take 5: choose organic!
Three cheers for the 20th anniversary of National Organic Harvest Month! With three quarters of the grocery stores in the country selling organic food, let’s reflect on why more people choose organic, and why you probably already do.
1. Higher Standards
Anything labeled “organic” is regulated under the Organic Standards Act, established under the 1990 Farm Bill. Set up by Congress, the Organic Standards are determined by an independent board of 15 people, appointed from the public. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees the standards, certifies organic farms, and regulates imported organic food.
In order to be “certified,” conventional farms follow USDA organic farming guidelines for three years before they can apply for organic certification. Documentation required for an organic seal is extensive from seed to harvest. Farmers pay per-acre for certification. Organic inspectors can stop in any time to check records.
Organic farmers can’t use irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides or genetically modified organisms in production. Organic ranchers must meet animal health and welfare standards and provide livestock with access to outdoors. Farmers must use certified organic feed. Using antibiotics or the growth hormone rBGH are prohibited on organic farms.
The USDA organic seal is an official stamp of integrity.
2. More Nutrients
Many things influence the nutrient content of produce – soil quality, fertilizers, crop rotations, maturity at harvest –but one thing is certain: the nutrients in fruits and vegetables are declining today. Depleted soil and farming for high yields and shelf life can produce less nutritious produce. Non-organic farms rely on petroleum-based fertilizers and they often add more nitrogen than the plant needs, but faster growth doesn’t add up to more nutrients in vegetables.
Conventionally farmed plants bulk up faster because they require more water. Yields may be higher on conventional farms but a slower release of natural nitrogen on organic farms can produce a denser concentration of nutrients in the plant.
Consider the Wilt family blueberry farm (Sunset Valley Organics) in Corvallis, Oregon, where farmer Bob Wilt hired a reputable company to test his farm’s blueberries for nutrients. The results revealed the Wilts’ blueberries contained higher levels of vitamin A, E, calcium, zinc, potassium and magnesium than blueberries tested from conventional farms. Organic farming techniques can increase nutrient levels in soil, and these micro-nutrients taken up by plant roots, produce a plant with more nutrients.
3. Fewer Pesticides
Pesticides are applied to prevent, destroy, repel, or mitigate pests. Herbicides and fungicides fall into the same category. Pesticides have been linked to cancer, damage to immune systems, birth defects and asthma. Children are at a higher risk for toxic exposure of pesticides because they get proportionally higher doses of the toxic substances.
Organic farms aren’t allowed to use synthetic pesticides. If you can’t afford to purchase all organic foods, why not replace these fruits and vegetables that have the most toxic residues (according to the Environmental Working Group) with organic versions:
|Sweet Bell Peppers||Cucumbers||Spinach|
4. Better for the Environment
Monoculture (relying on just a few crops) on conventional farms saps nutrients from the soil and contributes to soil erosion and water pollution. For example, the farm chemicals carried by the Mississippi River combine with algae, deplete the water of oxygen, suffocating all life. At the end of the Mississippi River you’ll find the biggest dead zone in history in the Gulf of Mexico, and studies have shown the main culprits are nitrogen and phosphorous from conventional farm fertilizers. It is well-documented that many of the persistent farm chemicals filter up the food chain and have been found in mothers’ breast milk around the world.
5. Keep Healthy Alternative Farming Systems Alive
When you purchase organic food, especially organic food from smaller more sustainable farms, you support farmers that are land stewards. Good food for people and the environment isn’t always easy to grow, and organic farming costs more to grow per acre. It is more labor intensive since weeding is done more by hand, and once organic produce is contaminated with things like genetically-engineered seeds, the organic label is taken away.
As you pause in front of organic celery, zucchini or peppers this month, consider how many ways organic farms make our world a better place to live. Stop and savor the vibrant organic flavors of the season. See you in the produce aisle.
Debra Daniels-Zeller is author of The Northwest Vegetarian Cookbook: 200 Recipes That Celebrate the Flavors of Oregon and Washington (Timber Press, 2010). She is a regular contributor to Vegetarian Journal magazine and writes a delightful food blog at http://foodconnections.blogspot.com. She can be reached at (425) 776-4689.