ColumnWhen we think of organic food, we have to think about more than our personal health. Is organic food better for us?
I remember a couple of years ago scrolling through my Facebook feed after the latest study on whether or not organic food provided more health benefits than conventionally grown produce, and reading a comment that a friend had written, “I now feel completely vindicated for NOT buying organic foods.”
That line has stuck with me. I think about it often.
Recently there was more fuel to add to that fire, in the form of a new study looking at pesticide and antioxidant levels in organic produce. The study found much lower levels of pesticides in organic fruits, vegetables and grains as opposed to those grown using conventional methods. The antioxidant level in the organic produce was also higher, to the tune of 17 percent higher than in conventional grown food.
The study “shows very clearly how you grow your food has an impact,” Carlo Leifert, a professor of ecological agriculture at Newcastle University in England, who led the research, told the New York Times.
Which brings us back to the “should we care about organic?” question.
Those in the “I don’t need to buy organic” camp, will cite this quote as their argument: “We are not making health claims based on this study, because we can’t,” Dr. Leifert told the New York Times. According to him, the study is insufficient “to say organic food is definitely healthier for you, and it doesn’t tell you anything about how much of a health impact switching to organic food could have.”
That’s fine. In fact, when it comes to that question–is organic food better?–we need to stop thinking of our health and our health alone. Because better agricultural methods that respect the earth and use fewer pesticides isn’t just a question of whether or not we’ll live to 109 years of age, it’s a question of community health and a more sustainable future.
The organic argument isn’t entirely black and white. There is definitely room to question all the organic products on a grocery store shelf; just like we should question all of the food products on a grocery store shelf. Just because it’s organic doesn’t make organic marshmallow fluff any good for you.
There are also plenty of small-scale farmers who don’t have the money to get organic certification, but treat their land and their harvest in very organic ways, sometimes even better than the larger producers of organic. Which means that if you stick to a “buy only organic” you’ll end up with a basket full of marshmallow fluff and organic cookies but miss out on the dirty carrots that Farmer Joe from down the street grew.
We have to think a little about what we’re buying to eat, and what the impacts of our choices really are. We have to stop blindly consuming.
There was a time when we didn’t have to call things “organic.” Edibles that came from the ground or a tree were inherently organic. Nature is organic after all. We humans are the ones who have made it not so. We’re the ones who came in with pesticides in order to be able to scale up agricultural production.
If you want to get upset about the price of organics, why not direct that frustration towards the companies that make non-organic food so inexpensive. Because as Michael Pollan says, it’s not inexpensive, it’s “irresponsibly priced.” With all environmental and social costs externalized, certainly you can charge a penny for a carrot, but that pesticide covered carrot comes with a lot of costs that you don’t see on the price tag.
Not everyone has access to, or the means to buy, honestly priced and produced food. Which means that those of us who do have access and the means, have no excuse not to think about what we’re buying and consuming. Sure, it would be great if everyone could just get all their food from a local farm, but in the meantime, in a world of industrial agriculture, I would rather have large businesses that treat the land and the community well. Because our overall well-being depends on it.
Just last month, pesticide exposure was linked to increased rates of autism. We’re living in a world where the threat of antibiotic resistance is becoming more and more real, and antibiotics, which can’t be used under USDA organic standards, may in fact be linked to weight gain. Continuing to maintain a system that’s dependent on chemicals, pesticides, growth hormones and antibiotics isn’t good for us or the planet.
When it comes to the most basic rules of food, eating real food is the first step in ensuring our own health.
Buy whole foods, cook them yourself. That’s the best thing you can do. But beyond that, if we look at agriculture and its large-scale impacts, organic is better, not because organic vegetables are going to provide us with amazing super powers and keep us living forever, but because they’re better for the environment, they’re better for farmworkers and they’re better for communities. That’s worth fighting for.
Related on EcoSalon
This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at www.foodieunderground.com.
Image: Anna Brones