The Organic Choice

Is Paying a Little More for Organic Foods Worth It?

By Lara Evans Bracciante

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring/Summer 2005.
Copyright 2005. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.

While shopping in your grocery store’s produce section, you may notice the organically grown apples are pocked and not as big and perfectly round as the conventional produce, but they are more expensive. What’s the difference, and which do you choose? Your decision may significantly impact not only your health but the health of the economy and the planet.

Defining “Organic”

The term organic refers to the way in which agricultural products, including food and fiber, are grown and processed. Organic foods are derived from sustainable farming practices that maintain and replenish soil fertility without the use of toxic pesticides and fertilizers. These foods are minimally processed and do not include artificial ingredients or preservatives.

While conventional farms rely heavily on pesticides, prevention is the organic farmer’s primary strategy for disease, weed, and pest control. If pests do get the upper hand, organic growers use various methods for bug control, including insect predators, mating disruption, traps, and barriers. In some cases, botanical or other nonpersistent pest controls may be used under restricted conditions.

Does It Really Matter?

When you buy organically certified foods, you’re ensured your produce will be free of pesticides, genetic engineering, synthetic hormones, and antibiotics — all of which have harmful effects on the planet and the body.

Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, touches on the devastating consequences of pesticides. “DDT nearly eliminated the American eagle by affecting their ability to reproduce” he says. “Since World War II, we’ve introduced more than 9,000 chemicals into the environment. And we don’t know the full impact on humans and different sized humans,” he adds, alluding to studies revealing damaging effects on children. To understand the fallout of conventional farming is to realize the argument for organics.

Pesticides. Pesticide exposure has been directly linked to a variety of illnesses, including headaches, fatigue, nausea, asthma, cancer, compromised immunity, neurological disorders, reproductive damage, birth defects, and hormone disruption. According to the San Francisco-based Pesticide Action Network of North America, risk of exposure is significant: U.S. consumers may experience 70 daily exposures to pesticides through food alone. Children are particularly at risk because of their low body weight and high metabolism. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), based in Washington, D.C., reports that more than 1 million kids between the ages of 1 and 5 ingest at least 15 pesticides every day from fruits and vegetables. Scowcroft cites a publication by the National Academy of Sciences, “Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children” (National Academies Press, 1993) — the first comprehensive look at the effects of pesticides on children, rather than the average 150-pound adult. “There are more than 300 pages showing the harmful effects of organophosphates in children’s diets,” Scowcroft says.

In addition to residue on fruits and vegetables, pesticides escape into the soil, air, and groundwater. A U.S. Geological Survey reported in 1999 that more than 90 percent of water and fish samples from streams and about 50 percent of all well samples contained one or more pesticides. Contaminated water is especially a concern in conventional agricultural areas. A 1995 EWG study revealed that one glass of tap water in Fort Wayne, Ind., contained nine different pesticides.

Organic farming practices, on the other hand, promote biodiversity. Compared to conventional farming, organic farms had five times as many wild plants and 57 percent more species; they also had 25 percent more birds at the field edge, 44 percent more in-field in autumn and winter, and 2.2 times as many breeding skylarks and higher skylark breeding rates (“The Biodiversity Benefits of Organic Farming,” Soil Association, May 2000).

Genetically modified foods. Critically deemed “Frankenfoods,” genetically modified (GM) foods are those in which the genetic code has been permanently altered by combining another species’ genetic composition. This gene splicing is very different from traditional cross breeding, which works within species rather than across species boundaries. More than 35 percent of all corn, 55 percent of soybeans, and 50 percent of cotton come from genetically engineered crops.

Some GM crops have been altered to grow their own pesticide. When GM corn was first introduced, the Monarch butterfly population took a dive because the plant, which contained an internal insecticide, was killing the larvae, just one example of the ecological impact. And what are the long-term effects on humans? “No one is asking that question,” Scowcroft says, “at least, not the institutions that are promoting the technology. They’ve been very successful at stopping anyone from producing any answers.” Currently, GM food producers are not required to label their products as such.

Hormones and antibiotics. Conventional dairy products contain rBGH, a synthetic, genetically engineered version of a hormone naturally produced in cows, used to increase milk production. The hormone, which has been banned in several countries, has been under fire as possibly contributing to early onset of puberty in children, symptoms associated with menopause, and some cancers. And conventional agricultural products, including dairy and meat, contain antibiotics, which are routinely given to livestock as a preventive measure. This low-level antibiotic use has been linked to drug-resistant infections in humans.

Organically certified products focus on the integrity of whole foods and their inherent nutritional value, so much of which has been stripped away by technological “advances” that ultimately appear to be doing more harm than good.

The Power of Organics

How does the future look for organic farming? “Profoundly bright,” Scowcroft says. “As the infrastructure matures, it will create an economy of scale that will open the market and increase sales.”

So when you’re standing in the grocery store trying to decide between organic and conventional options, the lower price might make conventional foods more tempting, but consider the organic alternative. “You can’t beat the taste of organic foods,” says Scowcroft, explaining they are picked at the height of ripeness, usually don’t travel as far, and, as more studies are showing, may contain greater nutrient content than conventionally grown foods. “Organics are better for the environment, and it’s an investment in the revitalization of rural America,” he says. Organic farms are usually smaller, family-owned farms contributing to the economy of struggling rural America, explains Scowcroft. The organic choice may not be so much more expensive as it is an investment in the future.