‘Organic’ typically falls into the same category as ‘vegan,’ ‘vegetarian’ etc., but let’s be honest: organic seems to be more about being snobbish than healthy. The only difference is the label, right? Wrong.
Since the 1950s, people have grown accustomed to what’s called ‘conventional’ food. Don’t be fooled. ‘Conventional’, in this case, means harmful to the environment and the human body. Organic food is not a superfood, but simply food as it existed before the introduction of destructive mass agriculture practices.
While organic food isn’t that special, ‘conventional’ food is actually not normal.
Environmental Consequences of Non-Organic Food
Conventional farming practices are far from those of our ancestors. Many of these practices date to post World War II times when the chemical and arms industries needed a new source of export to stay profitable after the war.
As a result, farmers became their new target clientele, to whom they would sell attractive and seemingly miraculous chemicals and machines that would help to boost the agricultural industry. These new practices did result in larger food production temporarily. Unfortunately, they have also had adverse effects, not only on human health but on the planet.
Ecosystems are being destroyed due to soil degradation and desertification. Today, 70% of the world’s drylands are degraded and threatened by desertification. Erosion from heavy machinery, dependency on monocultures (repetitively planting a single crop rather than alternating crops to replenish nutrients in the soil) and deforestation essentially result in wastelands.
In addition to these aggressive technologies, chemical fertilizers and and pesticides disrupt the natural chemical cycles of the soil and end up in the 60% of water that does not reach plants (due to wasteful irrigation systems) and finally the ocean where they disrupt the balance of marine ecosystems and lead to water acidification.
Health Risks of Non-Organic Food
If organic food isn’t special, then how much better can it really be?
The health effects of non-organic food are numerous. Pesticides and food-ripening products are linked to respiratory conditions, cancer and other diseases. You consume these toxins when you eat conventional foods.
Artificial additives, such as high fructose corn syrup, food coloring, preservatives and artificial sweeteners are linked to cancer, diabetes, allergies and various chemical imbalances. The effects of artificial additives and sweeteners are relatively well known. Aspartame, an artificial sweetener, is nonetheless found in almost every sugar-free candy and soda.
Less talked about, but even more common, are the effects of pesticides. According to a Consumer Reports survey, 30% of Americans wrongly believe there are regulations on the number of different pesticides allowed to be used on food.
Studies have so far linked pesticide exposure to 13 health risks: ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, depression, fertility issues, immune system damage, low IQ, ovarian cancer, Parkinson’s Disease, prostate cancer, breast cancer and respiratory problems. Many of these agrochemicals are also endocrine disruptors—chemicals that mimic or inhibit hormones potentially causing ‘reproductive disorders, birth defects and breast, prostate and other hormone-related cancers according to the President’s Cancer Panel.
Data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows that, on average, American children aged 6 to 11 already carry what the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) calls unacceptable levels of pesticides in their blood stream. As horrifying as this information is, it’s no excuse to skip your veggie side this Thanksgiving. Fruits and vegetables still have enormous health benefits whether they’re organic or conventional. If it’s you doing the shopping, then buy organic!
Know Your Labels and Shop Smart
Americans are still relatively confused on what they should eat, or not.
With the amount of misinformation spewing from climate change deniers, the faulty (and finally demolished) food pyramid and misleading grocery store labels, this comes as no surprise. Almost 50% of Americans who responded to a Consumer Reports National Research Center survey believe that buying local is more important than buying organic.
Unless you’re buying local organic, local can be even worse for you and the planet than conventional supermarket produce. Without huge trucks, deliveries are smaller and thus produce more CO2 emissions. Not to mention, being local is not the same as being organic. If you’re uncertain, ask about the farming practices at the market stand.
If organic foods get a bad rep, it’s because of the cost. There are a two ways of looking at this. 1. Groceries are a health investment. 2. There are ways around high prices—yes, other than stealing.
Let’s address the second point. The most important advice is to avoid packaged and already prepared foods. Like conventional food, anything packaged is more expensive. Living off organic frozen meals and granola bars adds up quickly, so try to cook more. There are plenty of quick, simple to follow recipes out there on the old inter-web. Plus, before plastic existed, people had to prepare their own meals every single day.
Another way to save money is to know your labels and avoid falling victim to pricey marketing schemes. ‘Natural’ and ‘naturally raised’ are not defined by the FDA and are just empty promises. Legitimate labels—those that meet the FDA’s requirements—are: ‘100% Organic,’ ‘Organic’ (95% organic ingredients), ‘made with organic ingredients’ (70% organic ingredients) and ‘contains organic ingredients’ (less than 70% organic ingredients).
Lastly, buying 100% organic is not always necessary. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization, has compiled a list of produce where buying organic really matters and where it matters less.
High Levels of Pesticide in Conventional Production (a.k.a. choose organic every time):
- cherry tomatoes
- kale and collard greens
- peppers (sweet bell and hot)
- summer squash
Lower Levels of Pesticide in Conventional Production (a.k.a. you have an excuse if you’re low on cash):
- frozen sweet peas
- sweet corn
- sweet potatoes
Organic is always the best option, if not for your health then for the environment. But, watching your wallet is important too.
Finally, one last tip: buy what’s in season! This often costs less to produce and has the most to offer in nutrition and taste.