Organics is not a fad. It has been a long-established practice, much more firmly grounded than the current chemical flair. Present agricultural practices are leading us downhill
J.I. Rodale wrote those words in 1954. Organic agriculture has exploded since Rodale’s time and organic foods are now available in almost every grocery store in the country.
Not everyone shares Rodale’s enthusiasm, however. A recent article in the International Herald Tribune discussed a new book, Liberal Fascism, written by conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg. According to the IHT, Goldberg states that “...the contemporary cult of organic food is built on a deep wish to return to an imagined prelapsarian earth (garden of Eden) where everything is unpolluted and organic and a natural harmony prevailed.”
So what should we, as consumers, believe and stand up for when it comes to organic food—and why? As the calendar moves toward our annual observance of Earth Day later this month it seems like a good time to take stock and reflect a bit on food choices.
The National Organic Standards became law in October 2002 after many years of discussion, debate and consumer comment. Today foods that are certified organic carry the green and white USDA symbol, making them easy to find in any store. The number of organic products available and the number of consumers buying those products have skyrocketed. Studies done by the Hartman Group and Nielsen Homescan have provided some interesting data: two-thirds of American shoppers have purchased organic food items at least once and nearly a quarter of us buy organic at least once a week; Latino and African-American shoppers are the fastest growing group of “core” organic shoppers; households with incomes under $50,000 spend more money, per capita, on organic food than households at higher income levels. Annual organic sales gains of 15 to 20 percent have been consistent since 1997, the first year comprehensive data was collected. Sales of organic food approached $17 billion dollars in 2006 and represented three percent of all food and beverage purchases.
Most organic devotees have a host of reasons—fresh organic produce is considered by many to be healthier, more nutritious, and better tasting than its conventionally grown counterparts. Many are concerned about the environmental degradation that accompanies modern agriculture, including chemical runoff, groundwater contamination and erosion. More and more, people are switching to organics to assure the safety of the food they eat and to avoid products that are likely to contain genetically engineered ingredients. Consumers are turning to organic meat, eggs and dairy products to avoid added growth hormones and antibiotics in their food supply and to alleviate concerns about mad cow disease. A growing contingent of consumers is concerned about economic and social justice issues for farmers and farm workers. There is also a perception that organic means small, local family farms, and although that certainly can be true, the larger reality is that organic food—and the higher profit it commands—has been taken down the same path as conventional agriculture in some ways.
Prior to World War II many of the farms in the United States were small operations that fed the farmer and his family and, in some cases, provided foodstuffs to sell or barter in the local community. Crops were rotated each year and the ground was fertilized with manure, compost and cover crops. The war effort required massive amounts of food to be sent overseas and many farmers seized the opportunity to enlarge their holdings and produce much larger amounts of grain. It suddenly became necessary, as well as affordable and profitable to trade the draft horses for tractors and other motorized equipment. This was the beginning of monoculture-style farming—vast acreages planted in a single crop.
Although agricultural chemicals had been available since the early years of the 20th century, they were not widely used prior to World War II; major insect infestations had just not been enough of a problem to justify the price of pesticides for the majority of farmers. The feasts provided by huge monoculture fields, however, greatly increased the number and variety of insect pests. The chemical industries involved in the war obligingly shifted their efforts to pesticide production—and marketing—in peacetime.
In 1947, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) passed, giving the USDA responsibility for regulating and registering pesticides. The newly created Environmental Protection Agency took over administration of FIFRA after a major revision of the law in 1972. The 1972 revision is essentially the law that is still in place today. Among other things, FIFRA defines the use of “active” and “inert” ingredients in pesticides and states that only the active ingredients aimed at the “target” pest must be listed on the product label. Active ingredients can also include “...a plant regulator, defoliant, desiccant, or nitrogen stabilizer.” Inert ingredients are “any ingredient in the product that is not intended to affect a target pest.” Inert ingredients are not required to be listed on the label or even tested. The government assumes most inert ingredients to be non-toxic solvents and surfactants used to deliver the active ingredient, but in many cases, inert ingredients include items designated as “hazardous” or even “extremely hazardous.” Many are known or suspected carcinogens; in fact the FDA recently estimated that at least 50 approved pesticides contain known carcinogens.
In 2004, the Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA) publicized the results of a chemical body burden study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Blood and urine samples from 9,282 people were analyzed. One conclusion: more than 90 percent of Americans have residues of between 13 and 23 different pesticides in their bodies. Other startling results indicated that children’s bodies have higher levels of many chemicals than adults. This is likely due to the fact that children eat more food, per pound of body weight, than adults. They also tend to go on food jags, eating a more limited variety of foods than adults. Unfortunately, because the body and brain develop rapidly over the early years of childhood, chemicals may more adversely affect children than adults. Pesticide exposure can cause, or has been linked to, several illnesses including many cancers, endocrine and reproductive disorders, asthma, miscarriage, premature birth and birth defects, brain damage and compromised immune systems. The CDC’s Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals was due to be published in 2007, but has not been released as of this writing; it will cover many more chemicals than earlier versions.
Many consumers have made the switch to organic food in order to eliminate or reduce the amount of synthetic pesticides they and their families are exposed to every day. This also helps to protect the health of those workers who would otherwise be working with pesticides. A 2003 study showed that males engaged in conventional farming had up to 50 percent more prostate cancer than the general population. Several studies in recent years have shown that homes on or near conventional farms commonly have elevated levels of pesticide residues, especially in carpets, furniture, and laundry areas. Residents, especially children, often ingest these residues when the dust is transferred to hands and faces from objects in the home.
Organic farmers are good land stewards. They use a variety of methods to combat insect pests and weeds. These include encouraging habitat for birds and beneficial insects like ladybugs, lace wings and spiders that devour the pests; mulching to prevent weeds and conserve soil moisture; weeding by hand or with a type of flame-thrower; enriching the soil through the use of compost and cover crops known as green manures that are tilled in; practicing crop rotations that often encompass several years instead of just one or two.
Using natural means of controlling pests has other environmental advantages too. Waterways and aquifers stay cleaner when the land is farmed organically. According to a U.S. Geological Survey report published in February 2007, 97 percent of surface streams and rivers, half of all shallow aquifers and one-third of deep aquifers in agricultural and urban areas of this country have detectable levels of pesticides. A 2001 study by the University of Iowa indicated that 30 to 40 percent of municipalities in that state had excessive levels of nitrates when city water samples were tested.
Bird populations are important to our ecosystem too. Birds eat tons of insects, pollinate flowers and other plants, transport seeds and give us plenty of pleasure with their varied habits, colors and songs. Researchers estimate that 67 million birds are killed every year because of pesticide exposure.
Cover crops and mulches used in organic farming help to restore and maintain soil fertility and moisture levels, but they are also important for erosion control. According to sustainabletable.org, “...Soil is a mixture of minerals, water, air and organic matter that comes from decaying plants, roots, earthworms, bacteria, assorted fungi and other micro-organisms. An acre of healthy topsoil can contain 900 pounds of earthworms, 2,400 pounds of fungi, 1,500 pounds of bacteria, 133 pounds of protozoa, and 890 pounds of arthropods and algae.” Bare ground is vulnerable to wind and water; the roots of cover crops help hold soil in place. Worldwide, one-third of topsoil has already disappeared due to erosion and the loss continues at the rate of about 24,000 acres of soil each year. Topsoil that blows or washes away carries most of the nutrients that plants need—the soil that remains has only about a third of the nutrients as the topsoil lost to erosion.
Many small organic farmers prefer to raise livestock and crops that are considered traditional or heirloom breeds. This helps keep a variety of plants and animals from becoming extinct. In human history we have used about 7,000 different plants for food, but as agriculture has become more “modern” those varieties have dwindled alarmingly. Some experts say that we now depend on only 15 major food crops and eight animal species for over 90 percent of our food. When we lose diversity in plants or livestock we have a higher risk of crop failure due to pests, climate changes and disease. Organic farmers cannot use seeds or inputs that have been genetically engineered and most likely, cloned animals, or products from them, will not be permitted to carry the organic label. Organic products cannot be irradiated and sewer sludge is not approved as a fertilizer.
Animals that are raised organically, whether as meat, egg producers or dairy animals cannot be treated with growth hormones or antibiotics. They are fed clean, species-appropriate foods and required to have access to the outdoors. Many of these animals spend most of their lives grazing on pasturelands and as a result, the meat and dairy products they produce are higher in essential fatty acids and other beneficial nutrients than industrial-style feedlot meat and dairy.
In one Danish study, organic milk was found to be much higher in Vitamin E and carotenoids than non-organic milk. The organic milk contained two to three times as much beta-carotene, for example. Eggs
from pastured chickens who receive organic supplemental feed have up twenty times the Omega-3 fatty acids as eggs from a factory farm. Beef from grass-fed cattle, raised without hormones and antibiotics has six times the beneficial Omega-3s and virtually none of the Omega-6 fatty acids that many of us consume to excess.
While some experts admit evidence is preliminary, organic fruits and vegetables have been coming out ahead in comparison studies with conventional as well. According to the USDA, organic ketchup contains 50 percent more heart-healthy lycopene than non-organic. A study by the University of California-Davis found that organic corn has 52 percent more Vitamin C than conventional; a 2005 report indicates that organic produce, across the spectrum, is about 30 percent higher, on average in anti-oxidants. Other studies indicate higher levels of trace minerals in organic produce. This seems to make sense intuitively—if the soil is nurtured and enriched with good things, the crops grown on it should also be enriched.
Not too many years ago, a shopper could be fairly sure that buying organic food would send those food dollars to an independent business, and often keep the money right in her community or region. That has changed dramatically though, as the rising demand for organics has led to all the biggest players in the food arena getting into the game. Today there are few independent producers left on the national level and many small growers choose to contract their crops to a multinational corporation. The demand for organic food has resulted in some growers pursuing the same industrial, monoculture style of farming that they use for conventionally grown food.
Organic food comes to us from all parts of the world, in all seasons. Some consumers and farmers see this as a direct affront to the true meaning of organic and have pledged to avoid the “big-O.” Many people have begun to label themselves as locavores and search out foods grown close to home. To remain viable, many farmers are selling directly to consumers through on-farm sales, community supported agriculture and farmers’ markets. Your Co-op continues its mission of supporting local farmers and producers whenever possible and you can too—just look for the purple shelf tags that identify products as “local.” Buying locally grown or produced organic food insures that your money stays at work in your community, county, or state. It helps keep family farms strong and healthy—good partners for your health, for the economic health of the community, and for the health of the planet.