Why buy organic?

I haven’t always been a fan of organic foods. For a long time, I had no opinion at all on them and then, for a while, I thought they were a waste of money.

Then, I took International Environmental Law and I got a little concerned about our food’s safety. I think we all know that the US imports a lot of food, especially fresh out-of-season produce. What I didn’t realize until taking this class was that the countries we import those delicious tomatoes, mangos, and strawberries from don’t have the same level of pesticide regulation we do. In fact, a lot of countries still use pesticides that the US has banned. And, despite that, we import food grown using those pesticides and then eat those same pesticides. After learning that I started buying trying to buy food grown in the US or organic varieties whenever I could.

Making that change made me feel better. For a while. Until I took Environmental Law. That’s when I learned that the laws governing pesticide use are extremely lax. There are no requirements for testing or studies on long term health effects for humans. FIFRA (the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act) and PRIA (the Pesticide Registration Improvement Act) are really just product registration laws; they require all pesticides to be registered and for the EPA to review the registration and order the pesticide to no longer be used if the EPA finds that continued use would constitute unreasonable harm. That sounds good in theory, but in reality “unreasonable harm” is a pretty tough standard; it requires safe levels of a particular ingredient to be determined and a showing of how much of that ingredient is used, and, ultimately, the public health effect of using that ingredient. As a result, there are a great many pesticides used on our food that contain known carcinogens.

That’s why I decided to go organic, but according to MSNBC there’s another reason. A recent study has linked the development of ADHD to and ingredient in a lot of pesticides. The ingredient is malathion and the study found that children whose urine contained higher than average levels of this had a 50% higher rate of ADHD than children with lower levels. This isn’t a conclusive study, but it does make one think.

I think I understandably freaked out when I learned about FIFRA and PRIA. I immediately starting altering my eating habits. Hubby is less concerned about this than I am but since I do most of the grocery shopping, we eat mainly organic produce and dairy. Since I don’t eat meat, he gets whatever he wants on that front. I know first hand that buying organic can be expensive, but it can be done. After a couple of years of alteration, these are the guidelines for food shopping I’ve settled on:

  1. Organic (meaning USDA certified) if I’m going to eat the skin of the fruit/veggie (like peppers and apples) or if the fruit/veggie has a very thin skin (like peaches, grapes, and strawberries). I apply these guidelines for frozen and canned fruits/veggies too.
  2. Non-organic if it has a thick skin or peel (like bananas and pineapple).
  3. Non-organic if it’s a packaged good (like cereal, granola bars). That’s a general guideline, in reality, I buy organic if it’s cost effective because organic versions don’t have high-fructose corn syrup and I think that tastes bad. And yes, I can taste the difference. If you have any doubt that the taste is different try Mexican Coke v. American Coke (the soft drink, to be clear).
  4. For ALL fruits/veggies, I try to buy local from the Farmer’s Market. I prefer organic versions, but I often buy non-organic from certain vendors because I know they don’t use pesticides and can’t afford to get USDA certified.
  5. For dairy, I generally buy organic milk for myself. Aside from the pesticide/antibiotic debate, organic milk is ultra-pasteurized and doesn’t expire for about 6 weeks. I don’t drink milk often so this is actually more cost effective than buying the cheaper non-organic and letting it go bad. I always buy vegetarian feed eggs and go organic when they’re on sale. For Hubby, I buy non-organic milk—he uses it more quickly, prefers whole milk, and doesn’t really care about pesticides.

I should point out that right now through October most of my produce consumption will be of produce from a local mostly organic-certified farm. R and I are splitting a share in their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). If you can’t afford organic from a grocery, this is a very viable alternative. At first glance, most CSA’s seem expensive, but when you break it down to weekly cost, it’s very reasonable (for me, actually a few dollars less than my normal weekly produce cost). If you’re interested, try localharvest.org. This site has a good listing of CSA’s and farmer’s market in your area, just search by zip code or city.

So what’s the bottom line here? Should we all stop eating non-organic products? Should everyone buy local food only? I can’t answer that for everyone. But here’s how I see it: there’s no federal law that requires pesticides be safe for human consumption and we consume them all the time. There are no regulations requiring that pesticide producers even study how a pesticide might affect humans. Buying local products helps the local economy, so why not buy local? It seems prudent to me, knowing all that, that we should practice the old adage—better safe than sorry.


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