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Is buying organic food worth the extra money?

Kandy Childress • Nov 21, 2019 at 3:22 PM

You might fall into the 15% of conscientious consumers whose purchases of veggies and fruits with stickers signaling “organic” fueled last year’s $43 billion organic market. Most of us struggle to understand exactly what the term “organic” means and why we should spend two to three times the amount of money for organic versus conventional food.

If you’re like me, you just want to know the facts so you can make an informed decision. Let’s break it down in the simplest of terms, so you can decide if organic is right for you.

The term “organic” refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed. In the U.S., organic crops must be grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes (GMOs), petroleum-based fertilizers, and sewage- and sludge-based fertilizers. Organic livestock raised for meat and dairy products must have access to the outdoors and be given organic feed. They cannot be injected with antibiotics, growth hormones, or any animal by-products.

Organic foods cost more because of higher labor costs as farmers who do not use pesticides, chemicals, fertilizers, or drugs must employ higher-tough methods. Organic certification is expensive and organic feed for animals can cost twice as much as non-organic feed. Organic farms tend to be smaller than conventional farms, which means fixed costs and overhead must be distributed across smaller produce volumes without government subsidies.

Organic veggies and fruits can be purchased at farmers markets, through local co-ops, Community Supported Agricultural (CSA) farms, and grocery stores that partner with local farmers. This is a win-win because purchasers get fresh, local, organic food while supporting community members who are dedicated to supplying the organic pipeline.

Consumers are turning to organic for a variety of reasons as expressed in Helpguide.org:

Organic produce contains no man-made pesticides. Chemicals, such as fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides, are widely used in conventional agriculture and residues remain on (and in) food we consume. A familiar herbicide is Roundup, which has been classified as a “probable human carcinogen.” According to Rolf Hayden, professor and director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Security at Arizona State University, chemical residue is believed to contribute to widespread antibiotic resistance. Organic foods — which are produced without chemicals — are intrinsically safer.

Organic food is often fresher. It doesn’t contain preservatives that make it last longer. Organic produce is often (but not always) produced on smaller farms near where it is sold. In the U.S., the average distance a meal travels from the farm to the dinner plate is more than 1,500 miles. Produce must be picked while still unripened and then gassed to “ripen” it after transport.

Organic foods are GMO-free. While the debate about the effects of GMOs on health and the environment continues, one fact remains: There have not been enough long-term studies to determine if GMOs are safe, or in other words, pose no risks to humans. Some animal studies have indicated that consuming GMOs may cause internal organ damage, slowed brain growth, and thickening of the digestive tract. Steering clear of foods genetically engineered (like much of the sweet corn consumed in the U.S.) is the “better safe than sorry approach.”

Cynthia Sass, a registered dietician, says that most Americans cannot afford to fill their shopping carts with all organic choices. She does recommend that you select certain groups of foods to buy organic. For example, Sass says spend your hard-earned dollars on the “Dirty Dozen” — a list of 12 produce items with the highest pesticide residue: strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes, and peppers. And, if your budget will allow, Sass says to buy organic meat and dairy.

Ultimately, you must answer the question for yourself. Is buying organic food worth the extra money? My advice is to stick with prioritizing your spending and gradually working more organic products into your ongoing grocery list.

Kandy Childress is the executive director of Healthy Kingsport. She can be reached at kchildress@healthykingsport.org.