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Thursday, March 14, 2019

A Quick Guide to Mindful Food Shopping Choices + Thoughts on Organic Farming

For quite some time now I have purchased mostly organic food, my reasoning being that it was better for the environment and biodiversity. As I’ve started doing more reading about different diets and their impact on the environment, questions around organic food keep coming to mind. I turned to our resident expert, Virginia Tech sustainable agriculture professor Megan O’Rourke, and asked her what she thought about organic. That simple question led to several conversations, a podcast interview, and Megan writing her thoughts on organic for us, which I am sharing below in this post. The bottom line? Yes, organic has benefits, sometimes environmental. No, it’s not clear cut and as easy as saying that buying organic is the best choice. As with pretty much anything related to food and the environment, it’s complicated!

As Megan and I talked, I asked her if it would be possible to make a quick reference guide for people who want to be mindful about what impact their food is having. Megan agreed and gave me an excellent list of things to think about. I turned it into an “If…Then…” list, which highlights a few values around food and some of the choices you can make to support those values. 

Chart with "If, Then" statements, providing a quick guide to mindful food shopping choices

Since there are no easy answers, for our family I’ve decided to concentrate on reducing our consumption of cow products (both meat and dairy), focus on more plant-based eating and buying our food as locally and seasonally as possible. Megan, as you will learn in her article below as well as in our podcast interview that will publish tomorrow, really likes to focus on buying food locally and growing foods that make sense for where she lives, thereby reducing the need for chemical interventions. As you look at the “If..Then…” list I encourage you to identify those values and choices that make the most sense for you and your family. If we are all making efforts where we can, we will make a difference! 

Why organic? What is the real impact? Is there a real impact?

By Megan O’Rourke, Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech

There is a lot of confusion about organic agriculture, so Seufert et al. published a review paper in 2017 describing what science does and does not know about the real impacts of organic agriculture. They broke down the impacts into three broad categories: environmental, productivity, effects on farmers, and effects on consumers. They then subdivided these broad categories into 26 specific metrics of public interest and compared the relative impacts  of an acre of organic land to an acre of conventional land. Interestingly, the authors assert that we basically don’t know anything about 10 of the metrics of interest. These include effects on soil erosion, water use, pesticide leaching, and farm wages. In fact, we only have high certainty about a few things. Fortunately for consumers, most of our certainty revolves around organic produce quality, such as lower pesticide residues and higher phytonutrient, mineral, and vitamin content than conventional agriculture. Scientists are also pretty certain that organic land produces lower yields but higher profitability than conventional production, while improving the soil and providing habitat for wildlife.

But, here’s the spoiler. While I am a sustainable agriculture researcher with lots of facts and figures at hand, I almost never buy organic myself. Why?  I have both rational reasons and emotional reactions to the current state of organic agriculture that guide what I do. Let’s start with the rational reasons. 

With grocery store organic, I don’t really know what I’m getting. Grocery store organic is often far from the bucolic small farm dream we imagine. Organic produce is much more likely to come from a megafarm in California than from your local family farm, and these megafarms simply practice chemical substitutions. Any poisonous chemical derived naturally and approved by the National Organic Program can be used in organic production. For example, some heavy metals like copper, which accumulate in the environment, are used extensively in organic production. Other pesticides, such as pyrethrums extracted from chrysanthemums, are allowed in organic production while their synthetic cousins, pyrethroids, are not. Synthetic fertilizers are not allowed in organic production but organic fertilizer companies mine bat guano from Chile and ship it up to California. Bat guano has essentially the same chemical properties as synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. When it comes to organic meat, I find the rules about organic meat production unethical. Organic farmers cannot use antibiotics on sick animals without the animals being deemed nonorganic. This can cause animals to suffer and be culled early instead of being treated humanely (which, by the way, is allowed in European organic practices).

Now on to my more emotional responses to the current state of organic. Perhaps one of my least rational reactions to buying organic produce is that I find it bourgeois. While I am solidly privileged middle class in reality, my gut feels like buying organic is spending money excessively. Furthermore, the scientific benefits of organic produce are not significant enough for me. For example, while organic on average has a higher nutrient content in side-by-side comparisons with conventional food, this health benefit pales in comparison to simply eating more vegetables and a greater variety of produce. Also, as a scientist, on the whole I trust the capacity of science to make life better for us. For example, there was a time when I was skeptical about genetically modified crops, but now after talking with countless farmers, I appreciate how GMOs (which are banned in organic foods) can improve farmer health and reduce their exposure to insecticides. I also think that pesticides used responsibly can be like tiny miracles. When we are sick, we go to the doctor and get medicine. When plants get sick, they need some medicine too. While pesticides can be overused, I don’t prescribe banning them. We use chemicals all the time to make our life better and easier, so why shouldn’t farmers be allowed synthetic products in their toolbox?

Another issue I have with organic is the bureaucracy. Organic farmers need to pay money, keep extensive records, and allow regulators onto their farms to inspect every aspect of their operation. As a natural rebel, the idea of allowing a stranger to nitpick about my choices of production would drive me crazy. I’ve talked to farmers who can’t pass inspections because they used landscape cloth around their blueberry bushes as that was not considered organic enough. When my husband and I had a CSA farm years ago, we did not certify organic because of the cost and bureaucracy. If you have $5000 in gross sales or less you can claim organic; otherwise you cannot market with that label. We took the Northeast Organic Farmers Association “Farmers Pledge” to market under. We pledged to grow organically and to respect workers’ rights. The national organic standards say nothing about worker conditions, pay, or labor rights.

For me, organic was great for learning about pests, which I love doing, but I will no longer farm organically at home starting this year. You can either stick to just growing what grows well in your area without spraying and watch your crops lose 50 percent plus yields, use organic chemical substitution, or use lots of physical barriers that create loads of trash (which only works for certain plants anyway). I now see no hope in growing an orchard on the east coast without spraying something. I saw total losses year after year. That’s my new challenge this year – to manage my new orchard well by picking a crop with as little pesticide as I think I can get away with.

These are some of the reasons why I personally don’t buy (or farm) organic. For me, I would be most inclined to support organic if I perceived a substantial environmental impact, but I’m not convinced of this with the modern industrialization of the organic industry. If I were to prioritize my organic purchases to avoid pesticide residues, I would focus on organic versions of the Environmental Working Group’s dirty dozen list: strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes, sweet peppers, and hot peppers. (Click here for the Environmental Working Group’s 2018 Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists.) For me eating as locally as possible and eating less meat makes a bigger difference, so that is what I focus on. We all have different reasons that are important to us when considering what food to buy and give to our families – having information can help us make the best choices to support our values and also make a positive difference in the world. 

Quick Guide to Mindful Food Shopping Choices

For Your Health and the Earth’s

  • If you do not want GMOs in your food, then buy organic.
  • If you want to reduce your personal exposure to pesticide residues, then buy organic or at least buy “The Dirty Dozen” organically.
  • If you want the most nutritions versions of produce, then buy locally and seasonally.
  • If you want the highest quality, most delicious produce, then buy locally and seasonally.
  • If you worry about the working conditions of migrant farm laborers, buy locally.
  • If you want to help conserve biodiversity, cut out or cut back on dairy and meat (shift from beef to pork to poultry).
  • If you want to reduce your carbon footprint, cut out or cut back on dairy and meat (shift from beef to pork to poultry).
  • If you want to reduce your carbon footprint, cut out or cut back on dairy and meat (shift from beef to pork to poultry).
  • If you want generally nutritious food at the best price, buy conventional produce and cook (this is better than eating processed organic food).
  • If you want off-season produce, buy conventional produce (there are many fraudulent organic imports).


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