Whether it is due to my reluctance to follow the herd or a science-supported notion that old farming methods can’t feed our growing population, I don’t buy organic food. In fact, I tend to avoid it. I do admit, however, that I will buy it if it’s on sale, but it has to be cheaper than the non-organic food items. So what is my body of evidence, you may ask, for my food purchasing decisions?
Food Safety – Several federal agencies are working to make sure our food supply is safe from toxins, chemical residues and disease causing organisms. I took a look at one of the most recent FDA Total Diet Study analyses which are conducted each year on foods we commonly eat. Most every food had trace amounts of a number of chemicals. This data may shock many people. However, the EPA sets standards on what is considered an allowable level of a contaminant. All were well under those levels. And having learned how the EPA sets its standards, they are 10,000 to 100,000 times less than what causes any effect (ill or otherwise). Many studies have shown that organic foods have less pesticide residues than non-organic food, which is to be expected. Some organic food, however, has also been shown to have residues from pesticides that were not approved for use.
We also need to look at fertilizer methods. Plants need nutrients to grow, and they need a lot of them to grow well. Manure is used in many food production systems due to high nutrient content and availability. It is widely used in organic production since synthetic fertilizers are not allowed. If the manure is not managed properly, bacteria in the manure can contaminate the food. I have seen studies and cases where organic is as likely, and even more likely, to contain bacterial pathogens than conventionally-produced foods.
Same goes for livestock. If the animals are not being treated with antibiotics, they are more prone to have an infection. And all livestock are required to be antibiotic-free before they enter the food chain. So when it comes to fruits and vegetables, I believe I have the most control over the safety of the food. I wash it all. My family even teases me for washing things like apples, cucumbers, squash and similar foods with anti-bacterial hand soap, but I know it’s clean! If your rinse it well, you don’t taste soap. You can use a vinegar-water solution on produce that requires gentler handling.
As for meat, cook it to the recommended internal temperature! Nutrition – Many studies show that fruits and vegetables grown with organic methods have higher levels of antioxidants and polyphenols. But, there is still a debate about the health benefits of these higher levels. It was interesting to learn what causes the increased levels of antioxidants: slower growth and stress from pests. One food toxicologist said that organic foods may be more likely to contain harmful, naturally-occurring toxins due to the same reason. Regarding meat and dairy produced organically or conventionally, corn-fed or grass-fed, free-range or confined, I have seen study results go in all directions regarding nutrition, but most say there is no real difference. I tend to believe that the best meat, dairy and eggs come from animals fed a nutritionally-balanced diet from a variety of sources and are free from disease and environmental stress. Most all farmers, organic or not, strive to raise animals in this manner. Environmental Impact – While using less synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are a noble endeavor when producing our food, it may not always be the best for our environment. Depending on the food type, organic production may require more tillage, which impacts soil loss and fuel use. Agriculture is constantly making strides in being able to produce more food with fewer inputs and less environmental impact. We are seeing substantial reduction in soil loss, fertilizer use and pesticide use in modern food production methods. Economics – Organic is very labor intensive, so in general it costs more. Many families have trouble feeding their families and buying organic is just not an option. I don’t think a family living on a tight budget should feel bad for buying what is more affordable. If it is good enough for the majority of the population - as determined by the USDA and FDA – it is good enough for me.
I recently met Mary Courtney, mom and a grain and produce farmer from Shelbyville, Kentucky. She and her husband Shane grow produce on 30 acres, which according to her, would be unmanageable using organic methods. She also said she wants to be able to mitigate the risk of the environment, insects and weeds since her family’s income is dependent on the quantity and quality of the food they produce. She said some of her products could be considered organic, but she doesn’t use that label in order to be flexible. If products are needed to fertilize or control pests, she said only the absolute minimum is used. Those products are a large expense to her operation. By the way, she feeds her children the food produced on her farm.
I know another farmer who produced organic sweet corn for the grocery stores in his area. I asked why he quit, and he said it just didn’t make sense to grow a more expensive food that he did not feel was any better than the other sweet corn produced on his farm. Even when having an easy option to eat organic, his family was eating the non-organic sweet corn.
Before I close, I need to add that I ate an organic apple today. It was on sale for 88 cents per pound at my grocery store. Since there were a lot of them, my guess is that they were last year’s apples. It was mealy. I hate a mealy apple, organic or not.
I am a true believer in providing my family of four safe, healthy foods. I also believe that the food I provide should be produced in an environmentally sustainable method, which by my definition means using less resources and leaving less impact on the environment. In my mind, our farmers who use modern farming practices are providing me with the food that meets my criteria. I refuse to pay higher prices for food that may or may not be more healthful, humane, or environmentally friendly. Learn more:
BestFoodFacts.org – Is organic food better for your health than non-organic food?
Food Safety News - http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2010/02/organic-meat-dairy-safer/ Where Your Food Comes From - http://www.wherefoodcomesfrom.com/Blog/