“Going Organic”

Is that tomato really organic? And what exactly does organic mean? Most people think of organic foods as “pesticide-free” but pesticides are still used, it´s just that organic farmers are required to treat with natural rather than synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

Organic vs. Non-organic Produce

Organic section of grocery store

Most grocery stores now have an organic section for their “green” customers.

There are other reasons to “Go Organic” besides the obvious health benefits; however, organic fruits and vegetables may have trace amounts of chemicals as a result of soil conditions from previous years of farmers using pesticides.

Also, chemicals have been found by inspectors on organic produce due to cross contamination, either during shipment or by farm workers. Whether choosing conventional or organic, it´s always a good idea to rinse the food under cold running water, even if the label states it has been “pre-washed.”

USDA Organic

USDA Certified Organic Seal

The National Organic Program

Here is the USDA´s (United States Department of Agriculture) definition of organic:

Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”

Simply stated, organic produce cannot be treated with synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Animals cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones. Also, since soil and natural fertility are important parts of organic farming, farmers must go through a three-year process in preparing their land before it can be completely converted to organic.

Defining Organic Percentages

hiddenThere are also varying degrees of organic. In order for organic farmers and handlers to sell, label, and/or represent their food as “100 percent organic” they must follow certain guidelines set by the USDA´s National Organic Program.

Organic tomatoes

Foods listed as 100% organic must certified by the USDA.

Once farmers meet these specific standards, they can be certified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent and “wear” the USDA label. But searching out organic foods and understanding labels can be challenging. The USDA has approved three categories for labeling organic products:

1. 100% Organic = 100% organic ingredients
2. Organic = 95% organic ingredients
3. Made with Organic Ingredients = A minimum of 70% organic ingredients with restrictions
such as no GMOs (genetically modified organisms) for the remainder 30%.

Imported Organic Produce – Is it really Organic?

We want what we want, and we want it now! Especially in California; we are so used to having fresh fruits and vegetables, regardless of the season – and we are willing to pay for them.

If it´s in season somewhere, then our favorite fruit or vegetable can be shipped, purchased, and on the table by dinnertime, right? But are imported organics really organic?

Organic Tomatoes from Mexico

Depending on the store, much of our “organic” produce in California comes from our neighbors down south.

Other countries do not have the same pesticide regulations for agricultural crops as does the United States – and yet, we import foods from these countries who continue to use U. S. banned pesticides.

The good news is (if you are one who demands tomatoes ripe from the vine during winter months), buying imported organic produce from Mexico is better than buying Mexico´s non-organic produce, which may be subjected to conventional and U.S. banned pesticides.

Actually, Mexico has been practicing organic farming for years with many farms owned by U.S. companies and co-ops. In order to call themselves “organic,” Mexican farmers have to meet the same requirements of the National Organic Program as do U.S. farmers. But often shoppers of organic produce stare at the label and think, “Where exactly does the water come from in order to irrigate these vegetables?

Drawing of a well and groundwater flow

Example of water pumped from an irrigation well which taps into groundwater flow from aquifers.

The water for irrigating organic farms in both Mexico and the U.S. is mainly from the underground water flow known as an “aquifer.” Water is pumped from wells that extract it from deep below the earth´s surface.

Side note regarding aquifers: When groundwater is relied upon to irrigate crops, aquifers become over- pumped and unfortunately, the groundwater renewal rate is very slow in comparison to that of surface water (rivers and streams).

The average recycling time for groundwater to renew itself is 1400 years! Surface water can renew in only 20 days! This is a definite issue . . . as aquifers are being over-pumped throughout the world; we are removing groundwater for future generations.

Reasons to “Go Organic”

o Choosing organic helps honey bees: Without honey bees, many important crops such as avocados, apples, cherries, almonds, blueberries, etc. would disappear.

Organic farmers not only avoid using pesticides that are toxic to bees but they also rotate crops, provide habitat that is beneficial for bees to flourish, and provide a greater number of flowers to collect nectar from.

Bee on red flower with full pollen baskets

Honey bee filling up her pollen baskets         (Yellow on hind legs).

o Although it is difficult to research whether organic is more nutritional than non-organic foods, recent studies at the University of California, Davis, found that organic tomatoes have a higher level of phytochemical (antioxidants) and vitamin C than conventional tomatoes.

o People who switch to organic fruits and vegetables will tell you they taste better while others state they can´t tell a difference – try them for yourself, if anything, you are lessening your exposure to chemicals over the long run.

o Promoting organic farming is better for the environment: Besides natural fertilizers and pesticides, organic farmers rotate crops, and they plant flowers pollinated by birds and beneficial insects which are also good for crops.

Organic tomatoes from U.S.

U.S. organic tomatoes on the vine are also available in the winter but cost more than non-organic.

Organic Food – Is it really Worth the Cost?

It´s true; there is a big difference in feeding a family of three than there is for a family of six. You may ask yourself, “Do I really have to buy everything organic?” Not so.

You can work towards maximizing the health of your family by choosing organic but you can also cut costs in choosing certain fruits and vegetables that are listed in the “Dirty Dozen.”

The Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15

These particular fruits and vegetables should be purchased from the organic section of your market because they have been found to contain the highest residue of pesticides, some of which are toxic to the human nervous system.

The Dirty Dozen

1. Apples
2. Celery
3. Sweet bell peppers
4. Peaches
5. Strawberries
6. Nectarines
7. Grapes
8. Spinach
9. Lettuce
10. Cucumbers
11. Blueberries
12. Potatoes

Then there is the “Clean 15” which can be purchased in the regular section of the supermarket. Purchasing foods from this list will keep your grocery bill from going sky-high and these fruits and vegetables are found to have little or no pesticide residue.

Organic avocados

Save money by purchasing non-organic avocados.

The “Clean 15” – Save Money with Non-Organic

1. Avocados
2. Asparagus
3. Papayas
4. Pineapple
5. Sweet Potatoes
6. Grapefruit
7. Cabbage
8. Egg Plant
9. Sweet Corn
10. Kiwi
11. Mangos
12. Mushrooms
13. Onions
14. Cantaloupe
15. Frozen Sweet Peas

Food Additives and Pesticides

More and more consumers are not only becoming aware of how their food is grown, with natural or synthetic pesticides, with or without GMOs (genetically modified organisms), etc. but consumers today are demanding to know what is being put into their food.

So-called “natural flavorings” may be from bugs, and in the case of vanilla, goo from the glands of a beaver (a bit too natural for most!). The decision to “go green” and/or “organic” is a personal one. To really know what you are eating, it´s best to know the source.

Buying locally is one way of obtaining fresh fruits and vegetables; plus, you can talk to the growers to ask them what their particular methods are for avoiding pests and fertilizing their crops. There is absolutely no guarantee that what you eat has been produced without pesticides or other chemicals but then sometimes, we just have to trust . . . and wash our fruits and vegetables – thoroughly!

References

Batcha, L. (Winter 2014). The Importance of Protecting Bees. Certified Organic – CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers). Santa Cruz, CA. Magazine

CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers). Santa Cruz, CA. Article by Laura Batcha “The Importance of Protecting Bees.” Winter 2014

United States Environmental Protection Agency. “Pesticides and Food: What “Organically Grown” Means.” May 2012. Retrieved from epa.gov/pesticides/food/organics. Online

USGS – U.S. Geological Survey. Water Science for Schools. Aquifers. Retrieved from water.usgs.gov/edu/pdf/earthgwaquifers.pdf. Online

Article by Donna Walker