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Food For Thought When Buying Organic

Food For Thought When Buying Organic

We've blogged about organic vs. conventional produce several times, but before opening your wallet, read Allison Aaron's fresh perspective on buying organic.

One organic apple $1.50; one organic avocado $3.00, ½ pint organic raspberries $5.00, 1 head of organic cauliflower $6.00. I think you get the point: organic food is expensive, sometimes prohibitively so, and yet the demand for it just keep on growing. In fact, according to the Organic Trade Association, the sale of organic food has increased by double digits each year and is expected to increase 12 to 15% annually in the next three years. But is the burgeoning market for organic food sustainable? Are organically certified items being properly monitored? And if the answer to those two questions is “yes,” then the final question remains: is it worth it? Why do so many people out there choose to spend their hard-earned money on that infamous green label?

Currently, one of the biggest challenges to the organic industry is demand – that is, too much of it. There simply is not enough organically grown food to meet the consumer demand. And while more farmers contemplate making the switch to organic, actually biting the bullet is not so easy. Converting a farm to become organic is a long and costly process. First, the farm must institute the necessary changes to comply with organic standards and must uphold those changes for three years. Only then can it be considered for organic certification. Not only that, but during those three years, the farmer cannot benefit from the surcharge on organic food because it is not yet organic, technically speaking. To top it all off, the actual application process for the certification can cost up to $4,000. Though in the long term converting to organic might be more profitable, a lot of farmers out there cannot withstand the economic blow that the short term holds.

With such a high barrier to entry, one would assume that those farms that are already certified organic are being held to equally high standards. However in reality, that might not be the case. Once certified, farms are reviewed periodically by an accredited certifying agent to ensure that they are still complying with the standards that have earned them that USDA stamp of approval. Unfortunately, there are reports that not all certifying agents are doing their jobs correctly. An internal Agricultural Department report exposed the fact that when auditing the farms, 23 certifying agents did not properly enforce certification requirements and one of the largest certifying agents failed to disclose observed violations to the government. When a consumer sees a USDA Organic seal, there is an element of trust that is put into that seal. But if these farms are not being monitored appropriately, then that trust is potentially called into question.

But even if an organic farm is being monitored appropriately, and it passes its audits, does this mean that its crops are pesticide-free? This may come as a shock, since many people assume that organic food is completely free of pesticides but the truth is, pesticides may be used on organic produce; however, they must be natural, as opposed to the synthetic pesticides that are allowed to be used on conventionally grown produce. As Jeff Gillman, professor of nursery management at the University of Minnesota, said in this interview, “When people are buying organic food, they often make the incorrect assumption that there are no pesticides. It's true that organic production often uses fewer dangerous chemicals, but certain pesticides are allowed.”

Now, you’re probably thinking that using natural pesticides must be safer than using synthetic pesticides. This is not necessarily the case either. According  to the EPA’s safety guidelines, the natural pesticide Rotenone, is more toxic by weight than Malathion, Glyphosate (also known as Roundup), Captan, and Pyrimethanil – all of which are synthetic pesticides. Furthermore, natural pesticides often require more sprays to actually be effective when it comes to preserving the crops. For example, there was a study done at McGill University which showed that using natural pesticides required 6 to 7 sprays to obtain a 75% yield, while using synthetic pesticides required only 4 sprays to obtain a 90% yield. If natural pesticides require more sprays than synthetic pesticides, and if natural pesticides could actually be more toxic by weight than synthetic pesticides, then it’s possible that some organic produce actually contain higher levels of toxic substances than their conventionally grown counterparts. In fact, Gillman says himself, "I'd rather buy food from someone who used Roundup once than someone who uses organic pesticides all the time."

So what is the layman supposed to do? Right now, you are probably feeling very confused, and trust us – you are not alone! However, we still need to eat our fruits and vegetables and so do you, so what’s the answer?

Well, for starters, don’t stop eating your fruits and vegetables! The fact of the matter is, organic or not, fruits and vegetables are full of antioxidants, which help protect our bodies from harmful, potentially cancerous substances. And while organic produce may not be as pure as you had originally thought, it is important not to make sweeping assumptions in the other direction either. In fact, a report that exposed that 46% of organic samples tested positive for pesticide residues, of which 2% violated the allowable limit, also showed that 78% of non-organic samples tested positive for pesticide residues, 4.7% of which violated the allowable limits. So there are concerns regarding the organic farming industry, there are still plenty of flaws in the conventional farming industry.

Furthermore, though there are some organic farmers who may be pushing the limits or ignoring the rules, it would be unfair to discount organic farming altogether. The principles of organic farming are designed to provide us with food that promotes our health and well-being as well as environment and there are some farmers out there who may not officially be organic but still practice those principles on their farms. That is why the best way to purchase your produce is to actually get to know the person growing it, say, at your local farmer’s market. Cultivate a relationship with the farmer (pun intended!) so you can learn about the way your food is being grown. If you can’t get to your farmer’s market or you don’t live near one, go to your grocery store and make the most informed decision possible by reading up on issues like this – just make sure you are getting your information from a unbiased and reputable sources (ahem, this blog). Finally, no matter what, wash your produce! According to researchers at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, water alone should do the trick to help remove pesticide residues, germs, and general filth that may have come into contact with your food.

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