Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D. in her book Living Downstream, says if we are eating non-organic produce, “anyone following official dietary recommendations is consuming from one to four servings of illegal pesticide residues every twenty one days – or somewhere between eighteen and seventy two servings a year. This tally, of course does not include illegal residues from meat, dairy, eggs, fish, or grains.”
Eighteen to 72 servings of pesticide. Yum. 95% of the crops produced in US are produced with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. To give some examples (from 2004 – sorry, that’s as current as the USDA gets) soy beans got 14.09 lbs of chemicals per acre, corn got 83.64 lbs/acre, and tomatoes got a whopping 526.73 lbs per acre.* According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the total number of number of chemicals that are legal for use in the United States is 1723.** This number includes, the pesticides, fungicides and herbicides that are used for food production, but also chemicals used for lawn, garden, and household pest control.
Its easy to say that there is not much proof that these chemicals cause cancer or any other disease, and that would be true enough. There are some studies that link specific chemical such as heptichlor to breast cancer, and organochlorides to Parkinson’s. But with 1723 different chemicals in use in this country, there just isn’t time, money, or even motivation to study the long-term effects of each one. What would seem to be the intelligent choice, would be to err on the side of caution, and avoid consuming these chemicals as much as possible. Children are far more susceptible to damage because their internal organs are still growing.
Although eating organic produce will in fact reduce the amount of these chemicals in your body (according to the EPA) that is not the only reason why eating organic is a good plan. Organically grown produce really is more nutritious. Sadly, the use of chemicals in food production in the last 60 years has coincided with a decline in the nutrient content of fruits and vegetables. Plants cannot store what is not in the soil, and industrial agriculture practices do not replace all the minerals we need to be healthy.
While there are few studies in the US that compare organic to industrial produce, there have been many studies done in Europe. France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Poland and the UK. Vitamin and mineral content have been examined, along with protein quality and nitrate levels. Many different crops were studied, and those studies assessed by the British Soil association. The organic produce came out on top, even after the sub-standard publications were weeded out.
There are additional benefits to choosing organic produce. Plants create secondary compounds, often referred to as ‘phytonutrients’. While there are as yet few studies that support the idea that organic produce contains more of these compounds, there are three reasons to believe this is the case. First, many of these compounds function as part of the plant’s defense system. If the plant is not exposed to pesticides and fungicides, it will be forced to produce higher levels of its own protective compounds.
Second, the application of non-organic fertilizers makes the plants reach maturity more quickly. Many of the phytonutrient compounds develop during this early growth phase, and having a longer pre-maturity growth period could allow more phytonutrients to develop. It is also the case that lower amounts of nutrients generated higher concentrations of defense-related phytonutrient compounds. Third, due to the increased use of chemical pest deterrents and fertilizers, varieties of plants have been chosen for cultivation, which have lower amounts of natural defenses. Organic farmers are more likely to choose varieties that have higher defenses and thus more phytonutrients.
When shopping in the grocery store or online, its helpful to know some terminology.
Organic is now a legal definition, and food grown using natural fertilizers and pest control may be certified by the USDA, and display a circular green and while logo. Free-range is NOT a legal definition. Ideally it means the animal was wandering around with access to grass and fresh air. But the reality is that it is primarily used in reference to chicken eggs, and means the chickens are slightly less cramped and have a door to the outside, which they rarely use. Natural is also not a legal definition. But there are a number of producers coming out with meats that are not organic, but do not have added hormones and antibiotics. This label, along with ‘free range’ could mean anything, or nothing. Know your supplier.
Grass-fed meat is worth searching out. Grass-fed animals may not be certified as organic, but their pesticide intake will be far lower than those fed on grain. This meat is far more nutritious, as well as being safer than grain fed meat from grain fed animals.
Many grocery stores now carry organic produce and some chains even have antibiotic and hormone free meats. These are good choices, but an even better source is your local farmers market or community supported agriculture program (CSA). In CSAs, the customer deals directly with the farmer and buys produce or meat for a set fee. Generally one pays a subscription amount for a season and receives a set amount of produce weekly. Meat from these sources is generally a better deal than purchasing through a store, and the farmer gets the whole dollar instead of splitting it with distributors. This is This time of year to start looking around for your local farmers markets and/or locating a CSA.
*The USDA provides raw data on their website as to how much acreage was under cultivation for which crop, and how many pounds of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides were used per acre. I chose some crops and did the math.
** There is a list. I counted.