When thoughts turn to New Year’s resolutions, losing weight may not be the only option people consider. Some might ponder the virtues of eating more organic. And they will have company.Sales of organic foods rose 5.1% in 2009 and now make up almost 4% of total U.S. food sales, according to the Organic Trade Association. Sales of organic fruits and vegetables are projected to grow by 13% yearly next year and the year after, and sales of organic food overall by 7%, says Barbara Haumann of the association.But in this age of locovorism (eating locally), food miles (how far food travels from farm to eater), farmers markets and organic TV dinners, consumers and farmers who’ve explored the righteousness of organic foods increasingly find the pros and cons are not quite as green and white as the U.S. Department of Agriculture‘s organic food label makes it seem.Are the amounts of pesticide found on conventionally grown foods so low that it doesn’t warrant the extra expense that comes with organically grown produce? Are the foods more nutritious? Because organics take relatively more farmland, will the planet be able to support the needed production?And what do we have in mind when we think organics, anyway? Does it have to be a plate of kale and a side of tofu, or can it be an organic toaster pastry? Is it little, sustainable family farms or big industrial organic farms that supply supermarkets and Walmart?The answer to all of these questions turns out to be pretty unsatisfying: It depends.The easiest question to answer is whether organic foods have less pesticide residue than conventionally grown foods. The answer is a pretty clear yes. It is also well-documented that children who eat a predominantly organic diet have lower levels of pesticide residue in their bodies, says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University in New York City.”Then the question is ‘Does it matter?’ and now you’re into really difficult science. And in the absence of science, you’re dealing with ideology.”Organic vs. conventional “Both methods of production provide us with equally safe and nutritious food,” says Curtis Miller of the American Farm Bureau Foundation in Washington D.C., which represents both conventional and organic farmers.Many who choose organic foods believe that it’s better to reduce their potential exposure to pesticide residue.”For me, it’s about the level of toxicity,” says Barbara Kimmel of Chester, N.J. She buys only organic butter, milk and eggs and tries to find hormone- and antibiotic-free meats and poultry. But she doesn’t buy 100% organic. “Some non-organic fruits and vegetables are more pesticide-laden than others,” she says. She buys non-organic bananas because they’re “not particularly bad.”Studies have shown that some conventionally grown produce does contain higher levels of pesticide residue than others. For those who choose to avoid such residue, the Environmental Working Group says the highest levels are found in celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, nectarines, bell peppers, spinach, kale, cherries, potatoes and imported grapes. Those are worth buying organic, the group suggests.Most people move to organic for “selfish reasons,” says Mark Kastel, who co-founded an organic watchdog group called the Cornucopia Institute in Cornucopia, Wis., which fights to keep standards high. “It’s people who are concerned with buying the most nutritious and safest food. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s instinctual,” he says.But another instinct that sometimes kicks in later is the desire to do something that’s better for the planet and society. Focus groups held by the Cornucopia Institute show that people buy organic foods for several reasons — to support a more environmentally sound method of agriculture, a more humane animal-husbandry model, and a more economically just system for farmers and farmworkers, Kastel says.”When we buy organic, we’re subscribing to a different kind of environment ethic, and we’re treating the people who grow our food better,” Kastel says.But does organic really do all those things?Organic farms are less damaging to the environment, says John Reganold, a professor of soil science at Washington State University in Pullman. Synthetic fertilizer can and often does run off into waterways, where the nitrogen fuels the growth of algae blooms that can deplete oxygen and kill off marine life. Organic farms typically use composted manure or cover crops such as clover, which pull nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil, slowly adding necessary nutrients.Conventional farmers and meat producers argue that it would be worse for the planet if everyone ate organically, as we’d need a lot more acreage devoted to agriculture to maintain our current diet. One of the known benefits of modern farming methods that include artificial fertilizers is higher yields from the existing land. More efficient food production will become even more crucial with world population levels set to increase by 50% by 2050, says Thomas Super of the American Meat Institute in Washington, D. C. Organic methods typically have lower yields per acre than conventional agriculture.”Current food production levels will have to increase by about 70% to meet the demand,” he says.Consuming less meat But it could be easily done if Americans switched to a more plant-based, less meat-intensive diet, Reganold says. “It would be a win-win,” for health and the planet. “But my prediction is it will take the rest of this century.”Whether organic agriculture is better for society is harder to quantify. There isn’t a lot of good data to show that farmworkers on organic farms earn more than those on non-organic farms, though that’s often used as a reason to go organic, Reganold says. However, workers on organic farms are exposed to lower levels of pesticides and insecticides, a major health concern in those communities, he says.Do you need your farmer to be part of the regulatory apparatus? Organic products cost more in part because they are more labor-intensive to grow, but some farmers also chafe at paying to have their farms certified so they can legally put the USDA organic label on their food. The California Certified Organic Farmers program, which certified farms nationwide, charges $400 to $1,000 annually for most small farms, for example.That oversight ensures that a farm is following the strict federal guidelines. For John Givens Farm in Goleta, Calif., the certification is part of doing business.At the farmers markets, the customers know and trust the farm, says sales manager Dana Olson. But wholesalers need the assurance that the USDA organic label brings, and that’s why “we’re happy to advertise that we’re a USDA-certified organic farm,” he says.There’s a small but growing movement of organic farmers who don’t bother to get organic certification because it’s too expensive or too cumbersome, especially for smaller farms.Janice Guldan and her husband, Denny, have been farming in New Ulm, Minn., since 1987. While they seek to minimize the amount of pesticides and insecticides they use, they find that customers at the two local farmers markets where they sell don’t care much about labels.”We’ve certainly noticed that for many people, it’s just more important that it’s fresh and local,” she says.David Hauser of Needham, Mass., says he used to buy only organic, “and honestly it is a waste of money.” Now he’s paying more attention to where his food comes from. He and his wife signed up for a weekly delivery of a mixed box of fruit and vegetables from nearby Dover Farms.”Organic only deals with the health part of an item, the growing part,” he says. But freshness and how far it’s traveled also count for something.The farm he chose isn’t 100% organic, and he’s fine with that. “Certification is expensive, so they only grow organically when it makes sense,” he says.As for whether organic food is more nutritional, it’s impossible to know, says NYU’s Nestle.”These things are really hard to prove, and there’s a lot of subjectivity involved,” she says, adding that she can “predict whether a study will find they’re more or less nutritious by looking at who did it. “They design them to give them the answer they want.”Can big be organic? Finally, there’s “the big elephant in the room,” she says: Organic costs more. One way around it is to spend the extra money to buy the organic version of foods that can have the highest amounts of pesticide residue when conventionally grown, but that doesn’t get at the environmental or social reasons people might want to buy organic.What about buying organic from a supermarket or Walmart? Can big be organic, too? The truly committed might shop at their local farmers market, buy only from people they have an ongoing relationship with and when possible drive out to the farm to get their meat during butchering time.But “for many people, their lifestyles cannot accommodate those trips out to the farm,” says Kastel. And sometimes, he says, you “might want an organic cookie.” That’s where the strength of the federal organic label comes in, because it sets a level playing field to ensure that everyone’s playing by the same rules, he says.
By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY