Reading: To Buy or Not to Buy Organic

To Buy or Not to Buy Organic by Cindy Burke was a delight to read. She is very concise and tells you what you need to know; while providing some similar information as Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, this book reads more like a friendly textbook and less like a memoir. I would read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle first if you need to be inspired or convinced to look more into a local diet, then read this book for more of the nitty-gritty and practical information for pursing a local, sustainable, organic diet. The book also includes short segments that share stories about real people in the farming, organics, and food industry, giving some background and insight into their farming practices and food choices.

In chapter 2, Cindy explores the pesticides used in conventional farming and their impact on our health. As I’m in the middle of my sixth month of pregnancy, some of these statements were sobering:

  • A 2005 study showed that 287 commercial chemicals, pesticides, and pollutants crossed the placental barrier and were within a newborn baby’s umbilical cord (p.24-25). (The hopeful news is that another 2005 study showed that children who switched to an organic diet showed untraceable levels of pesticides after only 5 days, suggesting that going to an all-organic diet can quickly make a big difference in children’s health.)
  • Some of the most toxic chemicals from pesticides are stored in fatty body tissues. The most efficient way to rid the body of these chemicals is through breastfeeding. Some scientists think that this may explain why women who breastfeed are less likely to get breast cancer in the future (p.16).
  • Simply washing fruits and vegetables doesn’t remove pesticide residue, because many of these pesticides are absorbed into the core of the food.

Reading Cindy’s thoughts and research about pesticides definitely encouraged me to keep on trying to use organic ingredients when cooking for myself and my family!

Steve and I have noticed how more and more companies are jumping on the organic bandwagon, but were unable to express why it felt “weird.” Cindy put our formless feelings into words by taking on the issue of organics and big-business head-on in early chapters. “Buying organic” now seems cool and trendy to many people, mixed with some nostalgia for those “good old days” of “real farming” — but simply buying organic doesn’t mean that you’re supporting a small family farm! Unfortunately, the original impetus behind the organic movement — sustainable farming and stewardship without the use of dangerous pesticides — is slowly being lost as more corporations label themselves as “organic” and lobbyists push for expanding the definition of “certified organic” to allow for certain pesticides, genetically-modified organisms, and more.

For example, at your big-chain supermarket, the popular brands of organic foods have big food companies behind them — the box of Kashi 7-grain Nugget cereal in my cupboard is really produced by Kellogg, the carton of Silk organic soy milk in your fridge, next to the gallon of Horizon organic milk, are both produced by Dean Foods, a major supplier of dairy products; Odwalla drinks was acquired by Coca-Cola. While in one sense we can be grateful that these big corporations are helping to meet the demand for organic foods, I must admit some distrust in their motives. Are they just looking to make a buck, or do they really care about sustainable agriculture and doing what’s best for the earth and our health? Cindy is not so optimistic:

… These companies are not changing the way farms grow, produce, or sell food, because to do so would put them at a serious competitive advantage. p.10

Horizon Organics has been caught raising many of its organic dairy cows with thousands of other cows in feedlots where the creatures have had little freedom to roam, eat grass, or even lie down. Since the animals are fed organic grain and do not receive antibiotics, Horizon can still legally sell ‘certified organic’ milk. p.57

As big stores like Walmart and Costco increase their selection of organic foods, there have been shortages and higher prices as supply for organic almonds, or strawberries, or corn, did not meet the increased demand. In fact, many “organic” raw materials and foods are now coming from overseas — specifically, China.

That seems odd to me, as China is known to have many pollution issues. Fred Gale, a senior economist with the USDA, has researched Chinese agriculture and told the Dallas Morning News that it is “almost impossible to grow truly organic food in China. The water everywhere is polluted, and the soil is contaminated from industry and mining, and the air is bad.” p.55

So my box of Kashi cereal could have organic ingredients shipped all the way from China, because Kellogg may have looked for a cheaper way to obtain organic grains. Wow!

What’s one to do? Cindy suggests that instead of simply buying “organic,” we begin to look more for “local and sustainable” options. Those small family farms that you thought you were supporting when you purchased a gallon of organic milk or bought a box of organic cereal? Many of them are actually dropping the USDA “certified organic” label because it costs too much to maintain certification or because they disagree with the direction that the USDA is taking the organic label. So simply trusting the phrase “organic” is no longer enough, as the types of farmers you want to support may not be able to use the term “organic” to describe their products, legally, even if their farming practices are truly organic and sustainable. Cindy encourages her readers to look for local farmers’ markets, local food cooperatives (where a committed group of people are already doing that type of research for you), or, if possible, hooking up with a local farm through “community supported agriculture” (CSA) by subscribing to their program for produce box pickups or deliveries. Some of the resources she mentions:

One thing I appreciated about this book, however, is that Cindy doesn’t draw a hard line for only buying local, organic food. I’m lucky to live in the Central Valley of California and to have access to all kinds of organic produce, locally produced, year-round. But others live in climates where they would have to eat stored potatoes and… I don’t know… turnips? all winter long. And while reading about Barbara Kingsolver’s year-long experiment and Alisa and James’ 100-mile diet experiment (in Plenty) can be inspiring, it can also be discouraging in the sense that you see how hard it is to limit your diet to foods produced within a certain radius of where you live. Cindy’s approach with her book is not to make you feel guilty for eating a banana that came from Chile, but to inform you enough so that you can make choices that you are comfortable with (for example — maybe you decide to look for only fair-trade bananas so that you know the overseas farmer is really benefiting from your purchase; or, maybe you can’t find fair-trade bananas and get conventional bananas because your family loves bananas, but choose local and/or organic foods for the other items on your grocery list).

With this in mind, she actually includes a cost-benefit equation (p.80) that she developed to help her decide when it makes more sense to purchase something locally instead of something organic. And for those who don’t like math, she has a couple chapters that cover “the Dirty Dozen” (twelve foods to eat organic that will reduce your pesticide intake by 50%) and gives her recommendations on what to purchase organically or locally for every type of produce (p.83). The back portion of the book includes a handy chart, as well, which shows which foods you should definitely try to purchase organic vs. foods that would be better to purchase locally (whether organic or not) vs. foods that don’t really matter (pesticide-wise) if they’re conventionally or organically grown (other than philosophically trying to support organic farmers). I think there was a typo in the chart, as “bell peppers” weren’t marked as “buy organic” although the supporting information clearly states that you should; also, I think the Monterey Aquarium Seafood Watch guides are a better source for choosing how to sustainably and responsibly eat seafood instead of her recommendation to only buy locally.

So, if you have the energy and desire to start looking more into how to choose foods that are better for you and that don’t destroy the environment in the process, I highly recommend this book. In the meantime, Cindy had a few ideas on how you can get started if you feel overwhelmed. Pick one:

  • Pick 3-5 foods your family eats most often and try to get organic or local versions.
  • Focus on the Dirty Dozen list and get organic versions: apples, apricots, bell peppers, celery, cherries, grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, raspberries, spinach, and strawberries.
  • Look online to find farmers’ markets, CSAs, food cooperatives, or natural food stores (Whole Foods, Wild Oats) in your area (links above).

5 thoughts on “Reading: To Buy or Not to Buy Organic

  1. EXCELLENT summary! Just what I needed as I’ve been struggling with these very things. I’m definitely going to find the book at the library. You’re a great resource 🙂

  2. It sounds like a well balanced book and I will keep my eyes open for it in the future.

    I dislike that organic food is seen as the cure to all environmental problems when it is not perfect. I understand the reason why people do not want to eat the pesticides on food, but I wish there was more knowledge of the impact of growing and buying organic food. Personally, we are focussing on buying food grown as locally as possible.

  3. I like the idea of picking 3 foods. It is so easy to go to the farmers market and buy a bunch of food you will never eat.

    Oh okay, my DOGS will eat it, but not me. Busted.

  4. This was a good book. I use the reference on which items to buy organic if you are feeding to children. As a nursing mom, I’ve been using this as a reference tool to help make good decisions without blowing my food budget.

    I, too, appreciated that Cindy left some room for those of us who can’t get to the farmer’s market every week. I’ve been discouraged by the lack of sustainable farmers at the markets in the Dallas area. (It could be that I’m coming the wrong week or going about this all wrong, but I hope your readers have better luck in their areas.)

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