Good, clean food
by Susan Self
Do you shop for organic produce? If not, read on ... you just might
want to start.
henever I'm in a health food store, I'm torn between
buying the certified organic produce at a higher price or the "other"
produce of unknown origins at a lower price. Some magic evaluation of risk,
benefit and value goes on in my head, and I make my choice. How do I know
the significance of these choices? As writer and farmer Wendell Berry once
stated, "How we eat determines to a considerable extent how the world
is used. Eating is inescapably an agricultural act."
For many years, I have been a stickler for buying organic
carrots at least. I always thought I could taste chemicals on the non-organic
ones. As a root vegetable, the carrot is more directly exposed to the chemicals
built up in the soil over years of use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides,
Evaluating the risks
If I don't buy the organic produce, what level of exposure
to chemical residues am I risking? What are the possible effects?
Toxic effects of pesticides have been well documented.
Animals exposed to certain pesticides have developed cancer, birth defects,
and nervous system and reproductive problems. Studies of farmers suggest
a link between pesticide use and Parkinson's disease. The rates of many
types of cancer are higher among those who work closely with large amounts
of pesticides. The Environmental Protection Agency says that about 70 pesticides
now in use are probable or possible sources of cancer.
Those at greatest risk are infants and children, whose
greater proportional food intake increases the percentage of exposure and
whose developing bodies are more susceptible to many toxic substances.
The nonprofit Environmental Working Group's report,
Pesticides in Children's Food, added cancer risks from 8 pesticides in 20
fruit and vegetables. They estimated that the average American child's pesticide
exposure from these sources exceeds the EPA lifetime risk standard by his
or her first birthday. A similar, congressionally-mandated report from the
National Research Council, Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children,
recommended decreasing allowable exposure levels to reflect the diets of
Additional incentive for farmers to shift to organic
methods comes from a simple fact: pests become resistant to a formula after
a few years and a new one has to be found. Despite a tenfold increase in
the amount and toxicity of pesticides used since 1940, crop losses to insects
have nearly doubled. Over 500 species of insects and 70 species of fungi
have become resistant to one or more pesticides. Actual costs of pesticides
have increased to 20 to 30 percent of total production dollars. Organic
techniques provide farmers a way off of this chemical treadmill.
Transitioning to organic farming takes years. The Organic
Foods Production Act of 1990 prohibits use of the designation "organic"
if any prohibited substances have been used during the three years preceding
a harvest. It also takes time for the microorganisms and beneficial bugs
to return and re-create a healthy ecosystem. These organisms suppress natural
pests, maintain more nutrients, help the soil's aeration and ability to
hold water, and resist erosion. Healthy soil enables the growth of vigorous
plants with healthy immune systems that can better resist pests and diseases.
Many growers are easing into organic farming gradually,
reducing if not entirely eliminating the use of synthetic chemicals. Even
those depending on the insurance of pesticides to back them up are more
likely to resort to lower dosages or less toxic pesticides.
Shifting to organic has its own set of costs and special
practices. Organic farming makes crop results less predictable, requires
more labor-intensive monitoring of fields, and necessitates creative strategies
to control pests. Nontoxic strategies include the use of beneficial, predator
insects or microorganisms; sticky traps; mating disruption; and bats and
birds. Crop rotation can help break the cycle of weeds and insects that
prey on specific crops, and cover crops can crowd out the weeds around a
A broad range of farming methods are being practiced
today; this is one reason for standards for organic farming are needed.
Buying "certified organic food" ensures that organic production
practices have been followed, no prohibited substances have been applied,
and periodic testing has found no pesticide, non-organic residues or natural
The National Organic Standards Board is developing guidelines
and procedures that will regulate all produce, grains, meat, dairy, eggs,
and processed foods. When the act is implemented this year, all organic
foods will be require certification.
When you can't find certified organic produce, look
for the following categories:
When the new organic food standards are implemented,
more mainstream suppliers are expected to join this growing, $1.6 billion
industry. More farmers will turn to organic farming with increased consumer
- Transitional Organic - grown with organic methods but not yet certified.
- Integrated Pest Management (IPM) - non-chemical methods with judicious
use of pesticides.
- No Detected Residues - uses pesticides but no residues above 50 parts
per billion are found upon testing.
- Locally Grown - is less likely to be treated with pesticides.
Buying organic today may require going a little out
of your way, but conisder it an investment for your health - abd the earth's
Susan Self is a professional writer and active volunteer with Zero