Food Fight! Conventional vs. Organic Food

They used to say, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

But the ever-changing landscape of food and nutrition might have us thinking otherwise. Now, it depends on which doctor you ask, if the apple was washed and peeled first, or if it was grown organically or conventionally. It seems a little confusing when all you wanted was a crunchy snack. With all the talk about organic foods, some obvious questions arise: What exactly constitutes organic? Is it really better for you? And where can you get it?

The sale of organic foods has risen nearly 800% in the last 15 years, a staggering number for an economy that hasn’t seen its best days recently, and in spite of all the high-calorie, artificially sweetened, low-nutrient food options. Most local grocery stores are stocking up on pesticide-free produce, and we’re spending more money than ever looking for health-conscious alternatives, be it organic or otherwise.

Minneapolis-based retail giant Target recently announced plans for its own signature organic grocery brand. In a USA Today article, Amanda Irish, senior director of Target’s store brands, said that although the sale of organic foods is only about 10% of all grocery sales, it’s growing at a rate almost twice that of conventional foods. And in a part of the country that relies heavily on conventional farming, the Red River Valley is host to a growing number of healthy food alternatives. The organic section at Hornbacher’s and other supermarkets continues to explode, and stores like Swanson Health Products, Tochi Products, and Sydney’s Health Market give shoppers additional options.

So, let’s try to sort out all this confusion, possibly debunk some myths about the difference between organic and conventional foods, and find a good fit for you and for your family’s health.

Defining the Methods

Conventional farming methods have been in place for years, and are used to grow what most of us have come to accept as everyday foods. Conventional farming often employs the use of pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), growth hormones, and/or antibiotics. Opponents argue that not only are many of these products harmful to the environment, but some insist their use and ingestion is linked to certain types of cancers.

Organic farming, on the other hand, employs a much different methodology that can sometimes leave consumers confused. What does it mean to be organic? In order to understand this, let’s back up a few decades. The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) was introduced under Title 21 of the 1990 Farm Bill to give some consistency in regard to what’s legally considered organic. They came up with an overwhelming list of legal jargon that equates to a few fairly simple precepts:

• Organic food must be produced without pesticides or fertilizers made of artificial ingredients.

• Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy must come from animals that have not been given antibiotics or hormones.

• Organic farming supports the ideas of renewable resources and soil and water conservation for future generations.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also has some basic rules a grower or food producer must follow before they’ll slap their official seal on something. These subcategories muddy the water a bit, so clearly look at the label to be sure what you’re actually buying.

• To be called 100% organic, the food must be an organically grown single product, like an apple or an orange, or comprised of all organic ingredients.

• A product can be called organic if at least 95% of the ingredients used to make it are organic in nature.

• A product may say it’s made with organic food if it has a minimum of 70% organic ingredients.

• If a product contains less than 70% organic ingredients, it may list individual organic components by name on the label, but not call itself organic.

The Choice is Simple…or is it?

It sounds foolproof, right? No chemicals, no artificial fertilizers, no hormones in your meat, so why wouldn’t you buy organic? Several factors deserve consideration when buying organic—and one of the biggest is cost. Organic foods can run almost double their conventional counterparts.

Brad Kittelson, a registered and licensed dietician at Sanford Hospital in Fargo, doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the organic lifestyle and points out that for most people, cost is a huge factor. “This is not an area of the country where organic foods are always available and cost-effective. Getting people to eat the right foods is challenging enough without adding in the concept of organics.”

Darby Smith, co-owner of Sydney’s Health Market in Moorhead, Minn., says the higher cost of organic foods is a false perception. “Without going too far down the rabbit hole in terms of economy and propaganda, the truth is that if you’re eating the right foods, you’ll actually eat less, which will cost you less. The other thing people don’t factor in is that conventional farmers are given government subsidies that artificially drive down the price of non-organic foods.”

Smith says health is another factor to consider, and we’re not giving enough attention to our own health. “Americans only spend about 10-20% of their income on groceries, whereas our European counterparts are spending closer to 25-30%. We’ll spend $40,000 on a vehicle, but cheat our own health when it comes to food.” Could it be we’re filling up on the wrong stuff that’s cheap, to make us feel fuller nutritionally and financially?

Makenna Goodman, a well-known author and organic supporter, makes an interesting point in a Huffington Post article where she notes that buying organic isn’t always the best choice when all factors are considered—factors such as how the animals are treated or how much fuel was used to deliver that organic meat and produce to your supermarket.

In regard to animal production, organic mainly refers to the animal’s diet, not whether it is free-range, cage-free, or treated humanely. Goodman references Joel Salatin, a renowned farmer and author, who describes in graphic detail some fairly heinous mistreatment of animals whose meat can technically be labeled as organic. Salatin suggests we may be missing the point of what buying, eating, and growing organic actually represents. For example, is it truly an organic mindset that consumers pay top dollar for chicken flown to North Dakota from California or elsewhere simply because it ate organic feed, when we could get a perfectly healthy, free-range hen from a local farm that’s not necessarily organic? What about the cost of fuel, resources, and transportation that were required to get that “organic” bird here? And if it was raised by the same conventional methods of farming, but simply ate organically, is it really a better bird? The argument suggests that it may not be.

Supporting local farming practices you know are healthy, albeit un-organic, may be the more “organic” solution overall. Goodman herself lives on a farm in Vermont and is a staunch supporter of the organic movement. She grows her own vegetables and raises her own free-range chickens that enjoy a better life than some humans, but because she feeds them with scraps of inorganic foods, she can’t sell them or their eggs to her local organic co-op. In the end, Goodman reminds people that organic is just a label and encourages them to be informed about the food they consume.

Organic as a Lifestyle

Buying organic is not just about making food choices. For many, there’s a deeper issue which isn’t simply consumerism. The bigger picture focuses on leaving a smaller footprint by using fewer resources.

Smith agrees. “We believe that organic is as much about stewardship as it is about the food you are putting into your body. We are ultimately responsible for helping sustain the good health of our community and not just ourselves,” says Smith. He admits North Dakota can be a tough place to go organic. Conventional farming is one of the top industries in the state, and organic foods—specifically produce—can be hard to find locally.

Tyne Stormo is helping increase access to local organic produce through Kragnes Family Farms, a CSA (community supported agriculture) located northeast of Moorhead, Minn., of which she is co-founder. Stormo is a strong believer in organic foods, and admits there’s more to organic than the food itself. Efficient use of resources is important, too.

The concept behind a CSA is simple. “A CSA is basically like a subscription farm. You pay at the beginning of the season and receive weekly deliveries of in-season produce,” says Stormo.

CSAs truck produce to local businesses and residences each week, where subscribers can pick up their box of food, saving time, money, and precious resources. By keeping organic food local, CSAs reduce the fuel cost on their produce.

“It is important to find an economical way to obtain your organic food,” Stormo says. “We are working to make small organic agriculture possible and want to be able to make it more affordable for our community to buy local organic produce. We think everyone should have the opportunity to understand more and learn where their food comes from.”

The Controversy

Conventional farming giant Monsanto has been in the news lately, facing harsh criticism from the organic community for its abundant use of GMOs.

A GMO plant is altered using genetic engineering techniques. GMOs are common in crops such as corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola. Most often, these plants are modified to resist herbicides. Monsanto, along with a recent Stanford University study, contends that “… there are no significant differences between ‘organic’ and ‘conventional’ crops in terms of taste, nutrition, and safety.”

Kittelson says the studies don’t necessarily sway his opinion, but believes they are rooted in scientific fact. Although his interest in organic foods has been piqued, he hasn’t committed to taking the plunge yet. He warns against consuming overly-processed foods and preservative-laden prepared foods. “That’s what we should be avoiding,” Kittelson says. “The organic industry is exploding, and that could be a good thing, but there is a lot of misinformation out there. Eating a variety of foods is what gives you the vitamins and minerals you need. I say fresh when you can, frozen when you need to—it’s about diversity in eating well and not always an organic or non-organic issue.”

But organic consumers disagree. Amy Jo Flattum, who grew up on a conventional North Dakota farm just south of Fargo, says she eats organically for several reasons. Flattum’s father, like many North Dakotans, was a conventional farmer for most of his life, and she attributes his leukemia and death to constant exposure to chemicals and pesticides over the years. “My dad used both pesticides and GMO in his farming and yes, it was directly linked to his cancer, not by me, but by his doctors.”

Flattum also referred to the Stanford study citing the media storm over the legitimacy of the funding behind it, calling it dubious. “It was revealed on NPR that the study was funded by special interest groups like Monsanto. Plus, the study was way too short to ever prove that a lifetime of eating pesticide-laden food is bad for you and causes cancer, which it is.”

Kittelson sides with nutrition experts who trust that if the FDA says it’s safe, it is.

Smith says, “At the end of the day, it’s not about if organic food tastes better or fresher, it’s about the chemicals you’re putting into your body. Good food is the best health care.”

Organic for Beginners

If Smith had his druthers, everyone would buy organic everything. “I know it’s not realistic, but it’s something to strive for.” When asked where to start, he references the “Dirty Dozen.” This annual list is determined each year by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which analyzes produce and ranks the 12 fruits and vegetables found to have the highest pesticide residue.

 

2013 Dirty Dozen List

Apples

Strawberries

Grapes

Celery

Peaches

Spinach

Sweet bell peppers

Nectarines

Cucumbers

Potatoes

Cherry tomatoes

Hot peppers

The EWG acknowledges the produce that ends up at the bottom of their list, too. Known as the “Clean 15,” this list includes items consumers should purchase if they can’t afford to buy all organic. These fruits and vegetables have the least amount of pesticide contamination.

2013 Clean 15 List

Mushrooms

Sweet potatoes

Cantaloupe

Grapefruit

Kiwi

Eggplant

Asparagus

Mangoes

Papayas

Sweet peas – frozen

Cabbage

Avocados

Pineapple

Onions

Corn

Because of her family medical history and food-related intolerances and allergies caused by years of consuming processed foods, Flattum believes organic foods are the best choice for her. “I try to stick to at least buying organic of the ‘dirty dozen’ when buying organic fruits and veggies, and try to buy mostly organic dairy and locally raised hormone-free chicken and eggs from our co-op. It makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing for my body and for the earth.”

Perhaps it’s not completely about preserving the environment or crusading against a moral cause. And, although there have not been enough studies to prove or disprove the superior nutritional value of organic versus conventional foods, in the end it’s about satisfaction, good health, and knowing where your food comes from. You can take the first step toward eating organic by cultivating your own garden; buying from a locally grown, trusted source; or simply growing a few fresh herbs in a window box. Knowing where you eat is knowing what you eat. You have to decide how you get there. Swapping out your conventional apple for an organic one may be a good place to start.

A North Dakota native, Megan Bartholomay is a freelance writer and editor with an addiction to grammar, cats, wine, and good food. She lives in downtown Fargo with her husband, Mike, and their bevy of fuzzy babies.

 

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