Must you buy all organic?

As a holistic nutritionist, sustainability buff, and wellness exemplar to the world, you would think I myself would buy only organic produce. So do I? Well, no.

Sure, USDA organic certification tells you that produce is grown and handled using no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and that it has been inspected by an accredited certifying agent who has verified that this is so. (See http://www.epa.gov/agriculture/torg.html and http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5068682 to learn more). But that’s no guarantee that produce is seasonal, local, fresh, or produced with fair labor.

And then there’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room: price. Organic certification can be costly for farmers, especially small ones. So while it enables me to know what I’m getting, it also raises the prices of very producers I’m interested in, the small and the local ones.

Part of what you’re paying for at seemingly boutique-priced farmers’ markets and other sellers of organic produce is certified product and some degree of verification and transparency on the part of the operating organization for methods used on non-certified product. (That’s not to say there might not be not some unfair prices markups or other funny business along the organic production and distribution chain, an inquiry for another day.)

But these factors are no reason throw up your hands in despair and just buy whatever’s cheapest, as the conventional agricultural industry would have you do.  (Unless your name is Gumby, in which case I’ll give you a pass, as your brain probably hurts.)

A little mindfulness goes a long way. Nothing is perfect, but once you’ve informed yourself about standards, established your personal priorities, and accepted your budget, the choices become surprisingly easy.

Here are some exceptions I make to the all-organic rule:

I sometimes buy from local farmers who claim to farm organic “under the radar,” keeping their prices down by using organic methods without official certification, especially if they give detailed, forthcoming answers to my questions. But short of perfect oversight by the operating organization (a good reason to shop at farmers markets and grocery stores you trust, and ask plenty of questions), I have to just basically take the word of the person answering the questions, which has its limitations. It’s also unfair to producers who are paying the certification fees and undergoing inspections.

I also sometimes buy from those who are partially organic (technically that’s like being partially pregnant, but pesticide-free would be an example of what I mean) or on their way to being certified. The latter often means they’re farming on soil that hasn’t yet been organically farmed for the required number of years (usually 3 for USDA). That can mean chemical residues in the soil, but it’s still a far cry from conventional.

When my money runs out, I’ll also buy certain items conventional  – those that are on Environmental Working Groups’s “Clean 15”  list and not on their “Dirty Dozen” (http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary/), which of course addresses the health issue and the price issue but not necessarily the environmental/political one.

According to EWG, you can cut your pesticide load by 92 percent by consuming conventional “Clean 15” produce and avoiding the “Dirty Dozen,” buying organic only when the conventional is on the dirty dozen list. That’s compelling enough for those on a tight budget. If you can’t afford to buy all or mostly organic this is a great way to save money. But when I buy conventional, I do try to keep it local – easy enough to do in California.

Since reading about the huge amount of lead in some local soil (http://www.eastbayexpress.com/ebx/how-safe-is-your-soil/Content?oid=2947105), I won’t buy urban garden produce unless I know they’ve tested and, if necessary, remediated, and exactly how. You’d be far better off with pesticides, herbicides, and GMO than with lead.

To understand what organic means, visit http://www.epa.gov/agriculture/torg.html.

For EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” lists, visit: http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary/.

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