Organic food. Worth the bother?

Where will you live?

Is organic food better? The short answer is yes. On several fronts.

Better for you

Widespread use of pesticides is a major issue in conventional fruit and vegetable production.These chemicals are absorbed by the plant as it grows, and cannot be removed simply by washing. Organic foods are grown without pesticides, so you don’t consume toxic residues when you eat organics.

Issues with meat production relate to what the animals are fed. Conventionally raised animals are typically fed grass and hay that has been sprayed with pesticides. Those residues end up in the meat, and eventually in your body if you eat that meat.

Even more troubling, though, is the practice of routinely feeding antibiotics to healthy animals—not because they are sick, but to promote growth or prevent disease. This is resulting in drug-resistant strains of bacteria, and that means common antibiotics will no longer work in treating human illness. Organic animals, in contrast, are raised on plants grown without chemicals, and their daily feed does not contain antibiotics.

Better for workers

If pesticides pose a health risk for those of us eating them, imagine the health implications for workers who must apply the pesticides and then work in those fields day after day. This is especially concerning in developing countries, where there are few safety regulations to protect workers. When we buy products produced under these conditions, we contribute to harming to the workers. When we buy organic, we know that the workers have not been subjected to chemical exposure.

Better for the environment

Pesticides pollute the air and ground water wherever they are used. And they are persistent, accumulating over time because they don’t degrade and disappear quickly.

The earth in our hands

We used to think they went “somewhere” and weren’t a problem for us. Now we know better. We know that air and surface water circulate around the globe. As pollutants disperse into the air and water, they become part of that circulation. Eventually they reach everyone. What we do affects others. What they do ultimately affects us.

The issues of cost, price, and value

The consumer culture promotes a narrow view of value, focusing mainly on price. And although it may seem that going for the lowest price saves you money, that isn’t necessarily so. If you buy food with chemicals that cause your health to deteriorate, you might make  a short-term saving but will pay for it in the long run. It’s all in how we look at it.

Basing our decisions solely on price is like wearing blinders. We don’t see the long-term consequences because we are focused on the low price of what we are buying right now. We overlook the fact that we are spending a lot on supplements to make up for the deficiencies in our food. We forget that we haven’t been feeling great for the last couple of years but the doctor hasn’t found a reason.We ignore the little inner voice saying that maybe we should eat better food.

From the viewpoint of a conscious consumer, value encompasses many other factors—including healthy bodies, healthy farm workers, healthy environment, better taste, and leaving a better world for those who come after us.

Managing the cost of eating organic

It’s true that organic foods usually cost more, and there are several reasons for this. Production is more labour-intensive, certification is expensive, and businesses are small so there are no economies of scale.

Grow some food…

One way to get organic foods and keep your cost down by growing your own. You’ll know exactly what went into growing it, and will have free food to put away for winter.

You don’t have to live in the country to grow food. There is a huge movement of city-dwellers starting backyard gardens or growing edibles on balconies, in window-boxes, and at community garden plots.   There are also innovative ways that unused backyard space is being used to grow food. To explore possibilities, google “urban farming” or “urban gardening” for lots of examples of what people are doing.

Garden produce

Photo of some of her awesome organic produce by Teresa van Bryce

Buy real food in season…

For those who aren’t up for a gardening adventure, let’s look at some principles of managing food cost. This is good advice whether you’re buying organic or not.

  • Buy food that is as close to its original state as possible. Avoid processed and pre-prepared foods, which are expensive because of the extra work that’s gone into making them. If you buy a ready-made hummus or apple pie, it will cost you more than if you made it yourself. So buy real food.
  • Buy produce that is in season. Imported produce is costly, whether it’s organic or not. Buying local products in season is better for the environment because less fuel is used to transport it. And seasonal food tastes better because it comes from a short distance and can be left to ripen longer before picking.
  • Meat is generally expensive, and organic meat more so. Eat small portions and purchase less-expensive cuts such as ground lamb and beef instead of chops and steaks. Liver is economical and very nutritious…if you will eat it.

Make exceptions judiciously…

Free range turkey is about half the price of organic turkey. My feeling is that producers using free range practices are generally conscientious about how they raise the animals, so I choose the more economical option.

I apply the same logic to buying vegetables. Since the organic certification process is time-consuming and expensive for growers, I know that some opt for using good practices but not going through the formal certification process. If the sign says “pesticide free” and I trust the grower, I buy the produce.

Some fruits and vegetables are more contaminated  than others. Useful information about this comes from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which publishes a yearly shopper’s guide reporting on pesticide residues in produce. They identify the “dirty dozen” and “clean 15” based on USDA data.

The 2017 Dirty Dozen list singled out, in order, strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, peaches, celery, grapes, pears, cherries, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers and potatoes. These are foods you would be wise to buy organic. The Clean Fifteen are the ones where you could make exceptions with fewer health consequences.

Other guidelines to consider…

  • If you have children, pay the extra cost of organic for the things they consume most.
  • Chemicals are stored in fat. So you may want to make sure fatty foods you buy are organic. This would include oils, meat, butter, milk, and other dairy products.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. If you’re eating out and don’t know if the food is organic or not, don’t worry about it. You won’t die from eating non-organic food now and then.

Worth the bother? All in all, I’d say that eating organic as much as reasonable and possible will be worthwhile in the long term and one of those things you’ll likely be glad you did. Your thoughts?

4 thoughts on “Organic food. Worth the bother?

  1. This blog answered some ongoing questions I’ve had since I started buying some organic products. Interestingly, it ties in with your blog about intention and following energy as there are times when I instinctually go for the organic without question. But after reading this, I feel reassured that my intention to choose organic more consistently from now on is a worthwhile choice.
    One question I have is if there is validity in the opinions of naysayers who claim “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean that it is grown without pesticides and “free range” doesn’t necessarily mean what it implies. Any insight you can offer is appreciated. Thanks Laurana.

    • Good work at synthesizing the ideas about choice, energy and intention, Susan. And those are two excellent questions.

      First, is it true that “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean that the food is grown without pesticides? No, if it is labelled certified organic. These products have met specific criteria prohibiting the use of a number of things including toxic and persistent pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics and synthetic hormones. Pesticides are substances that kill organisms we consider to be pests (weeds, insects, microbes). In large-scale commercial food production, these pesticides are usually synthetic chemicals that persist in the environment and are toxic to humans and animals. Organic farmers typically use beneficial insects or mechanical and manual methods to control insects and weeds. In some cases, they might also use natural pesticides—plant-based oils such as Neem, insecticidal soap, or diatomaceous earth, for example. These substances are less toxic and persistent than pesticides made from synthetic chemicals. In recent years, some organic foods have been found to contain residues of synthetic chemicals— not because toxic chemicals were applied to them, but because there is so much toxic material contaminating the soil and water now. Nevertheless, even when organic food carries these residues, it is much less toxic than crops that have been treated directly with chemical sprays. Further information at https://choosecanadaorganic.ca/organic101/

      Second, is it true that “free-range” may not mean what it implies? Yes and no. I know an environmental architect who says there’s no perfect solution. The same is true in food production, and eggs are no exception. The issue arises from a complicated mixture of corporate volume requirements and the need to make a profit colliding with paradoxical consumer desires for humane animal treatment and cheap food. When we think of free range chickens, we envision something like my grandma’s chicken coop where the door was closed at night to keep the birds safe from predators, and opened in the morning so they were free to roam through a large yard to eat grass and worms. That vision doesn’t translate well when the barn contains 15,000 birds, even if those birds sometimes get outside. And not all birds do. When eggs are labeled free-run or cage-free, the chickens are loose in an open barn but never allowed outside. And although it sounds more humane if the birds are roaming free rather than in cages, this is not necessarily the case. Research has shown that more birds die from aggressive behaviour and fatal pileups in an open barn, and there are health concerns because eggs and manure end up everywhere. You’ll find more about this in an excellent piece done by The Globe and Mail at https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/is-the-free-range-egg-trend-really-just-a-shell-game/article29797385/

      In both cases, the issues arise from the realities of a large-scale commercial production and our expectation of access to cheap food. If we would like to see this change, we can start by supporting small-scale local businesses as much as possible. In the city this probably means buying eggs at the farmers market and in rural areas, finding a local farmer who will supply you with eggs. And when that’s not possible, we just do our best with the realities of our situation at the moment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.