Organic: Food or Fad?

The organic label, demystified.

Anna Elzeftawy
October 2, 2008


Hi, all, and welcome to Make it Green Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for an Earth Friendly Life. Many of you are wondering about organic food, drink, and even clothing. What does it all mean, and how can you decide if organic is the next food revolution, or just a passing fad meant to get your money? Find out how in this episode!

Listener Thomas wrote in with this question. "Hey, Green Girl, is eating organic actually better for the environment or is it just more expensive food?"

Well, when I was in college, I had no money, and I wasn't about to pay a dime extra for anything if I didn't have to. Like all respectable college students, I pretty much lived on Top Ramen and whatever was on sale at the grocery store. But later when I learned more about how organic produce is grown, how organic dairies are managed, and all that jazz, I realized my choices can actually make a difference on the environment.

What Is "Organic?"

Organic is actually a term of art used to describe a product that has gone through organic certification process. This means that only those who have been certified by the USDA or other independent certifying agencies can make the claim "organic." It does not refer to the good old chemistry textbook definition of "compound containing carbon."

Organic farming uses no pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides, which can be toxic and accumulate in the environment. Plus, certain activities are also conditions of certification. For example, raw manure (animal or otherwise) cannot be applied directly to organic fields like on conventional farms -- it must be composted to produce fertilizer and mulch. The conditions also contain a list of prohibited natural substances and allowed synthetic substances, like bleach for cleaning equipment.

There are many ways for organic farmers to combat weeds, bugs, and fungi; some of them are very creative, like crop rotation, cover cropping, and the elimination of the monoculture. Monocultures -- growing huge fields filled with one variety of plant -- are extremely vulnerable to pests that can rip through whole fields. The classic example is the Irish potato blight. In the end, our land is more sustainably used by organic farmers who grow our food, and we take better care of the whole ecosystem instead of mining the land for its resources.

Why Is It So Expensive?

Organic produce can command up to 30% more than the price of conventional produce, and for folks with limited means it can be extremely taxing, especially considering snack junk food is much cheaper per calorie. Organic food is more expensive than conventional produce primarily because of increased labor costs. Many organic farmers deal with weeds by hand, and hire extra people to deal with the labor-intensity of organic farming processes.

But maybe we should be paying more. Americans spend less that 11% of our monthly income on food. Europeans pay as much as 30%. Since our food is cheap, we treat it like it's cheap; the average American household throws away about 14% of the food we buy. Food in America has been made artificially cheap by agribusiness' economy of scale and farm subsidies. Those subsidies from your tax dollars usually go to higher-yield farms, which are mostly owned by large agribusiness who spend a lot of money lobbying congress to keep those subsidies. Without farm subsidies and the premium price of ethanol, conventional farms would be losing money on corn.

Although many organic farms are also now owned by big businesses, the higher price of organic produce has helped some organic farmers actually turn a profit and obtain a standard of living equal to the people buying the food. The industry is growing by about 30% a year, compared with the single-digit growth rate of conventional agriculture. By buying organic foods, you send a message to the industry about how you want your food produced, and how much you are willing to pay for it.

One way you can start to purchase more organic foods is to cut down waste. Buy groceries more often, in smaller quantities. Your produce is less likely to rot if you buy weekly instead of monthly. Make a big shopping trip to the store every month for dry goods and non-foodstuffs, and then stop by each week for fresh fruit and veggies. Freeze your leftovers, and eat them for lunch later.

Is It Really Better for the Environment?

If you're wondering whether you can help the environment by eating organic, the answer is a resounding, "Yes!"

Well run organic farms treat their production system like an ecosystem, the whole farm is essentially an organism unto itself. It uses less of the expensive off-farm inputs like fertilizers and pesticides that can leach away into the water supply, and it can cut the water use of conventional farms in half.

Organic farms do not fertilize with raw manure or raw sewage waste, which carries harmful bacteria that can contaminate our food -- think about recent E. coli scares with fresh tomatoes and jalapeños. Instead organic farms use composted soil as mulch and fertilizer, which does double duty disposing of waste and fertilizing the soil. Organic farms also build up topsoil, whereas convention cropping gradually depletes the soil of nutrients and erodes away the soil itself -- think about the dust bowl of the 1930s.

Organic dairies and beef herds are not confined to feedlots where they are in such close quarters standing in their own manure that they must be sprayed with antibiotics to keep from getting sick. Organic dairy and beef cows are fed 100% organic feed that reduces again the transmission of pesticides in the food chain.

The University of California at Davis is a world leader in agricultural sciences. A Davis study of 154 farms revealed that organic farms yield up to 95% of conventional farms of the same acreage. Plus, organic methods are sustainable enough to be used in developing countries without the need to purchase expensive equipment or chemicals.

Is It Really Better for Me and My Family?

While we don't have a lot of information about the nutritive benefits of organic farming, organic farming advocates assert that if the soil is healthier, and we take better care of the ecosystem, our food will be healthier too. You can imagine that it's possible that if the soil contains more nutrients -- and I'm not talking just macro-nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash from fertilizer -- the food we eat may yield long-term benefits that we have yet to see.

My attitude when it comes to pesticides is, "Why risk it?" Sure, we don't know that long-term exposure to insect neuro-toxins is unsafe -- but we don't know it's completely safe either. Broad spectrum pesticides used in conventional farming can also kill a lot of beneficial bugs that actually help the farm ecosystem, creating the need for even more fertilizers.

One way my friends and I came up with to combat the insecticide/herbicide/fungicide issue is to buy organic when you eat the peel, conventional when you don't. For example, citrus, mangoes, and kiwis we bought conventional. Apples, peaches, and pears we bought organic, or at least gave a thorough washing before eating. Although many plants take up the pesticides and store them inside the plant flesh as well, this will at least protect you from the surface sprays.

For more information on the nutritive aspects of organic foods, and great tips on food selection, preparation, and consumption, check out the Nutrition Diva's Quick and Dirty Tips for Eating Healthy and Feeling Fabulous. Host Monica Reinagel will guide you through the most treacherous of supermarket, the most difficult of meals, and tackle tough questions like "How much water am I really supposed to be drinking?"

You Can Do It!

So those of you worried about your budget, organic is a commitment you can make gradually. Start with organic meats, since conventional meats are much harder on the environment than organic meat. Organic meat is also much more expensive, so it will also help you reduce your meat consumption if you stick with organic. Then move on to your fruits and veggies. (I'll be covering the ins and outs of organic meat in a future episode.)

Each time you buy organic, you are endorsing the careful management of our environment. It's a vote for how you want your food to be handled, and your business lets farmers and agribusiness know that you're willing to buy produce that's maybe not cosmetically perfect, but still tastes great.

Additional Reading

Nestle, Marion. What to Eat

Kerry, John and Teresa Heinz-Kerry. This Moment on Earth.

University of California, Davis Agriculture Programhttp://www.sarep.ucdavis.edu/Organic/index.htm