The Crazy Sexy Guide to Organic Foods
Hi Sweet Friends,
It’s time that we had a serious talk. The source of my distress? Pesticides, herbicides and all the other icky -icides and chemicals that make their way onto our plates from the grocery store from industrial farming. Organic foods are part of a movement near and dear to my heart, so this week, we’re continuing our focus on prevention by shifting our gaze to the ground—right to the roots of a problem that we all face every time we eat. Let’s dig in and demystify what’s behind the price tags, politics and progress of organic foods and how it affects our health, our environment, our wallets and our rights.
So, what’s wrong with a little pesticide? When I recently asked Elizabeth Kucinich, Policy Director for the Center for Food Safety, why organics are so important she said, “We can choose to support life, or we can choose to destroy it.” When it comes to protecting our health and our world, there are few things more important than the foods we eat and how they are grown.
Simply put, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides that are sprayed onto crops are meant to kill. Sure, they kill the unwanted stuff, but that’s not all they do. Many of these chemicals, which are poisons by their nature, can make their way into our land, water, food and bodies, wreaking havoc as they go.
Imagine your fruit bowl. Apples are some of the most highly contaminated fruits, landing them right at the top of Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen (a list of the most highly contaminated produce). In tests done by Pesticide Action Network, 42 different pesticides were found on conventionally grown apples! Forty two, of which 10 were known neurotoxins, seven were carcinogenic—and can we really trust the other 25? Throw an apple in your green juice every day, and the numbers of toxins entering your system multiplies at centrifugal speed. Now multiply that number because we certainly eat more than an apple a day to keep the doctor away.
What’s the big difference between conventional farming and organic farming?
In conventional farming:
- Farmers plant extensive fields of a single crop (called mono cropping), which leads to soil nutrient depletion.
- To maintain the soil nutrient balance, they add synthetic fertilizers.
- To control the field environment, they spray hundreds of millions of pounds of chemical pesticides, fungicides and herbicides onto the fields per year in the US.
In organic farming:
- Farmers plant a multitude of crops, which work together to maintain soil nutrient balance (or, crops are rotated yearly to ensure that the land doesn’t become depleted.)
- Farmers use natural (as in, derived from mother nature) means of pest control, including natural compounds, friendly bugs and compost-based fertilizers.
The Center for Food Safety describes three levels of chemical contamination on farms: mild, moderate and severe. Organic produce is considered mildly contaminated, since toxins from nearby farms might blow over in the wind and leave some residue. Conventional farms are considered moderate, as toxins are used liberally, and the severe label goes to GMOs. (We’ll go much deeper into GMOs next month, since they are a big, gnarly issue of their own.)
Just how bad are farming chemicals for our health?
The effects of these chemicals on the body have been linked to increased rates of chronic disease. From the farmers who grow the crops (and are exposed to harmful toxins) to the folks who eat the food (that’s you and me, baby!), agricultural chemicals permeate every level of the food production chain. Basically, pouring poisonous junk onto our land, into our water and into our mouths is potentially detrimental to our well-being. It’s freakin’ tricky to be pro-prevention when the very foods that are supposed to nourish us bring with them the party crashers of toxins!
Here’s a list of a few agricultural chemical-related illnesses:
- Parkinson’s Disease
- brain tumors
- non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- sarcoma (my personal pickle)
- birth defects
- impaired neurological development
- endocrine disruption
- and on and on…
The Big Players
If chemicals are so clearly nasty, why exactly are they so widespread? Seems sorta counterintuitive to put poison onto something you’re gonna eat, doesn’t it? In trying to feed the world’s ever-growing population, it might seem like “better living through chemistry” can make more food for more folks, and faster (which has been the mantra for Monsanto and its cohort for years). Despite the charming marketing spin here, the rampant use of chemicals in farming is leading us to something much closer to H-E-double hockey sticks than a totally fed world.
How’d we get here? Here’s a little piece of information that you might not already have known: Monsanto, a chemical company that seems to like masquerading as a food company, has created some of the most notorious toxins in history. PCBs (big time carcinogens, more on these next week), DDT and Agent Orange (the very same Agent Orange, an herbicide dumped by the millions of gallons on Vietnam, causing Parkinson’s, Hodgkin’s disease, nervous system disorders, prostate cancer and lung cancer, among other nightmares)—all come from Monsanto. US veterans, the Vietnamese and the children of both sides have suffered immensely from the after-effects of Agent Orange.
How did we go from Vietnam to vegetables?
Monsanto’s 1976 creation of Roundup (an herbicide) has led directly to its creation of GMO crops that withstand Roundup (so that farmers buy the GMO seeds, then use Roundup on the entire field, instead of targeting the weeds). Along with two other US-based companies, Dow AgroSciences and DuPont, Monsanto is in the top 10 herbicide-producing companies in the world. Each of these companies does more than $2 billion in yearly sales. Dousing our food in toxic chemicals is big business.
Since the market for organic food has seen a huge amount of growth in the last decade, big ag companies are trying to get a piece of the blueberry pie, but without actually changing their behaviors. There have been huge legislative pushes to weaken the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (which defines the criteria that food must meet in order to be labelled organic)—the only piece of legislation that protects consumer health when it comes to growing food.
When you go to the grocery store and see that an organic apple costs more than a conventionally grown one, it’s easy to think that organics are more expensive. In that moment, they sure are. But the price tag at the store is just one measure. Elizabeth says, “Organics are a level-headed approach to cost, as they reflect the true cost of the food.” Hidden beneath the cheaper sticker on conventional items are the costs to our planet in terms of polluted air, soil and water, and the healthcare costs associated with treating the ill effects of toxic exposure.
Michael Pollan hit the heart of the problem when he told Mother Jones in an interview, “One of the problems is that the government supports unhealthy food and does very little to support healthy food. I mean, we subsidize high fructose corn syrup. We subsidize hydrogenated corn oil. We do not subsidize organic food. We subsidize four crops that are the building blocks of fast food.”
Subsidies are one of industrial farming’s stickiest subjects. They were originally developed as payments that the government made to farmers in order to keep farms afloat during the Great Depression. These days, huge industrial farms receive government support while small and organic farms get very little of the subsidy help. Conventional corn, wheat, rice, and soy have been so heavily subsidized that we end up with vast amounts of product looking for new markets.
So where do those crops go? Mostly to feed to farm animals, then to biofuels, and then, as Pollan pointed out, to fast food. It’s no coincidence that the explosion in corn syrup use occurred simultaneously with heavy corn subsidy. Same goes for meat consumption per capita. Considering this deeply flawed set up, it’s really no wonder that organic peaches or broccoli will cost you.
As Elizabeth says, the price tag on an organic apple also often takes into account such concerns as appropriate scale of food production, labor rights, animal welfare and environmental health. Buying a conventionally grown banana might be cheaper when you head to the register, but the big picture of conventional ag costs our society far too dearly.
What’s a conscientious consumer to do? Short of starting your own organic garden (great idea!) there are things that the average consumer can do to help strengthen the organic movement.
- Buy organic when you can. Even if it’s not every time you get groceries, each organic purchase is a vote for better health and policies. Environmental Working Group has a handy guide to the most chemical-heavy fruits and vegetables (the Dirty Dozen) and the least (the Clean Fifteen), when these foods are grown conventionally.
- Get educated. Dig deeper into current information on organics with EWG and the Center for Food Safety. These organizations are at the front lines of the organic food movement. For more on subsidies, check out EWG’s Subsidy Database. Read up on the upcoming Farm Bill, and how it will affect our choices.
- Learn how to save. I totally understand that it’s difficult to afford healthy food, so I pulled together my 10 favorite, tried-and-true money-saving techniques.
Something that Elizabeth said has stuck with me since our chat: when we think of organics and our health, we can think in terms of natural remedies and allopathic medicine. Where traditional doctors might bombard our systems with drugs in a slash and burn approach, natural remedies work with our biology to heal. Organic food is produced in a way that embraces biology and ecology (including us). By choosing organic, we choose to support life.
Our choices have an impact on the market, on our society, and on our health. What we say with our mouths and our money matters, and it’s a choice that we get to make every single time we eat. By supporting the things we want on a daily basis, and pushing for policies on a national level that reflect our values, we can change the face of farming.
So! Now that we’ve scratched the surface of organics and their role in our health, what do we do? In addition to the three action items above, letting the government know that we as consumers prioritize healthy, organic food is key to growing the movement. Sign EWG’s Grow Organics Petition. The Grow Organics Proposal asks that Congress support organic farming with $1 billion over the next five years, broken out into five goals.
Consider signing this puppy, share this blog with your Prevention Partner, and and let’s talk about it in the comments!
Peace & pesticide-free produce,