Good, clean food

Do you shop for organic produce? If not, read on ... you just might want to start.

by Susan Self
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, and fertilizers.

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 children.

Pesticide resistance

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.

Growing organic

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 primary crop.

Buying organic

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 toxins.
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 demand.
Buying organic today may require going a little out of your way, but conisder it an investment for your health - abd the earth's ecology.

Susan Self is a professional writer and active volunteer with Zero Population Growth.