Eating organic is not just for hippies, or yuppies for that matter, and it isn’t just “fancy” food, either. It’s for YOU. It’s french fries, hamburgers and apple juice just as much as it’s arugula and tofu, and it’s really important for your health, for your babies - be they actual or potential - for our environment, and for our economy. I’m serious!
I didn’t always feel this way, and so if you’ve been resistant to making the switch, I bet I have some idea as to why. For myself, it was a combination of youthful invincibility and brokeness - ah youth. One conversation in particular stands out in my memory. I was 22, I’d been traveling abroad for almost a year since graduating from college, living super cheap - you know, the cheapest ticket on the crowded smoky slow bus, the tiny dorm room shared with 4 strangers in the cheapest hotel, and so on. When I got back to the States, I stayed at my Mom’s house for two weeks before my next adventure in invincibility and cheapness (a.k.a. trying to find a job) and standing in her kitchen one day I said something like, “Don’t worry about fixing me the fancy organic food, Mom, it’s OK, I’ll eat the cheap stuff. It’s the people’s food!”
She spun on her heels and gave me a hard look. “People’s food my ass,” she said. “I know you’ve been out in the hinterlands living on $2 a day, but organic food isn’t just some luxury, it’s the right thing to do, and when we can, we should. You can ignore all the chemicals and hormones all you want, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there and not dangerous. The chemicals in that food don’t only hurt you, they hurt the planet, and that’s just wrong.”
End of conversation. Yeesh.
She was right though, and she reminded me that I had (and still have!) a set of values about the importance of things like fairness, justice and respect for nature. Those high ideals don’t mean a whole lot unless they apply to normal mundane things like buying food just as much as they apply to grand things, like peace and freedom.
It must have worked. Fast forward to the present, and I of course work for Toxic Free NC, have a farm share in a local organic farm, and made my weekly visit to Moore Square Farmers Market yesterday. Even on my humble non-profit salary, I’ve made it a priority to buy organic whenever I can, and still manage to spend money on beer and shows and a mortgage and all that normal stuff too. (That picture is my CSA farmer, Fred Miller.)
People have a variety of different reasons for choosing organic food. Health concerns are high on the list - conventionally farmed veggies are full of pesticides, and animal products full of hormones and antibiotics, plus some pesticides from their feed. (Check out this new website to see exactly what is on your food: whatsonmyfood.org.) These chemicals are suspected in a wide range of increasingly common health disorders, and as is the case for most environmental pollutants, they’re the most problematic for babies and young children. With their rapidly-growing bodies, babies and small children are more vulnerable to health damage from pesticides and other contaminants in their food, water, or air. Studies have connected pesticide exposure in utero and during childhood with a wide range of illnesses - asthma, some childhood cancers and even cancer later in life, autism, learning and behavioral problems, premature puberty, and the list goes on. To be clear, most if not all of the studies I’m thinking of look at kids who live on or near a farm or whose parents use pesticides in the house, yard or on the pets, and not necessarily at kids who are only being exposed to pesticides through their diets. But then, the vast majority of kids are exposed to pesticides through their diets, so who would you compare them to?
The good news: organic diets have been shown to dramatically decrease the pesticide load for elementary school kids - they might do the same for you!
Environmental concerns also rate high on people’s minds. Organic farming doesn’t add pesticides or chemical fertilizers to our air and water, and it’s also been shown to sequester more carbon dioxide than conventional farming, which helps slow global climate change.
Then there are the justice and fairness arguments, a.k.a. the karma argument. Pesticides aren’t just bad for me, they’re bad for the people that grow the food and their kids too, and those people often don’t have all the safety information and equipment they need to protect themselves. People shouldn’t be made to work with toxic stuff unless they’re really well paid, well informed about the risks, and have great health benefits. Sadly, such is not the case for your average farm worker.
The karma argument comes into play for me with animals as well. The chemical differences may be small or nil, but you can’t tell me that meat, milk or eggs from an animal that never saw the light of day and spent its life crammed in a cage are the same as meat, milk and eggs from animals that live relatively natural lives. Misery must affect quality. Regardless, it’s cruel: I wouldn’t have the heart or stomach to witness that kind of treatment, so I don’t think it’s right for me to consume the products that come of it, at least not where it’s possible to avoid it.
There are great economic arguments for organic farming, too. Sustainability is about money as much as it’s about the environment, because a farm is a business and has to keep going. On the one hand, organic farmers receive no subsidies from the government, they have a much harder time when it comes to crop insurance, and they must pay if they want organic certification, so their financial risk can be greater. On the other hand, people will pay a little more for organic foods, and the more middle-men you can cut out of the supply chain by selling locally, the more of that money goes right back to the farmer. Plus, organic farming is much closer to being a closed system. Organic farmers build up soil nutrients using composted farm “wastes” and apply preventive strategies to minimize losses from pests. That’s much more financially savvy than using up every last drop of life in the soil, and being completely dependent on purchased inputs of fertilizer and pesticides to keep a conventional farm going. It’s thrifty, which brings me to my main point….
Organic on the Cheap. It’s totally possible. Toxic Free NC has a great article on this subject which you can check out if you want to read more, but here’s a couple hot tips:
* Choose wisely. Every few years, Environmental Working Group puts out a “Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce,” showing which conventionally-grown fruits and veggies test highest for pesticide residues, both on and in the fruit. When you’re at the grocery store and trying to make tough choices about what you can afford to buy organic, referring to that list can really help! For instance, though organic strawberries can be really pricey, I’ll never buy the conventionally-grown ones because they always pop up near the top of the list of most pesticide-contaminated fruits and veggies. By comparison, sweet corn comes up near the top of the “clean” list, so when it’s in season locally and there’s 4-for-a-dollar deals everywhere, I’ll sometimes buy it locally-grown but not organic.
* The freezer is your friend. By which I mean to say, if you (like me) loooove fresh tomatoes, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, herbs, squash, etc. etc, please don’t try and buy lots of them in January and February in NC, organic or no - they’ll be extra expensive, and kinda lousy compared to what’s available in summer. A better idea is to buy extra in summer when they’re cheap, local and delicious, and freeze them, fresh or prepared, for use in the wintertime. It’s really as easy as washing and drying fresh produce, sticking it in a freezer bag, pressing out all the air, and popping it in the freezer. Done. Here’s some information on proper freezing and thawing.
* Generic brands and bulk bins. Buying local is a big thing for me as well as organic, but some things I’m rarely going to find both local and organic. I’m thinking about things like flour, sugar, nuts, beans, pasta, rice, etc. When I’m not going to find a locally-produced version, and especially where it’s a staple food where the brand doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to my taste buds, I’ll go for the cheapest organic version I can find. Whole Foods, Harris Teeter, and Kroger all have store brand organic labels that can be a totally good deal. My latest craze is a bag of 5 organic apples for $2.50 at the Whole Foods. Yeah, they’re from Washington state, but I’m hooked on apples and we won’t have apples in NC until the fall, so I’ll take the bargain organic WA apples the rest of the year, thank you very much! Check out those bulk bins too - there’s great stuff in there, it’s super cheap, and you save the world from having to create and print another package, which is nice.
Toxic Free NC is working with coalition partners from around the state to promote organic & sustainable agriculture, and make changes to state policy that make it easier for people to get locally-grown organic foods at an affordable price. We’re also keen on winning reforms that would better protect farm workers from pesticides on the job at conventional farms. We’ve got some hot action alerts on these topics right now - we’d love for you to come on over to our website and get involved.
PS: The new documentary Food, Inc. is showing at The Colony on July 18th! Details.