So you are in the grocery store and you are craving some vegetables. You peruse the produce and see the beautiful lush greens, reds and yellows of the fruits of the earth. Then you look over to one side and see sad and pathetic little vegetables, all labeled organic. Some of them cost more than the beautiful produce, too. You've read stories or been told that organic vegetables are better for you, but is it true? Are they worth the money? Are the benefits that much more? What exactly are organic vegetables?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) made it official that after October 21, 2002, any produce labeled "organic" for sale in the United States, whether domestic or foreign, must have been produced using the organic standards put forth by the department. Before a product can be labeled "organic" a government-approved inspector checks the farm to make sure it is meeting USDA organic standards. Violators of the use of the "organic" label face a fine of up to $10,000 for each violation.
According to the USDA, organic food "is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation." In practice, organic production varies immensely. On one end of the spectrum you have corporate farms that have simply exchanged the fertilizers and pesticides in their tanks from synthetic to organic-approved ones. While the health of the farm workers and consumers may be better on these farms, the vegetables are produced in much the same way as before, but now you may pay a little more for them at the grocery store.
Clay Erskine of Peaceful Belly Farms in Boise is an organic farmer. His farm is at the opposite extreme of the organic spectrum. To him, growing organic is a philosophy that intermixes sustainability, local production and conservation. Recently asked to be on the USDA's Organic Advisory Committee, Clay promotes making the soil healthier so that plants can be healthier, workers tending the crops can be healthier and the people eating the pesticide- and herbicide-free produce are healthier. It's also about growing produce locally. "You may be getting a cheap bag of apples," he said, "but at what cost? When you calculate the true cost of growing, chemicals harming the environment and workers and transportation from overseas is it worth it? It's beneficial spiritually and psychologically knowing where your food is coming from," he said.
But is organic food good for you? The USDA makes no claims as to whether organically produced food is good for you or not. Proponents claim that organic fruits and vegetables carry less chemical residue from pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers than conventional produce, which leads to lower risk of cancer, heart disease and other ailments. A study by Rutgers University compared organic snap beans, cabbage, spinach, lettuce and tomatoes to their nonorganically produced brothers and found that in all cases were higher in essential mineral content including phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, iron and potassium, in some cases as much as quadruple numbers. Scientists in England studying the effect of salicylic acid which helps prevent heart disease and bowel cancer have found that organically produced plants have much higher levels of the acid than conventionally produced vegetables. Other studies have shown increased levels of vitamin C in organically produced fruits and vegetables.
When cruising the farmer's market you may see signs promoting organically grown vegetables. You may also see such signs as "spray-free," "pesticide-free" or "naturally produced." Terms like these aren't regulated, only the use of the "organic" label is government regulated, but these terms don't mean that the vegetables aren't healthy. It's easy to ask the producer what they put on their crops and how they are grown. Even conventionally grown produce can be prepared to limit the potential leftover pesticide and herbicide residue. By washing and peeling your vegetables it will help to remove chemicals, but what if you don't want any chemicals at all? Which vegetables should you consider more or less dangerous when grown conventionally?
The Children's Health Environmental Coalition produced a list of vegetables and fruits that you should seek out the organics because of their tendency to retain chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides. They are peaches, apples, pears, winter squash, green beans, grapes, strawberries, raspberries, spinach and leafy greens, potatoes, tomatoes and cantaloupe.
Converting your own garden to organic is an easy task. Simply stop using synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Though you may see more bugs in your garden, the bug predators will rise to the occasion as well. There are many natural solutions including using ladybugs and praying mantis, diatomaceous earth, natural soap spray and good old hand-picking and stomping of caterpillars. Clay Erskine says it's simple, "Plant more for the bugs to eat." And if things get really out of control he says, "There will always be a frost. Everything will die and you can start over next year."