about buying organic:
Organic produce is more expensive, but I believe that the extra cost is worth the benefits for the planet, the public, and less pesticide residue in my body. I cannot always afford to buy organic produce, but I recognize my privilege that I can buy some organic items and afford produce in general.
- Organic produce may not be “the answer” to fixing the issues within our food system, but it provides a lot of good benefits.
What produce contains the most pesticides?
In September 2008, Vegetarian Times had an article by Cindy Burke on “How to Buy Organic.” Here are her recommendations:
- Bell Peppers (all colors)
- Collard Greens, Salad Greens, Swiss Chard
- Green Beans
- Winter Squash
OK to buy nonorganic:
- Brussels Sprouts
- Corn, sweet
- Eggplant (all varieties)
- Onions (all varieties)
- Sweet Potatoes
Nuts, Seeds, & Legumes
- Peanuts (and peanut butter)
- Soy foods
OK to buy nonorganic:
- Beans, dried
- Macadamia nuts
- Sesame seeds
- Grapes (imported)
OK to buy nonorganic:
- Cantaloupe (domestic)
- Grapes (domestic)
- Grapefruit, Tangerines
The Dirty Dozen
According to the Environmental Working Group, these are the 12 most pesticide-laden conventionally grown fresh fruits & vegetables.
- Bell Peppers
Read Burke’s whole article here
Nestle, M. (2006). What to Eat. North Point Press.Pollan, M. (2007). The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Penguin Press,