Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Eating Organic? Eating Local?

Ah, it's so nice to be home! I love walking in the door after a long vacation and breathing in that familiar smell of my own home.

Fortunately, we didn't have that much to unpack since we decided to take only the bare essentials. I'm not usually a light packer, but I managed to fit all my travel things in a laundry basket. Yup, a plastic laundry basket! I've found that on road trips, it's easier to lug around from car to hotel to car to destination and back :)

I brought home LOTS of fresh veggies--zucchini, tomatoes, green beans, blueberries--from my parents' garden and I can't wait to make something fresh and yummy with them tonight. Last night, we ended up ordering Gumby's pizza (which is the epitome UNhealthy, but I was tired and HANGRRRRRY from our long minimal-stop drive).

Since my visit home (spoiled by the southern hospitality and produce), my fitness goal for the rest of the summer is to "eat more fresh and local produce." I'm going to try and shop the local Saturday farmer's market and source fruits and vegetables that are grown by local Midwestern farmers. I want to support the local economy while getting produce that is from the freshest sources.

Notice that I did NOT say that I want to eat more ORGANIC? If you are a believer in organic living, please don't hate, just hear me out.


Check out this "Organic Fact vs. Fiction" article from the USDA website. Here's some highlights:

Background on Organic Foods Production:
Congress passed the Organic Foods Production
Act (OFPA) of 1990. The OFPA required the U.S.
Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop
national standards for organically produced
agricultural products to assure consumers that
agricultural products marketed as organic meet
consistent, uniform standards. The OFPA and the
National Organic Program (NOP) regulations require
that agricultural products labeled as organic originate
from farms or handling operations certified by a State
or private entity that has been accredited by USDA.
The NOP is a marketing program housed within the
USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. Neither the
OFPA nor the NOP regulations address food safety
or nutrition.

Regulation for Organics:
The NOP regulations prohibit the use of genetic
engineering, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge in
organic production and handling. As a general rule,
all natural (non-synthetic) substances are allowed in
organic production and all synthetic substances are
prohibited. The National List of Allowed Synthetic
and Prohibited Non-Synthetic Substances, a section
in the regulations, contains the specific exceptions to
the rule.

Labeling standards are based on the percentage of
organic ingredients in a product. Products labeled
"100 percent organic" must contain only organically
produced ingredients. Products labeled "organic"
must consist of at least 95 percent organically
produced ingredients. Products meeting the
requirements for "100 percent organic" and "organic"
may display the USDA Organic seal.

Processed products that contain at least 70 percent
organic ingredients can use the phrase "made
with organic ingredients" and list up to three of the
organic ingredients or food groups on the principal
display panel. For example, soup made with at least
70 percent organic ingredients and only organic
vegetables may be labeled either "made with organic
peas, potatoes, and carrots," or "made with organic
vegetables." The USDA Organic seal cannot be used
anywhere on the package.

Processed products that contain less than 70 percent
organic ingredients cannot use the term “organic”
other than to identify the specific ingredients that are
organically produced in the ingredients statement.
A civil penalty of up to $11,000 for each offense
can be levied on any person who knowingly sells or
labels as organic a product that is not produced and
handled in accordance with the National Organic
Program's regulations.

A guide to organic labeling from the USDA website:

So is organic food safer or better because it doesn't use chemicals? Who knows--it's almost too soon to see the big picture. This article interviews a professor of soil science who weighs in on this issue, citing that "we're all guinea pigs."

My father, the farmer, grows mostly organic food. By "organic," I mean no pesticides and using compost as fertilizer. However, since he is a small-time farmer (he grows for personal enjoyment), it is nearly IMPOSSIBLE to prevent southern insects from devouring all of his produce. He admitted that he sprays pesticides on his squash, zucchini and sometimes tomatoes, to keep the insects at bay.

My dad's organic blueberry bushes

As far as I can tell, my father's pesticide vegetables taste just as flavorful as the non-pesticide vegetables. Do I want to consume pesticides? NO. But pesticides are sometimes a necessary evil in the mass production of produce.

Don't get me wrong--pesticides should be used minimally if at all. But, the fruits and veggies consumed on a daily basis in America need 1. to grow in abundance to meet the demand, 2. withstand mother nature's smackdown and 3. survive transport to the store. Some usage of chemicals makes these things possible and keeps the price of produce down. And let's face it, organic food is generally more expensive. While its true that organic food has become more affordable, thanks in part to Walmart's recent foray into adding more to its stores, it's not necessarily better.

Taste-wise, for example, I've found that organic food is not always more flavorful. This Atlantic article puts organic and local produce to the taste test. Of course, there is always the ubiquitous mislabeling and fraud found in the organic industry. The USDA is cracking down on this food fraud, but it takes time and effort. Offenders of mislabeling and organic food fraud have included some big stores like Target and yes, even Walmart.

In a perfect world, we would all skip down to the farmer's house (who doesn't use pesticides), buy our grains and vegetables for a reasonable price, hopscotch over to the baker's house (who buys the grain from the farmer to make his/her organic flour) to purchase our organic bread, and then ride the rainbow to the dairy farmer's cottage to get our organic grain-fed, hormone-free milk.

Crows: "Gimmeh my organic corn!"

However, most of the urban citizens in this country aren't fortunate enough to live on, or near, a farm and with the population of this country expanding exponentially, it's not (yet) feasible to produce 100% organically.

I leave it up to you to decide whether buying/eating organic or local is worth it, and to what extent. I buy some things, such as spinach, organically. Because of where I live though, I find that it's more worth my while to put energy into sourcing local produce. Here's my quick pros and cons list for both eating organic and eating local:

Pros: low to no pesticides (safer?), hormone-free
Cons: more expensive, doesn't necessarily taste better, might not support local economy.

Pros: fresh tasting, supports local farming economy, sometimes cheaper, lots of farmland nearby
Cons: hard to source, can't buy ALL groceries locally

I find that a better guide to eating less pesticides is to choose your battles. This article offers some good suggestions for making a difference in your pesticide consumption:

If you are most interested in reducing pesticides in your food, buy organic versions of foods whose conventional forms may carry high levels of pesticide residues. These include:


Green peas

Green beans

Green onions (scallions)

Summer and winter squash







If you're most interested in promoting the growth of organic farming, buy organic foods that require large expanses of cropland and pasture, such as:



Other grains

Dairy foods and beef

If you're interested in more natural conditions for farm animals and fewer antibiotics and hormones, buy products from organically raised livestock and poultry, such as:






To end on a lighter note:

Q o' the Day: I want to see some debate (please don't be afraid to disagree with me!). Do you eat organic or local foods? Why or why not? Do you support eating organic or local?

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