Is organic food really better than conventional? Safer? Or is it the biggest racket to come around since televangelism?
If you read this post where I complain about the frustrations of a health nut living so far from a health food store, you were of one or two minds: sympathetic, or cynical. Like, “Good grief, girl, just buy conventional food at the local markets and deal!”
If you were of the sympathetic mind, you’re probably wondering why I’m even thinking about questioning the obvious superiority of organic food, of lowering myself to the level of The Stupid Ignoramuses who persist in poisoning their bodies with pesticides. Let’s deal with that latter assumption first, the assumption that people who don’t buy organic are ignorant.
I’ve known for awhile that not everybody can afford to purchase certified organic produce. And I mean people who genuinely cannot afford it, not people who would be able to afford it if they’d cancel their cable and stop shopping for new clothes every Saturday.
But when we lived in Plano, we were surrounded by people whose household incomes often equaled, and often exceeded, ours. We were surrounded by people who could afford to shop at health food stores. There were two Whole Foods Markets within a twenty-minute drive of our house, a Sprouts within fifteen minutes, and all of the conventional grocery stores – all well-known chains – carried some organic produce. Mostly wilted and of questionable quality, but they carried it.
So when we lived in Plano, it was easy to forget about “the others”. The majority.
Where we live now, we have encountered few people who have enough wealth to be able to purchase organic produce. Rather, we are surrounded by people who can’t afford to.
Granted, many of these people might be able to afford to if they would kick their chain-smoking, beer-drinking, and/or meth-using habits. I’m not kidding. Stuff like that is pretty bad in the rural South.
However, many more are doing the best they can financially, and are happy they can afford what little the small, local, conventional grocery stores have to offer. They think that people like me, who take a five-hour round trip every month in order to buy certified organic produce, are snobs.
Maybe they’re right.
Sure, what I put into my body is my choice, and I have a right to go where I want to in order to buy my food. But I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be alone if I admitted to having developed a bit of a superiority complex over the fact that I can and do purchase mostly organic food. “Those poor, ignorant people. If they only understood how they were toxifying their bodies…”
Speaking of superiority, let’s talk about the theory that organic produce is superior to conventional.
Is organic really organic?
When you think of the word “organic”, what comes to your mind? You may picture farmers spreading manure over bare fields in the spring, then using compost tea to fertilize crops during the growing season. Pests are picked off by hand, or deterred with non-toxic, natural sprays like Neem, Spinosad, and essential oils.
That’s what I used to think. Are you sitting down? Because I’m about to reveal the shocking truth about organic produce:
NEITHER OF THOSE TWO IDEAS ARE TRUE!
Now, I heard several years ago that some commercial organic farmers never replenish the soil – or don’t do it nearly often enough. Which is one reason I’m so keen on figuring out how to grow as much of our own produce as possible.
But I had no idea that organic farmers were allowed to use synthetic pesticides on their crops.
Not all of them do. But check out the graph on this web page. It shows that almost 50% of “relatively non-toxic” (relative to what??) synthetic pesticides – SYNTHETIC – are approved for use for organically certified growers. Even a few moderately and slightly toxic (again, compared to what, and how do “they” know for sure) pesticides are approved for organic farms.
And who knows which crops are receiving synthetic pesticides, and which aren’t? And where those pesticides fall on the continuum as illustrated in the graph?
Could it be that organic lettuce that I thought was so clean? Is that why I never find bugs on my Whole Foods organic lettuce, like I used to twenty years ago when I first started shopping there? What about the carrots, of which I consume one to two every day? How about the organic frozen vegetables?
WE DON’T KNOW!
Come to find out, much of the produce that is labeled “organic”, really isn’t organic!
“You’ve gone off the deep end, Emily. Just because the pesticides are approved, doesn’t mean the farmers use them.”
Okay, then, look at another article from Steve Savage’s website and look at the pie chart entitled, “California Crop Pesticide Use By Category.” The organic farm wedges – the yellow and red – take up more of the pie than the non-organic! And only a small fraction of the pesticides represented are truly “natural.”
From the ecfr.gov website, here is a partial list.
- Chlorine-based materials.
- Copper sulfate (gets into water, and is toxic to aquatic life).
- Sodium silicate (dangerous to handle/inhale, dangerous to aquatic life)
Do any of those materials sound like something that you think organically-certified farmers should be using?
“But farmers shouldn’t need to use pesticides!”
In the ideal world, farmers would not have to use pesticides.
No, in the ideal world, everyone would either grow their own food, or they would grow on just a large enough scale to share with some neighbors, with each neighbor specializing in a just a few crops so everybody wouldn’t have to try to grow all the variety they wanted to eat.
In other words, there would be no large farms, except perhaps to raise emergency food or something.
But let’s face it: those days are over. Actually, they’ve never really existed. So let’s get back to reality.
The reality is, I would never be able to sell much of any of the pesticide-free (and I’m talking both natural and synthetic pesticides) food that I grow. Lettuce and dark, leafy greens all have some nibbles taken out of them. Many strawberries have little bug- or slug-bite holes. As do my peppers and tomatoes. And so on. Imperfections that I tolerate for the sake of not spraying my food would not sell in any farmer’s market. Period.
Remember how, a couple of decades ago, I would occasionally bring home lettuce that had little green bugs on it? Apparently I was one of a few organic lettuce customers who didn’t mind evidence of pure organic growing. I’m guessing that pressure from the picky majority drove organic greens growers to start spraying their lettuce with something so that they would be able to continue selling it!
Here’s my point: even though any farmer you might ask, conventional or organic, would agree that not having to use pesticides on food would be ideal, they can’t. They either wouldn’t be able to produce nearly as much because they would lose crops to pests, or they wouldn’t be able to sell the food because there would be evidence that bugs had munched on it.
Pesticides: as evil as we’ve been told?
These farmers – again, both conventional and organic – understand about toxins. GMO corn and soy growers aside (can you say “Round-Up”?; and anyway, that’s an herbicide), I’m going to guess that most commercial fruit-and-vegetable growers of either camp want to avoid using chemicals that are carcinogenic or that can be deadly to wildlife in relatively small doses.
Look on the graph here again. Even conventional farmers are allowed to use only a small percentage of the “moderately toxic” chemical pesticides available. And from what I have read on the topic, conventional growers try to use the lesser-toxic methods of pest control as much as possible.
What about the chemicals I listed earlier that are approved for organic growing? They are not the best, but they are not the worst, either – and are not known to be dangerous when ingested in small amounts. They are not known carcinogens – and unlike additives that the FDA allows in packaged foods, these pesticides have been well-researched for both health effects and environmental impact.
Further, there are other chemicals on the list that sound quite ominous – sodium carbonate peroxyhydrate, for example – but when you look it up it’s actually quite a benign substance. Many of the chemicals on the list break down into natural parts – oxygen, hydrogen, etc. – in soil and water. The only potential harm most of them carry is to irritate eyes and skin should direct contact with the chemical happen.
Well, that happens with hot peppers and the leaves of many food crops – green beans especially irritate me – too!
Speaking of relative toxicity…
On the same page of the bar graph showing the percentage of pesticides approved for organic use, a little farther down, is another eye-opening graph. In it, Steve Savage shows the percentage of pesticides that are actually less toxic than substances that many people consume on a regular, even daily, basis. For instance, 55% of pesticides are less toxic than vitamin C. Uh, my husband and I both take a vitamin C capsule every day. We take a vitamin A capsule, even more toxic than vitamin C, every few days. And check out the bottom of the graph – caffeine is more toxic than 97% of all pesticides used for commercial produce production! Do you know how many coffee-drinkers there are who insist on eating only organic, because they’re afraid of the toxicity?!
And from what I can ascertain from the article, Steve is including the pesticides used by conventional growers!
Are you getting this yet?
Some other interesting points
Another eye-opening article I found while researching the truth about organic foods is on the Don’t Waste The Crumbs blog. The author makes some interesting points; you might want to read the article in its entirety. The one that stood out to me in particular is the whole conflict of interest potential between the the companies that dole out the organic certifications and the organic growers.
“Pay me every year, and I’ll see to it that you get your organic certification.”
Hmm…and maybe since the certification company is getting paid, they’re willing to overlook a little cheating here and there by the growers?
I finally begin to understand the skeptics of the “organic” label.
The nutrition question
What about nutrition? Isn’t organically-grown food more nutritious? If you read study results that came from organically-biased researchers, it probably would be. If you listen in on a conference call of a multi-level marketing trying to sell multi-vitamins, you will probably hear that the soil is so depleted in minerals that ALL store-bought produce, organic or not, is nutritionally deficient.
However, the fact is that relatively unbiased researchers comparing non-organically grown to organically-grown produce haven’t found much difference between the two, if any. Actually, as I mentioned earlier, in some cases conventional produce has more nutrition, because they will use synthetic fertilizers while some organic farmers don’t replenish their soil at all!
Ever go to a website to find out the nutrition in a particular food? This data is based on the nutrition in conventionally grown produce, not organic. Of course, one might argue that if the nutritional testing is done on recently-harvested food, the data may not be accurate for food that has spent two days in a truck and another two days on the grocery store shelf.
But then, that would be true of store-bought organic food as well.
Never buy organic again?
All that leads to the question: is it even worth buying organic? Will I continue to bother with the extra pain and expense of choosing mostly organic over conventional produce?
The answer to both questions is, for me, “yes.” As much as is practical, we will continue making the once-a-month trip to Whole Foods until we get to the point where we are producing most of our own fruits and vegetables. (For fruit, anyway, this will be several years down the line.)
Why? First, organic farmers, though not really “organic” since they use synthetic pesticides, still use pesticides that are overall less toxic to both people and the environment than pesticides used by conventional farmers. Second of all, organic farmers do not use synthetic fertilizers. While such fertilizers are fine in hydroponics or container gardening, when added to the soil they cause an imbalance in the critical micro-organism life within the soil.
I believe it’s worth supporting growers who are taking responsibility to cause as little harm to the earth as possible.
That said, it has become impractical for all of our groceries to be organic. We’ve actually been purchasing conventional almonds and bananas for a while. Organic almonds are at least 50% more expensive than conventional – and we eat a lot of them – and the skin of bananas is so thick that the EPA tells us that it protects the fruit from incorporating chemicals that are sprayed on them.
Now, with everyone in our family basically having turned Raw Food Vegan, the freezer simply isn’t big enough to house all the frozen fruit we need each month at one time. I will buy only what the freezer will comfortable hold, and purchase the rest as needed from the local market.
Certain non-organic foods I will never touch. Conventional apples are waxed. Blech. And to consume conventional grapes from Chile, from all reports, is like eating poison.
But I am done with being afraid of conventional produce in general. And I am done being sucked in by the “organic” label.
Organic produce really isn’t so organic after all.