Posts Tagged ‘Organic food’

6 Questions to Ask Before Buying Organic

Is organic more eco-friendly? It depends.             Image credit: fruitnet

How awesome would it be if a tidy little green and white label could tell you that your food was grown with minimal impact on the environment and evidence-based consideration for long term human and ecological sustainability? If certified organic had a 1:1 correlation with environmental and social responsibility, I would jump on the 100% organic bandwagon. Right now.

Unfortunately, organic is a marketing term, and a highly profitable one. The cynical part of me sees the way big corporations have gotten in on the action and wonders: if organic growing practices have a higher cost that is passed on to the consumers, why is it so profitable that huge corporations want in? What am I actually paying for?

While I still think that more of the farmers who are paying closest attention to sustainability are organic, buying organic food doesn’t excuse us from continuing to ask questions about the impact of our food. Answers, as always, are hard to come by.

(Here I want to acknowledge how hard it is to wrench food from the earth. As someone who has managed to get aphids on indoor herbs, I have tons of respect for farmers who go out there and grow food in the face of unpredictable weather and fierce competition from insects, bacteria, viruses, and small mammals. I also recognize that, however you farm, you drastically alter the ecosystem of the area you farm. There’s no way around that. When it comes to eco-friendly farming, we’re always already talking about compromises.)

Anyway, I’ve come up with some questions to ask before buying organic. It’s more of a wishlist than a realistic set of questions to interrogate your local farmer with on Saturday mornings, but it’s a way to start thinking about these complex issues. Most of these also apply to conventional agriculture. What would you add?

Pest management strategies?                                        Image credit: kumaravel

1. How does this organic farm manage pests?

Contrary to popular thought, organic does not mean pesticide free. It usually does mean free of synthetic pesticides (some synthetic substances, like pheromones, are allowed — the National Organic Program has a list of organic-OK pesticides that all certified farmers abide by), but it doesn’t tell you how often [natural] pesticides were used, how many different ones, how much, or how safe. Natural pesticides are sometimes less efficient than synthetic equivalents, resulting in either crop loss, higher quantities of pesticides, or both. (See this study comparing environmental impact of synthetic and natural pesticides.)

Unfortunately, natural pesticides are not necessarily gentler on animals or soil. According to Professor James McWilliams of Just Food, sulfur, which is a commonly used natural fungicide that is allowed in organic agriculture, is responsible for many farm worker injuries, is toxic to fish, and contributes to topsoil pollution. Another, copper sulfate, persists indefinitely, bioaccumulates in fish, and is classified by the EPA as a type I toxin (most toxic; glyphosate, in comparison, is a type III). Read more about pesticides used in organic farming here. Like synthetic pesticides, some are relatively safe, some are very toxic, some bioaccumulate, some don’t. They need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Better answers for this question would be things like crop rotation, crop diversification, integrated pest management, and cultivating beneficial predator populations.

What gets me is this: by drawing a line between natural and synthetic, the National Organic Program creates a binary based on ideology, not safety records. There is nothing intrinsically safer about natural pesticides. I would prefer to support a farmer who used integrated pest management to control pests, using the lowest effective dose of an appropriate, well-tested chemical (synthetic or otherwise) as a last resort.

2. Does the farm till to control weeds? How often?

How eco-friendly is tilling?     Image credit: ryanovineyards

Tilling seems like an intrinsic part of farming, but should it? Farmers till soil to get rid of weeds, but tilling is also responsible for increased soil erosion, moisture loss, run-off, poor soil quality, and the subsequent need for more fertilizers. No-till farming has benefits in reducing labor and machinery and improving soil quality and sustainability. However, with no-till, farmers still need to control weeds. Here are your three choices: tilling, spraying conventional toxic herbicides, or using glyphosate and glyphosate tolerant GMO crops. Pick your poison.

3. How suitable is the crop for the environment in which it’s being grown?

Growing coconuts in NorCal is probably not a good use of resources. And because it’s not economically beneficial, we don’t tend to do it. But what happens when it is profitable to grow a crop that doesn’t fit the environment in which it’s grown? The most famous example is probably tomatoes. If you get tomatoes in winter, they probably come from either Florida or Mexico. Florida: tons of pesticides (soil is packed with nematodes and terrible for tomatoes). Mexico: American demand for certified organic tomatoes (and basil and peppers)  is decimating local water tables. Closer to home, California’s aquifers are also under stress from both organic and conventional agriculture. Not too surprising, given that we spend 6 months of every year bone dry but grow food year round.

4.  How efficient is this organic farm compared to a non-organic farm growing the same variety under similar environmental conditions?

Here’s another of those pick-your-poison scenarios. Done well, organic agriculture can have less of an impact on soil health, local animal populations, and waterways. But many scientists (no, Rodale is not considered a scientific organization) remain unconvinced that organic can meet the efficiency levels of conventional agriculture. Water and land are also limited resources, and the more inefficient the farm, the more pressure on local ecosystems. Read more about organic farming efficiency and ways that careful management can narrow the gap to 13% (still considerable). Since efficiency difference varies by crop, maybe instead of the Dirty Dozen, we need an Efficient Eleven (or whatever) guide to buying organic. Then again, agricultural efficiency has driven massive population growth. Then again, dropping agricultural output to curb our population seems like it would be an unpopular and possibly inhumane idea. Ack!

5. How do nutrient levels compare in the same variety of organic and non-organic produce under similar environmental conditions?

Same thing, really. We do tend to see increased pesticide residues (well below accepted safety standards) in conventional agriculture compared to organic, though organic isn’t pesticide free, either. When it comes to nutritional content, studies and articles not produced by the organic industry tend to be inconclusive. (I dunno, I kind of think that Americans should just eat more fruits and vegetables and not worry about minor nutrient differences between conventional and organic.) Still, it would be interesting to see more studies and more lists of fruits and veggies in which organic does make a difference.

Got food? Thank a farmworker! Image credit: National Farm Worker Ministry

6. How does this farm treat farmworkers? 

This piece of information is frustratingly hard to find. Unlike GMOs, I can’t hop online and get a reasonable idea of which farms/products I want to avoid for ethical reasons. And tragically, farm workers are some of the most (if not the most) disenfranchised people in the country. They are exposed to the highest levels of toxic chemicals and have little or no legal recourse even when they have children with terrible birth defects as a result of illegal chemical exposure. I would gladly pay more for organic if it guaranteed that farm laborers were paid a fair wage with adequate protection from toxins and health care.


Whew. Sustainable food is one big, messy problem with no simple or easy answers. I think I could be reading up on it for the rest of my life and still be unsure what the best thing for me to do as a consumer. Right now, I buy a mix of organic and conventional; the percentage varies on where I’m shopping, and how much more organic costs than conventional. I really, really should try to talk to more farmers to get answers to these questions and make more decisions based on detailed knowledge, but again, there’s that whole farmers-market-phobia thing. Damn you, introversion.

Did I flub anything (I’d especially love to hear from organic farmers)? Are there any questions you would add to my list? How do you feel about buying organic?

Guest Post: What Organic Certification Really Means

This is a second guest post by Kelly Tooker, Master Gardener and environmental educator. There are lots of misconceptions about what organic actually means, and the USDA doesn’t seem to offer a tidy one page summary for the intelligent lay person. That’s where Kelly comes in. She breaks down what you’re getting when you buy organic — and what you’re not. 

The National Organic Program

What is ORGANIC?

The term “organic” simply means that something is or was once living.

The term “Organic” is used in marketing and manufacturing to describe the way in which agricultural products are produced, processed and certified to meet consistent national standards. These standards are regulated under the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990. Organic production is a system that is managed in accordance with the OFPA and regulations in Title 7, Part 205 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

What is the most common misconception?

Organic means no pesticides. False

Organic means that the product certified to the USDA standards as being produced and processed using methods that integrated cultural, biological and mechanical practices (see article on IPM) that foster the cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity.

Organic crops. The USDA organic seal verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms were not used.

Organic livestock. The USDA organic seal verifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors.

How does the label work?

To use the term Organic and apply the USDA Organic seal at least 95% of the ingredients must be produced organically under the law. Any remaining ingredients must consist of non-agricultural substances.

Who has to follow the law?

Operations whose gross income from organic sales totals $5,000 or more.

So, what does this mean to me as a consumer?

Well, this is marketing. You are a consumer. There is a growing body of consumers who are concerned about the way their food is produced and processed. Learn more about each company you support, you vote with your dollar.

Your local farmer at the Farmer’s Market or CSA may not be able to afford certification. But they may meet your consumer demand for no pesticide use. Talk to your local farmer and learn about his practices.

The program states “no prohibited pesticides.” It does not identify which are prohibited and whether or not these are synthetic or natural (derived from plant, animal or mineral). Certification is site-specific.

Learn how commercial farming works. It is a business. They are trying to make a profit.

Is Organic the same as non-GMO?

No, but that’s a whole other big topic which I would like to address separately because so many people get the terms confused. I will post information on genetically modified organisms (GMO) on As you read above, the current Organic labeling program certifies that [known] genetically modified organisms were not used in organic crops.

Do I buy organic?

Yes, I selectively vote with my dollars.

Further, I support my local farmer. I strive to eat local and seasonally. I produce as much of my own food as I can. I have not eaten fast food in over 15 years (except Chipotle). I am brand loyal to companies that I see making a difference.

How much of your food is certified organic? Would you buy non-certified local produce if you knew it was grown without pesticides?

About the author: 
Kel is a Master Gardener, Master Composter/ Recycler, and Naturally Beautiful Backyards Host Gardener. She has lived in USDA Zone 8 (Western Garden Zone 6) for most of her life and just recently relocated to Zone 5!

Kel began gardening in 2004. Her first gardening project was to establish a butterfly habitat garden and multi-use space for a young family. Her next project was the development of an urban pollinator habitat and a 10 month edible garden. Future entries will chronicle a 7,000 sq ft lot in a historical district.

Kel continues to pursue educational opportunities and holds an Organic Gardening certificate from OSU Extension. She has worked as an environmental educator in a range of positions including curriculum development and career & technical training at the high school level. She writes about a wide range of environmental topics.

Kel posts regularly as MonkeyDragon on and Tweets @Kelsgarden.

Photo by USDAgov

Would you eat a GMO heirloom tomato?

Brandywine tomatoes are practically the poster child for organic, heirloom produce. Knobbly, warty, and deeply flavored, they’re a far cry from perfectly round red tomatoes. At $3/lb at the farmers’ market, Brandywines are also pretty pricy.

Want to know why you have to pay so much? Brandywines are prone to nematodes, microscopic worms that destroy tomatoes from the roots up. Farmers lose a lot more of their Brandywines to disease than more modern, disease-resistant hybrids. And because they harvest less, more land and water go into producing each pound of these heirloom tomatoes. In using more natural resources than hybrids, these organic, heirloom tomatoes might actually have a larger footprint than their conventional or hybrid counterparts.

Here’s the thing: with our existing technology, we could introduce better disease resistance simply by moving a disease resistant gene from a different type of tomato into the Brandywine, in basically an accelerated version of what plant breeders have been doing for centuries. No interspecies genes, no genes from viruses or bacteria, nothing that we don’t already eat whenever we eat a non-heirloom tomato. A GMO Brandywine could use water and space more effectively and require fewer or no pesticides.

Would you eat this hypothetical GMO heirloom tomato? What if it could be shown to be lower impact than its unmodified cultivar? What if it were clearly labeled?

…and what if you didn’t instinctively flinch at the idea of GMO and everything it stood for?

I’m currently reading Josh Schonwald’s The Taste of Tomorrow, which has a provocative chapter questioning whether the schism between organic and GMO is more ideological than rational. I’m discovering that my problem with GMO is not about the actual science at all: it’s about Monsanto’s business practices, lobbying, and seed patenting. No, I don’t think making farmers dependent on a corporation is a good idea. Yes, I think the Diamond v. Chakrabarty decision that ruled that genes could be patented was a disaster.

But as far as actual genetic modification goes, I’m neutral. It’s a different, and potentially complementary, approach to solving the same problems organic farmers face: disease prevention, yield, nutrition. I’m intrigued by Vitamin A fortified golden rice that could help prevent blindness in some of the poorest areas on the planet. In China, a form of cotton has been genetically modified to contain bacteria that acts as a natural pesticide. It’s helped to reduce pesticide use by 80%. That’s a lot of pesticides that didn’t go into our ground, air, and water. In Hawaii, after ringspot virus devastated papaya trees, scientist Dennis Gonsalves developed a disease resistant GMO papaya variety, released the seeds to farmers for free, and pretty much single-handedly saved the Hawaiian papaya industry and the livelihoods of many small farmers.

Of course there are concerns with GMOs.  I think it’s perfectly legitimate to be concerned about long term effects on human and planetary health, the development of resistance to GMO, monocropping. Like you, I’m upset about the corporatization of food and Monsanto’s monopolistic policies. Although GMO produce goes through rigorous testing, we don’t always know what to test for, and it’s possible, even likely, that there will be results we could not have predicted. Increased production, for example, often triggers an increase in population/consumption (why hello, industrial animal farming), and we’re still biological creatures, after all. Increasing efficiency while decreasing consumption is the hardest challenge we’ve ever faced as a species.

But nor is organic always synonymous with sustainability. Organic tomatoes imported from Mexico are sucking local water tables dry. The organic strawberries at the farmers’ market are still spayed with pesticides that are not necessarily less toxic than synthetic counterparts. We usually think of biodegrading as a good process, but some organic pesticides degrade into toxic chemicals. Is a water-hungry, disease-prone organic plant really ‘greener’ than a GMO with higher yields that requires fewer pesticides? I don’t know.

Everything’s a compromise. Call me a bad greenie for breaking with the ‘organic = good, GMO = bad’ binary, but here’s what I think: Wrenching humanity off its current course of self-destruction and on to a more sustainable path is a big, messy, complicated problem. And ignoring potential solutions just because we’re ideologically — not rationally — opposed may not be helpful in finding solutions. It’s possible we’ll need GMO technology when the climate starts changing too quickly for our old plants and ways of agriculture. It’s possible GMO and organic could complement each other for more sustainable agriculture and stable food supplies. One thing is clear: we can’t go backwards.

What do you think about GMOs? Would you eat a GMO Brandywine?

Photo by Amanda Quintana-Bowles 

The dark side of food waste

I’ve found my newest addiction: the A&E show Hoarders. You may already know that my dad is a hoarder, and that growing up around his piles of outdated magazines and electronic gadgets has given me a profoundly ambivalent relationship with stuff. Even though I’m neither extremely neat nor extremely messy, I’m terrified of becoming a hoarder. I hold Cold War type purges every so often just to ensure I’m not getting too attached to my stuff. For better or for worse, this show has been bumping up the frequency of these purges.

Some of the episodes hit pretty close to home. There was the cat hoarder, who started off feeding strays and ended up with 70 odd cats, some of them dead (and eaten by other cats). There was the magazine and equipment hoarder, whose defensive attitude and tense relationship with his daughter reminded me very much of my dad. And then there was the food hoarder, a woman who couldn’t even get rid of a rotting pumpkin in her living room without first saving some seeds. A little later on, she was struggling to get rid of several containers of free range, organic chicken stock that had expired years ago. In her words, it was good stuff, she had paid a lot for it, and it wasn’t bulging or obviously bad.

Oh boy. That sounds uncomfortably familiar.

I hate throwing food out. Not just for environmental reasons, although it’s true that food waste accounts for a major loss of energy and resources. (Americans are estimated to waste 25% of all food prepared or about 96 billion pounds of food a year, and that’s not just a matter of food — it’s also water, gas for transport, and chemical pollution.) My mother, a superb planner, is incredibly good at not wasting food, and I feel a lot of pressure to do the same. But in my usual passive-aggressive way, I don’t avoid throwing out food by managing it better, sticking it in the freezer, and eating the old stuff first. I just let it sit until it’s so bad, stale, or old that I have no choice but to throw it out.

Wow.  Even though I only do this to a small percentage of my food, it sounds really bad when I write it out.  My, er, strategy also explains why I have a few things that expired in 2009 in my cupboard. They don’t smell, they aren’t obviously stale, and are quite possibly still edible, though I am extremely unlikely to eat them.

It was time to take a stand. I approached my cupboard with new determination and got rid of:

  • An unopened package of Wasa rye crackers that I brought over when I moved to this place in 2009.
  • A mostly empty jar of Nutella that had separated.
  • The rest of a box of organic, sustainably grown pasta that turned out to be kind of gross (sorry, Earth’s Best).
  • A mostly empty jumbo box of Kix cereal (box recycled, inner bag reused).
  • An opened but almost full roll of ginger nut biscuits, purchased on a 2010 trip to the UK.
  • A package of gourmet wild walnuts that were stale.
  • A can of pinto/green beans that expired in 2009 (can recycled, contents dumped).
  • The rest of a box of ginger snaps that sat on my counter for 6 months without being eaten.
  • Half a box of chocolate covered blueberries that I didn’t enjoy and went kind of weird.
Etc. It came to about five pounds of food in all, which wasn’t terrible, but wasn’t great, either. On the whole, I’m pretty sure I waste less than the 25% American average, but I’m definitely still part of the problem. I’m accepting today’s five pounds as a loss and a reminder that I need to be doing better. I looked for patterns in what I was throwing away and thought of some possible solutions I could try to cut down on my food waste/hoarding.
  • Buy ingredients I use sparingly in small quantities or not at all. I like Nutella, but I really shouldn’t buy anything larger than the cup-sized container.
  • Buy unfamiliar ingredients sparingly. I have a big unopened jar of tahini in my cupboard which narrowly squeaked by this time (but it won’t if I do this again in a few months). I don’t have any familiar recipes that use tahini (help?), so I need to either find one I’m excited about, or give it away before it expires.
  • Bigger isn’t always better, even if it does reduce packaging. Who knew how hard it would be to eat my way through a huge box of Kix?
  • Put older supplies in front where I can see them. There was stuff I had completely forgotten I had in my cupboard. Wow, wild mushroom couscous mix? Who knew?
  • Buy less processed food in general. When’s the last time you had a storebought cookie craving?
  • Make faster decisions about nice things I will probably not eat so I can give them away before they expire.
  • Keep less stuff in my cupboards so I can see everything I have. If I’ve forgotten about its existence, it sure isn’t going to be eaten.

Do you tend to hoard food? What are your best ways to reduce food waste and cupboard clutter?

Green? More like chartreuse.

For someone who went to school in Santa Cruz and stopped eating meat three years ago, I’m a pretty half-hearted treehugger. Open my medicine cabinet, and you’ll find a few guilty tubes of Revlon lipgloss that are neither animal nor earth friendly. Check out my car, and you’ll discover that, while uncontroversially green in color, it’s a lot more car than I need and uses more gas than I can really justify. Bamboo towels, organic produce, biodegradable corn bags? Not exactly.

This blog, like a diet blog for my life instead of my body, will document my eco sins, witness my attempts to improve, and decry my inevitable slip-ups. Like that elaborately packaged 8 pack of Bonne Bell Lipsmackers. (But seriously, how could I resist kiwi berry flavored chapstick?)

In the interests of full disclosure, here’s an incomplete list of things I already do to be a greener citizen of this world:

  • I don’t eat meat. If all the food we grew from the earth went to feed other people instead of livestock animals, world hunger probably wouldn’t be an issue. The other reason is that I’m squeamish and don’t want to come within a fork’s length of something that used to have eyeballs.
  • I’m not vegan, but I buy free range eggs because I feel bad that chickens have to be miserable so I can have an eggy-in-a-basket or egg fried rice.
  • When running water for my shower, I save the water in a bucket and use it for plants.
  • I almost always remember my reusable shopping bags. I take particular delight in flaunting my white Trader Joe’s bag in Whole Foods, where the checkers give me evil looks.
  • I hate driving,  so I drive as little as I can get away with and walk as many of my errands as possible.

And some major sins I want to work on:

  • Not buying local and/or organic. Some of this is financial. Organic produce can seem pretty pricey, and anyone who’s on a budget is likely to think twice before shelling out twice as much for organic strawberries — even though straws are on the list of dirty dozen fruits and veg that have high levels of pesticides.
  • Using plastic bags. I could conceivably switch to corn-based biodegradable bags for the kitchen and/or litter box, but I’ve been reluctant about the cost because I don’t have a compost bin and they’d end up in a landfill anyway.
  • Buying green products only when they’re on sale. This isn’t necessarily a problem; I just need to buy more of them when they’re on sale, so I won’t be tempted by a 99 cent bottle of Palmolive washing up liquid because I already have five 7th Generation bottles in the cupboard.
  • Letting myself be seduced by the fall of warm water in the shower, even though the thinking part of my brain knows California is in a pretty severe drought. A timer might help. Setting my water setting on ‘vacation’ mode (two degrees below tepid) would also be an instant motivator. I haven’t brought myself to do either yet.
  • Driving a car that isn’t highly gas efficient. Not much to be done about this one right now, except drive it less.

That’s probably enough to start with. One at a time…

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