Why Should We Eat Organic Foods?
In our quest to eat healthier and include more fresh fruits and vegetables in our diets, one of the first dilemmas we face in the grocery store is whether or not to buy "organic". While we know organically grown means less (or no) pesticides and chemicals in our foods, there have been numerous articles written about what "organic" really means, asking us if it is really worth paying more for organic.
Here is a Top 10 list that puts the TRUE COSTS of NOT buying organic into perspective:
1. Reduce The Toxic Load: Keep Chemicals Out of the Air, Water, Soil and our Bodies
Buying organic food promotes a less toxic environment for all living things. With only 0.5 percent of crop and pasture land in organic, according to USDA that leaves 99.5 percent of farm acres in the U.S. at risk of exposure to noxious agricultural chemicals. Our bodies are the environment so supporting organic agriculture doesn’t just benefit your family, it helps all families live less toxically.
2. Reduce if Not Eliminate Off Farm Pollution
Industrial agriculture doesn’t singularly pollute farmland and farm workers; it also wreaks havoc on the environment downstream. Pesticide drift affects non-farm communities with odorless and invisible poisons. Synthetic fertilizer drifting downstream is the main culprit for dead zones in delicate ocean environments, such as the Gulf of Mexico, where its dead zone is now larger than 22,000 square kilometers, an area larger than New Jersey, according to Science magazine, August, 2002.
3. Protect Future Generations
Before a mother first nurses her newborn, the toxic risk from pesticides has already begun. Studies show that infants are exposed to hundreds of harmful chemicals in utero. In fact, our nation is now reaping the results of four generations of exposure to agricultural and industrial chemicals, whose safety was deemed on adult tolerance levels, not on children’s. According to the National Academy of Science, “neurologic and behavioral effects may result from low-level exposure to pesticides.” Numerous studies show that pesticides can adversely affect the nervous system, increase the risk of cancer, and decrease fertility.
4. Build Healthy Soil
Mono-cropping and chemical fertilizer dependency has taken a toll with a loss of top soil estimated at a cost of $40 billion per year in the U.S., according to David Pimental of Cornell University. Add to this an equally disturbing loss of micro nutrients and minerals in fruits and vegetables. Feeding the soil with organic matter instead of ammonia and other synthetic fertilizers has proven to increase nutrients in produce, with higher levels of vitamins and minerals found in organic food, according to the 2005 study, “Elevating Antioxidant levels in food through organic farming and food processing,” Organic Center State of Science Review (1.05)
5. Taste Better and Truer Flavor
Scientists now know what we eaters have known all along: organic food often tastes better. It makes sense that strawberries taste yummier when raised in harmony with nature, but researchers at Washington State University just proved this as fact in lab taste trials where the organic berries were consistently judged as sweeter. Plus, new research verifies that some organic produce is often lower in nitrates and higher in antioxidants than conventional food. Let the organic feasting begin!
6. Assist Family Farmers of all Sizes
According to Organic Farming Research Foundation, as of 2006 there are approximately 10,000 certified organic producers in the U.S. compared to 2500 to 3,000 tracked in 1994. Measured against the two million farms estimated in the U.S. today, organic is still tiny. Family farms that are certified organic farms have a double economic benefit: they are profitable and they farm in harmony with their surrounding environment. Whether the farm is a 4-acre orchard or a 4,000-acre wheat farm, organic is a beneficial practice that is genuinely family-friendly.
7. Avoid Hasty and Poor Science in Your Food
Cloned food. GMOs and rBGH. Oh my! Interesting how swiftly these food technologies were rushed to market, when organic fought for 13 years to become federal law. Eleven years ago, genetically modified food was not part of our food supply; today an astounding 30 percent of our cropland is planted in GMOs. Organic is the only de facto seal of reassurance against these and other modern, lab-produced additions to our food supply, and the only food term with built in inspections and federal regulatory teeth.
8. Eating with a Sense of Place
Whether it is local fruit, imported coffee or artisan cheese, organic can demonstrate a reverence for the land and its people. No matter the zip code, organic has proven to use less energy (on average, about 30 percent less), is beneficial to soil, water and local habitat, and is safer for the people who harvest our food. Eat more seasonably by supporting your local farmers market while also supporting a global organic economy year round. It will make your taste buds happy.
9. Promote Biodiversity
Visit an organic farm and you’ll notice something: a buzz of animal, bird and insect activity. These organic oases are thriving, diverse habitats. Native plants, birds and hawks return usually after the first season of organic practices; beneficial insects allow for a greater balance, and indigenous animals find these farms a safe haven. As best said by Aldo Leopold, “A good farm must be one where the native flora and fauna have lost acreage without losing their existence.” An organic farm is the equivalent of reforestation. Industrial farms are the equivalent of clear cutting of native habitat with a focus on high farm yields.
10. Celebrate the Culture of Agriculture
Food is a ‘language’ spoken in every culture. Making this language organic allows for an important cultural revolution whereby diversity and biodiversity are embraced and chemical toxins and environmental harm are radically reduced, if not eliminated. The simple act of saving one heirloom seed from extinction, for example, is an act of biological and cultural conservation. Organic is not necessarily the most efficient farming system in the short run. It is slower, harder, more complex and more labor-intensive. But for the sake of culture everywhere, from permaculture to human culture, organic should be celebrated at every table.
So How Do I Find Organic Foods?
Due to the growing awareness of the health and environmental cost of conventionally grown foods, most grocery stores either have an organic section or carry organic produce next to non-organic foods. Make sure to look for the either green and white or black and white USDA Organic labels shown below to assure that what you are purchasing is certified organic. Making sense of organic labeling can be difficult, and many consumers do not understand the significance of the USDA Organic label. Since October 21, 2002, the following guidelines were established by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) to assure consumers know the exact organic content of the food they buy.
On foods like fruits and vegetables, look for a small sticker version of the USDA Organic label or check the signage in your produce section for this seal. The word "organic" and the seal may also appear on packages of meat, cartons of milk or eggs, cheese, and other single-ingredient foods.
Foods such as beverages, snacks, and other processed foods use the following classification system to indicate their use of organic ingredients. 100% Organic—Foods bearing this label are made with 100% organic ingredients* and may display the USDA Organic seal. Organic—These products contain at least 95–99% organic ingredients (by weight). The remaining ingredients are not available organically but have been approved by the NOP. These products may display the USDA Organic seal. Made With Organic Ingredients—Food packaging that reads “Made With Organic Ingredients” must contain 70–94% organic ingredients. These products will not bear the USDA Organic seal; instead, they may list up to three ingredients on the front of the packaging. Other—Products with less than 70% organic ingredients may only list organic ingredients on the information panel of the packaging. These products will not bear the USDA Organic seal.
Keep in mind that even if a producer is certified organic, the use of the USDA Organic label is voluntary. At the same time, not everyone goes through the rigorous process of becoming certified, especially smaller farming operations. When shopping at a farmers’ market, for example, don’t hesitate to ask the vendors how your food was grown. Even if your local farms are not certified organic, many use natural biodynamic methods of growing and controlling pests that result in fresher foods without the use of chemicals.
When it Comes to All Those Chemicals, Who’s Looking out For You?
The Environmental Working Group, otherwise known as EWG, is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, founded in 1993 by Ken Cook and Richard Wiles, that has made a significant impact in advocating for and protecting public health. In 2002, they founded the EWG Action Fund, a 501(c)(4) organization that advocates on Capitol Hill for health-protective and subsidy-shifting policies. EWG specializes in providing useful resources (like Skin Deep and the EWG's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides™) to consumers while simultaneously pushing for national policy change. They have two main goals, the first is to protect the most vulnerable segments of the human population children, babies, and infants in the womb from health problems attributed to a wide array of toxic contaminants. Their second goal is to replace federal policies, including government subsidies that damage the environment and natural resources, with policies that invest in conservation and sustainable development. Their research often brings to light unsettling facts that you have a right to know, and shames and shakes up polluters and their lobbyists. It rattles politicians and shapes policy. It persuades bureaucracies to rethink science and strengthen regulation. It provides practical information you can use to protect your family and community. EWG has a team of scientists, engineers, policy experts, lawyers and computer programmers that pore over government data, legal documents, scientific studies and conduct their our own laboratory tests to expose threats to your health and the environment, and to find solutions.
One of the most well-known and useful resources created by the Environmental Working Group is EWG’s 2012 Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce. It is updated yearly and you can download the guide for free off their website at www.ewg.org/foodnews/. Download the PDF version of the guide or you can even get their app for your smart phone. Either way, make sure to have the Guide with you before you head out shopping.
The “Dirty Dozen”: 12 Foods You Must Eat Organic
1. Apples: This healthy power-food has to look perfect, or many consumers get suspicious. New to the top toxic spot, apples are susceptible to more than 30 insects and at least 10 diseases, so conventional apples are sprayed many times during the growing season. Fungicides and other chemicals are also added after picking to prevent tiny blemishes that can accumulate during storage of up to 9 months.
2. Celery: “Nobody likes to find a caterpillar-damaged stalk in their celery bunch,” says Stuart Reitz, PhD, a research entomologist with the USDA. There are 64 pesticide residues found on celery.
3. Sweet Bell Peppers: The creases in their crowns hold pesticides, so they soak in. They also have less insect-deterring compounds in them.
4. Peaches: Farmers may spray peaches every week or two from bloom to harvest—and peach fuzz can trap pesticides. The USDA Pesticide Data Program found 62 pesticide residues.
5. Strawberries: They are delicate and prone to disease, including fungal attacks that can turn them to mush during transit and storage. Millions of pounds of methyl bromide are used every year by California strawberry growers. It damages the ozone layer, so it is banned in many parts of the world. “This chemical has an uncanny ability to damage DNA, which creates a host of problems, ranging from reproductive effects to cancer and neurological damage,” explains Gina Solomon, MD, MPH, chief scientist at Natural Resources Defense Council. “Since the chemical is also highly volatile, it is easy for it to drift and affect workers and nearby communities.”
6. Nectarines: They are closely related to peaches, so they have the same weakness and “need” the same chemical support.
7. Grapes: To prevent that easily-occurring rot, farmers spray aggressively with fungicides. The USDA Pesticide Data Program found 34 pesticide residues.
8. Spinach: Those green leaves are loved by grasshoppers and other insects, and the plants themselves suck up chemicals from the soil. For example, spinach has been shown to contain DDT from the soil, even though DDT was banned over 10 years ago. (You don’t just want to pass on spinach, though.)
9. Lettuce: Like spinach, there are large surface areas to protect. The USDA Pesticide Data Program found 51 pesticide residues.
10. Cucumbers: Without spraying, they can be very delicate. The USDA Pesticide Data Program found 35 pesticide residues.
11. Blueberries: The berries are targets for insects such as blueberry maggots and bagworms. The USDA Pesticide Data Program found 52 pesticide residues.
12. Potatoes: They are sprayed 5 or more times throughout the growing season to protect against various pests. After harvesting, another round of spraying occurs in the packing shed to ward off mold.
Extra foods on the “dangerous” list:
13. Kale/collard greens: Like spinach and lettuce, they have large surface areas that absorb sprays.
14. Cherries: If just one of the western cherry maggots is found in a shipment, the entire load of fruit must be dumped, so growers spray out of fear of losing their crops.
If you don’t see organic versions of the “Dirty Dozen” in your local grocery store, be sure to ask the store manager if to carry them. Stores stock their inventory according to what sells, so the more customers express their interest for organic foods, the more organic foods the store will carry. Don’t be discouraged if at first you are told that they can’t get a certain organic fruit or vegetable, keep asking and encourage others to do the same. When the store is assured of a great enough demand, and that the organic produce you want will sell, they will start supplying.
The “Clean 15”: Foods That Have the Least Amount of Chemicals
2. Sweet Corn
6. Sweet peas
11. Cantaloupe – domestic
12. Sweet potatoes
What is so wonderful about this list is that many of these foods are considered to be Super Foods, which means that everything you buy does not HAVE to be organic to get the benefits of a healthy diet. One way to remember the difference between the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15 is that most foods on the Clean 15 have thick rinds that you usually don’t eat, and those foods generally have less surface area than the foods on the Dirty Dozen. There are a few exceptions like asparagus and mushrooms, which spring up so fast that the insects don’t have time to attack. Some foods, like sweet potato, have their own unique bug protection.
When I can, I enjoy buying my food at the farmers’ market, where I know exactly where it is coming from. You get to know the farmers and their integrity. Also, I do buy according to the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15. It is a list to take seriously, and, for all the reasons mentioned in this article, I choose to buy organic first and foremost. If there is an occasion where I buy non-organic, I soak them in a little raw apple cider vinegar (an inexpensive veggie spray) that takes away some of the chemicals. While nothing can remove all the chemicals, if organic is not available, remember that it is far better to rinse them and eat your veggies than not eat them at all!
In our global economy, choosing to buy organically grown foods has a far reaching impact, and the benefits extend well beyond our own dinner table. It is something we can do for ourselves, our loved ones, our local economies, our environment, and yes, quite literally, even for “the planet”. It is a “win” on so many levels that the “cost” in dollars pales in comparison to the magnitude of the value. Buying organic is most likely the most important step that you can take to improve not only your own health, but that of your family, your grandchildren, and all generations to come.
Alan Greene, MD (Organic Trade Association), Bob Scowcroft (Organic Farming Research Foundation), Sylvia Tawse (Fresh Ideas Group)
The Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org/about) and (www.ewg.org/foodnews/)