Sunday, August 21, 2011

Organic or not? Which do you choose?

Do you buy organic produce?  If you don't because of the cost, do you worry about what the effects might be?  What if organic produce isn't all it's cracked up to be? Would you still buy it? The question of what constitutes healthy, safe food is something I've been thinking about for over 20 years.

Back in 1989 I was a freshman in college. Young and impressionable, a new friend suggested I read "Diet for a New America" by John Robbins. Written in 1987, this expose into the business of factory farming and new environmentalism was written years before it's time. If you've seen the recent film, Food, Inc.. you get the general idea of what the book is about. After waffling back and forth for a few months on the issue much to the dismay of my family (my grandparents owned a deli for goodness sake), I decided to become a vegetarian. Tweny-two years on, I'm still sticking to it.

This decision to change my eating habits set me on a course for what I do in my life now. I grow a lot of the vegetables for my family. I shop organic. I feed my kids sustainably raised hormone free meat, dairy and eggs and when they were babies I made their baby food out of organic produce even when it wasn't that affordable. It's been a growing process, these things didn't happen overnight. I'm pretty happy where we are now, I'd be even happier if child #2 would eat more vegetables, but I digress.

Things have changed a lot since 1989. Organic produce, well it's everywhere. It's in our markets and in our news. Have you heard of the "dirty dozen" list? The list of fruits and vegetables that have the highest pesticide exposure. I even have an app for my iPhone which keeps the list handy for when I struggle with is "local and seasonal" better than "organic from who knows where".

Today, I was catching up with one of my favorite blogs called The Garden Professors (it's for plant geeks, and I know most of you are way too cool for that.) It's written by several college professors, all quite respected in the horticulture world, one of whom is particularly known for debunking gardening myths. Imagine my confusion when I read his summary of a fairly recent scholarly work regarding pesticide exposure (or lack thereof) on conventional produce. Is it possible that conventional produce is not quite as bad as we have been led to believe?  The study seems to suggest that the pesticide levels on conventional produce are so negligible that it poses little or no risk to consumers.  Have the marketing geniuses behind the list (Environmental Working Group) made us afraid of our own shadow? Or is this newer research flawed or sponsored by an organization that has something to gain?  Lots of questions for the idea that "organic is better".  Here's the referenced study from the Journal of Toxicology.

Lest you think that I'm advocating that you stop buying organic, I'm not.  However, what you may or may not know about organic farming, is that organic farms spray pesticides too, they are just organic based.  For example, copper is a highly potent fungicide, and depending on it's mixture and delivery method can be 100% organic.  Copper in some forms can also be highly caustic.   So in other words, just because it's organic doesn't mean it's "safe".  I'll touch on this more in an upcoming post, as it's a topic that surprises many people.

My family and I are very fortunate where we live, that we have access to small family farms for about 7-8 months out of the year.  Apple season has just begun here in the northeast, which means through November at least - all the apples I buy will be local (like 1 mile away for the most part), but not organic.  While the local vs. organic debate is still on my mind, this study provokes even more questions for me than it provides answers.  I'd love to know what you think.


  1. Since moving out West, we've been fortunate in our choices. In terms of organic produce, we've joined a CSA where there are a plethora of choices of organic, local produce. We get to know the names of every one of the farms that our produce is sourced, and we've even stopped at some of them on our many adventures. We get [at least] fitten items a week from our CSA, and combined with our CSF [Fishery!] and soon to be added grass-fed beef, our diets have changed monumentally in less than two months.

    As for organic vs. local -- there are tradeoffs, and tradeoffs that cannot easily be quantified in the rational economic sense of the term. Much like the misnomer "work-life balance", there can be bad organic, great local, vice-versa and myriad choices in between. That you're thinking about it and actively choosing your foods puts you a few steps beyond what most are doing. Cheers.

  2. It's amazing how much a move can change things. When we moved just half and hour north, from where we both used to live, we were no longer reliant on "which day is the farmers market?" Having access to fresh stuff all the time is really amazing!

  3. this is a very interesting argument - we live on Long Island. There aren't too many farms near us (although one just re-started planting and is organic which is really exciting.) The problem I have w/ the pesticides (non-organic) is that there have been several research studies specifically tying them to the rise in ADD and ADHD in chilren. Shouldn't our food supply be kept safe, particularly once a link like this has been made?

    Interesting note about the copper - when our CSA (also organic) uses it they make certain to label those items on the weekly blog with a note to be certain to wash the items really well which I totally appreciate. Our fruit share is from a local orchard which is not organic but they also try to use only organics when possible In that case I do feel that local outweighs unknown origin.

    We have changed our diets a lot by eating in season for most foods and not looking to buy strawberries in December...

  4. I guess the problem I'm finding, is today it seems like you can find a research study to prove just about anything! Pesticides are just one piece of a dizzying puzzle of what keeps (or doesn't keep lately) our food safe in this country. And truthfully, pesticides are not the only issue when it comes to conventional produce. The synthetic petroleum based fertilizers have huge, environmental and economic impact. It's just not something I can agree with.

    I think that most small farmers are very honest, and that an organic when possible approach (called Integrated Pest Management in the biz) can also be really successful while not putting consumers at risk.

    To put things in perspective, up until the 1940's lead arsenate was the most commonly used insecticide (until it was replaced by DDT, and we all know how that turned out). Lead arsenate wasn't actually banned for use in the US until 1988. So likely in our lifetime, but certainly in our parents lifetime we consumed lead and arsenic, which; a) is difficult to wash off b) persists in the soil for hundreds of years as it does not break down c) the lead is taken up by future generations of the plant and may be found in the fruit. Yikes!