A Field Guide to Buying Organic
By Luddene Perry, Dan Schultz
Of all the criticisms leveled at modern food production, threats to health get the most attention. While industrial agricultures environmental and social problems can be put on the back burner of our daily lives, health matters get us right where we live. Seventy-four percent of organic food buyers cite health benefits as the primary reason for their purchases. Among these benefits, the belief that organic food is pesticide-free tops the list.
In addition to pesticides, organic proponents mention a number of potential risks with conventional food. The most prevalent are:
- Food additives
- Genetically engineered organisms (GEOs)
- Nutritional quality
Health Concerns in Context
Assessing food-related health risks is an enormously complex endeavor. Understating the potential dangers leaves one open to charges of callousness or industry co-optation while overstating the case for problems with conventional food often creates needless fear in the public mind.
Indeed, Luddene's own pursuit of organics has been inspired by more than thirty years of exposure to criticisms of the conventional food industry. In that time, she accepted at face value the rhetorical and statistical flourishes employed by organic advocates, and dismissed conventional thinking as agribiz propaganda. In retrospect, appealing to consumer fears about health was the only way for the early organic movement-which held little economic or political power-to confront the monolithic conventional food industry. The health benefits touted by the organic industry constitute a sound marketing strategy, but the USDA's seal "is not, at least officially, a health, nutrition or food-safety claim."
Unfortunately, the marketing of health concerns has left organics open to charges of being "unscientific". While each side preaches to its respective choir, any chance at productive dialogue has become a war of myths and realities: one side's reality is the other's myth, and vice versa.
Pesticides embody the paradox of living in an industrial society: we both fear and depend on chemicals. On both counts, it's easy to see why. After all, pesticides are designed to kill living things; yet most people do not want beetles in their Hour or cockroaches in their kitchens.
Are Pesticides Necessary?
Recorded in ancient texts such as the Egyptian Book of the Demi, the Odyssey, and the Bible, the battle against agricultural pests predates the age of chemical corporations by thousands of years.* The fact that other living things also like the food we grow and store is indisputable and makes some pest-control measures necessary. The question of pesticides is a matter of the kind of chemicals used, the degree to which they are employed, and the steps that may be taken to alleviate our dependence on them. Organic advocates claim that pest problems are the result of industrial methods of production, such as thousands of acres planted to a single crop. Conventional farmers consider pesticides to be "crop-protection materials" used to ensure a profitable yield.
Organic advocates often leave the impression that organic farming eliminates the need for pesticides, insisting that "no one has ever proven that pesticides are necessary to the food supply." If that were true, the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRl) would have no need to list more than forty pesticides allowed in organic production."
Chemicals on Your Plate
Do pesticide residues show up on food? The easy answer is yes-on some foods some of the time. We know this because the USDA, the FDA, and many states routinely screen for them using highly sensitive tests.
In the popular mind, concerns about pesticide residues tend to center on certain fruits and vegetables, but the hulk of both conventional and organic production is commodity crops: wheat, corn, soybeans, and rice. An examination of the PDAs Total Diet Study reveals that U.S. commodity crops, when compared to produce, have relatively low rates of residues, so if you only buy organic because you fear pesticide residues, products made from grains may be a place to trim your organic food bill. Consumers who have particular concerns about environmental contamination or farm worker health may feel differently.
Health Risks from Residues
When it comes to residues and health, how much is too much? Does your exposure to small amounts of pesticide residues in food pose enough of a risk to pay higher prices?
According to the FDA, residues found on table-ready food range from 0.0001 to 2.04 parts per million (ppm).9 As a reference point, 1 ppm is the equivalent of one drop in twenty-two gallons, or a grain of salt in a piece of spaghetti as tall as the Empire State Building. The question is whether these small amounts can harm us.
In general, organic advocates say they do and cite a number of possible ills associated with pesticides. Conventional proponents adhere to the toxicology maxim "the dose makes the poison" and insist that current safety standards more than adequately protect consumers.