Sunday, October 01, 2006

Guest Post: Blog Exchange Debate

The following pieces were written for a Blog Exchange Debate wherein we take opposing views on controversial parenting topics and debate them on each other’s blogs. Our topic is organic food.

Anti-Organic Argument:
Why organic food is a con
by Emma Kaufmann

When people ask me if I buy organic food, I say, "No, it's far too expensive." Which it is, of course. But the main reason I don't buy organic food, is that it isn't organic.

Of course I'm not happy about the way conventional produce is grown - with soil pumped full of chemicals, vegetables that are often tasteless and covered in pesticides. But if you think you are doing something ethical by buying organic or are getting a superior product, think again.

Let's leave aside for a moment, the small scale farmer who sells his stuff at the Farmer's Market, and investigate the huge companies that produce and manufacture organic foods. The results aren't pretty. Organic products are almost as chemically ridden as their conventional counterparts, workers are mistreated in the same way as those working at conventional companies, and the impact on the environment from the waste products from organic farms is not as negligible as it appears.

The US organic industry is now worth $14 billion, and is dominated by huge food processing corporations. General Mills owns the organic brands Cascadian Farm and Muir Glen. Kellogg owns Sunrise Organic. Seeds of Change, an organic company that sells rice, grains and complementary sauces, has been owned by M&M Mars since 1997.

And if you think that organic's profitability means that their workers get a fair wage, think again. The profits go to retailers and wholesalers higher up the food chain.

According to a report published last year by researchers at UC-Davis, a majority of 188 California organic farms surveyed do not pay a living wage or provide medical or retirement plans. In fact, most organic workers earn the same as those in conventional fields.

As to the question of whether it is better for you, there is no scientific study that proves that organic foods are healthier or better for you than conventionally grown foods, and a recent study states that organically grown foods have about one-third of the pesticide residues of conventionally grown foods.

Part of the problem lies in inconsistencies in labeling. A product with the USDA Organic label on it is not necessarily organic. This article highlights the fact that the United States Department of Agriculture does not know how often organic rules are broken and has not consistently taken action when potential violations were pointed out.

"The USDA has failed to enforce the regulations," said Jim Riddle, former chairman of the National Organics Standards Board and an appointed adviser to the USDA when the organic standards were enacted in 2002.

Additionally, much organic food is produced overseas, where there is even less oversight. Mr. Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association in Finland, Minn. states that consumers buying soy milk or tofu, "have no clue that in the case of soy milk and tofu, it's actually coming from China, where organic standards are dubious and labor standards are abysmal."

But what about environmental impact, isn't it better to farm organically? An article in the magazine Nature, tells us that organic farming is frequently as damaging on the environment as its conventional counterpart:

"Competitive organic farmers keep their fields clear of weeds through frequent mechanical weeding - a method that damages nesting birds, worms and invertebrates - and high use of fossil fuels, which greatly increases pollution from nitrogen oxides. A single treatment with innocuous herbicide, coupled with no-till conventional farming, avoids this damage and retains organic material in the soil surface. Similarly, although use of manure means higher, beneficial levels of earthworms in organic fields, there are numerous problems with the use of manure, including possible effects on human health."

What about if you care about how eggs, meat and poultry are produced, isn't it better to eat organic? Well, yes, but you need to be very, very careful and research the company you are buying them from. Because the labels on them are misleading.

This article makes clear that in an instance where the USDA labeled hens "free-range" the animals were crammed in “wall to wall — 6,800 chickens with one rooster for every hundred hens. They never set foot outside.”

Similarly, the USDA cautions consumers that the “organic” label is not to be confused with or likened to the “natural” or any other label, and it “makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food.”

Like the “free-range” label, the “organic” label does not indicate that animals were treated any differently while being transported or slaughtered than animals raised on factory farms.

What's the point of labeling it organic then? No point at all, really.

So what can you do? Buy locally grown produce.

Buying organic food is such a powerful lure, isn't it? You think that by buying it you are somehow making the world a better place. Well, chances are, you're not, because the majority of organic food is produced by big business. Whatever the ingredients or processing methods, and whether or not it is organic, food from distant, anonymous producers is really nothing more than a commodity, in that the only relationship between the producer and the consumer is a monetary one, forcing the producer to cut costs at every corner. For example, regulations stipulate a minimum cage area per hen for organic eggs, so a producer motivated strictly by cost minimization will pack them in to that limit, regardless of whether that is sufficient for the hens’ health and well-being.

If you really want to be an ethical consumer you are better off eating locally grown produce, even if that produce is not organic. Buying locally grown produce has become the latest mark of the consumer who wants to conserve fuel and reduce pollution created by shipping food internationally.

But probably for you, as it is for me, doing that would not be very convenient. Far better to run down to Whole Foods and grab yourself a bag of pre-bagged organic spinach. That is, if it's back on the shelves yet!


Pro-Organic Argument:
Numbers Don't Lie: The Case for Organic Foods by Izzy of IzzyMom

I am a huge proponent of organic foods and farming. If I could, I would buy organic food exclusively. There are dozens of reasons why, however, to delve into each of them would render this little blog exchange post as lengthy as a term paper. Thus, I am only going to focus on the primary reasons that I prefer to buy and consume organic foods which would be my children.

When you stop to consider that asthma, autism, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders (ADD and ADHD), childhood brain cancer and acute lymphocytic leukemia have all increased over the past 30 years and babies are born with industrial chemicals, pollutants and pesticides in their cord blood, it's not a stretch to wonder if the pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals used in all aspects of food production are at least partially to blame.

Regarding the health risks of pesticides residues in food, remember that the EPA approved many pesticides and fertilizers long before research linked these chemicals to cancer and other diseases. Today, however, the EPA considers 90% of all fungicides, 60% of all herbicides, and 30% of all insecticides as potentially cancer- causing.

Furthermore, determining the safety of a conventional pesticide may take thirty years or more. For example, we now know that some of the older pesticides, such as DDT, caused serious health problems in children but this didn't become evident until thirty years after the substance was banned for environmental reasons. We may not see the full effects of the newer pesticides we're putting on crops for a long, long time and I'm not willing to let my kids be guinea pigs.

And in case you were wondering how organic and conventional produce stack up, the Organic Center reports that conventional produce is eight times more likely to contain pesticide residues than organic.

I find the aforementioned statistics to be chilling and of course, I would never spoon feed these chemicals to my children so why would I feed them food that is loaded with them when safer organic options exist?

Some people that are not convinced of the benefits of organics but the numbers don't lie.

A 2003 study conducted by the University of Washington tracked a group of preschool children to determine if their diets affected their pesticide exposure. The study was based on 18 children with organic diets and 21 with conventional diets. Researchers analyzed their urine for evidence of exposure to five different kinds of toxic pesticides.

They found that the average total was six to almost nine times higher for children with conventional diets than for children with organic diets. The researchers concluded that consuming organic fruits and vegetables is a relatively simple way for parents to reduce their children's pesticide exposure.

Young children are developing brain function and internal organs intended to last a lifetime and they are more vulnerable to developmental damage from pesticide residues on foods. This is partly because of their fast growth and speedy metabolisms and partly because of their smaller size, which means they eat more fruits and vegetables in relation to their body weight than adults do.

In 1993, a congressionally-mandated study by the National Academy of Sciences expressed concern that existing methods of risk evaluation for pesticide exposure were not suited to children. More recently, the Consumers Union and the Environmental Working Group released studies confirming that children are over-exposed even if their exposure is within legal limits.

Bearing all those facts in mind, I firmly believe that re-assessing our priorities and making room in our tight budget for organic foods is one of the most important things I can do for my children's long-term health and I strongly urge others to do the same.

Babies consume about 60 times more fruits and vegetables than adults. This fact combined with undeveloped digestive and immune systems, put young children at the greatest health risk for pesticide residues. To minimize the effects, you might buy organic for those foods that your children eat regularly.

If you have to limit what organic foods you buy because of the cost, it is recommended that you buy organic animal products first, like milk, eggs and meat.

In produce, pesticides levels vary. Here are some common fruits and vegetables that are high in pesticide residues. Because of the high levels, you might consider buying organic for these foods:

Apples
Bell peppers
Celery
Cherries
Grapes (imported)
Nectarines
Peaches
Pears
Potatoes
Red Raspberries
Spinach
Strawberries

Conversely, these fruits and vegetables are commonly found to have the lowest levels of pesticide residues so it's not critical to choose organics when buying the following:

Asparagus
Avocados
Bananas
Broccoli
Cauliflower
Corn (sweet)
Kiwi
Mangos
Onions
Papayas
Pineapples
Peas (sweet)

(Source - The Environmental Workers Union)

You don't have to dive in and go organic all at once but every little bit helps, especially when it comes to your children.

About the author

I'm Izzy, a thirtysomething WAHM of two young children. I'm married to computer god/music producer and the resident concierge & butler to our three cats. I was a graphic designer/corporate slave in my previous life. Now I practice bad housekeeping and butt-wiping, sometimes at the same time, and work at home as a webmaster & blog designer. During naptimes, I can usually be found blogging here or here.

Click here for the other op-ed pieces (and their opposing sides) today. And if you'd like to participate next month, send an email to kmei26 at yahoo.com

10 comments:

TB said...

Absolutely. The more I read about pesticide and hormone levels in the food we eat the more I switch a little at a time.
We started with organic milk and it's amazing and a little scary that you can actually taste a difference.
I'd love to be able to feed my child all organic all the time and being educated about which foods contain the highest levels of chemicals definitely helps.
Great post.

Lisa Goldstein/Kelly Kelly said...

I really got interested in this issue when I was pregnant and wanted to minimize my baby's exposure to chemicals via produce and antibiotics via meat. You make good points.

Lisa

Anonymous said...

I turned organic after touring a cold cereal plant. And reading The Jungle in a dark room with a flashlight. Point being, this is some scary stuff, and kudos for such a great post about it.

mad muthas said...

'fraid i'm also one of the manic organics. went over that way after doing a diploma in horticulture (long story) and finding out a bit about what's routinely sprayed on crops. also it's an animal welfare issue for me - can't bear to eat something that hasn't had a happy life, gamboling around the fields before being slaughtered for my pleasure ...

Daisy said...

I agree with both of you - diplomatic of me, no?

I buy organic almost exclusively, but I also try to go to the farmer's market and buy locally, first. Then to WFM for my Industrial Organics, which I still feel are better than the alternative.

I like the pro/con approach - nicely done!

mothergoosemouse said...

Izzy, you know I love you to pieces, but we'll just have to agree to disagree on this topic for now.

However, you've given me a lot to think about, and some good links to explore. I'm always in favor of learning more, and I'm amenable to changing my mind too!

Anonymous said...

Emma,

I love your post. As the holder of a degree in agriculture and a farm kid, I know firsthand what goes into fields and livestock. In Central Illinois, there are more small farmers who no-till and have free-range cattle and hogs than there are confinements.

In college we toured THREE meat packing plants for our meat evalutation class. I learned so much there. I know that cattle in our neck of the woods aren't injected with hormones, but they are given vaccinations to prevent against diseases and antibiotics if they get sick. I think that people (in the city especially, and those without an agriculture background) have such a picture of evil farmers with chemicals and needles, and they don't realize how much we love the land and the animals. Not all farmers are bad! And Organic isn't always the way to go!

kiki said...

emma - your blog is both entertaining and educational.

i have to agree with you though. organic and free-range are much similar to recycling. you don't really know what's going on there

i do have one bone though, manure. it doesn't harm people. that shit is safe - i grew up on a farm, you'll have to trust me

i think that the other woman's point is good, but clouded by bias

Miss Devylish said...

I'm a little torn after reading both cuz people wonder how they contract cancers these days when they don't smoke, etc etc.. and I have tasted the difference in organics and non-organic and it is kinda scary how there's so much more flavor.. but on my salary, it's hard to afford.. But I just didn't think locally was much different. At least it's given me things to think about and I can get down to Pike Place Market more often for my veggies.. never really thought about it that way. Really good arguments, both of you.

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