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Organic Foods
Are Worth the Price

by Zrinka Peters

Is paying a higher price for organic foods really worth it? This question has undoubtedly run through the minds of countless shoppers as they’ve reached for the $3 avocado or $5 basket of strawberries that don’t look noticeably different from their conventionally grown counterparts. As the bill adds up, the question nags – what are we really paying for?

There are in fact significant differences between food that is organically versus conventionally grown. In order to be labeled “organic” in the United States and qualify to be stamped with the “USDA Organic” seal of approval, a product must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients. Organic fruits and vegetables must have been grown and processed without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, and the farmland must have been free of harmful chemicals for a minimum of three years in advance of the first “organic” harvest. As for meat and dairy products, they must be produced without the use of growth hormones and antibiotics, and all organically-raised animals must be fed organic feed and have access to the outdoors. For livestock, this is a significant lifestyle improvement when compared to their conventionally raised cousins.

The environment benefits as well. Organic farmers practice agricultural methods which preserve and nourish the soil instead of “mining” it, such as crop rotation, tillage and the use of cover crops. This results in far less pollution and top-soil loss than conventional farming practices.

We all know that organic foods cost more. That’s because organic farming is more labor intensive than conventional methods, which simply add chemical input to the soil. While this tends to be good for local economies, these higher labor and production costs are eventually passed on to the consumer, finding their way onto our grocery bills if we choose to buy organic. Then again, it’s not quite that simple if we look at the bigger picture. Conventionally grown produce also carries hidden costs that may not be reflected in our grocery bills – the immediate costs of producing synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, the long-term cost of a more polluted environment, and the possible long-term health effects on the consumer as a result of pesticide residues in our foods.

But if helping our environment isn’t enough motivation to give organic foods a try, how about the added benefit that organic foods are actually better for you? While the jury is still out on a conclusive answer as to whether organic foods contain larger amounts of nutrients than conventionally grown foods, a British Soil Association study indicates that, in general, organic foods contain larger amounts of vitamin C as well as certain essential minerals. A 2005 Organic Center report also concluded that across seven studies, organic produce was shown to contain approximately 30 percent more antioxidants, which are especially significant for their role in helping to prevent or reduce tissue damage in cells, than conventionally grown produce. Perhaps most importantly, though, organic foods can benefit us because of what’s not there - they contain far fewer contaminants than conventionally grown foods, some of which can appear in potentially harmful combinations, and many of which have unknown long-term effects.

And as an added plus, organic meat and produce actually taste better than their conventional equivalents. So say over 70% of people in a August 2005 Soil Association poll. That would explain why more top chefs are now choosing organic foods for their menus.

Unfortunately, switching to an all organic diet is enough to make a serious dent in the food budget for most people. But there are still inexpensive things you can do to make a difference. How about going only part organic – just buying those items which don’t cost that much more than the non-organic ones – such as carrots, potatoes and apples? Buying organic produce that is local and in season is another sure way to go easy on the wallet.

Is it worth it to buy organic? The decision is yours – but you can certainly enjoy organic foods knowing that you’re doing something that’s good not just for your health and your tastebuds but for the environment too. •

from the July-August 2006 issue

SAFE & UNSAFE

The Environmental Working Group has compiled a list of the relative amounts of contaminants found on a variety of fruits and vegetables. They estimate that a person could lower his or her intake of pesticides by as much as 90% by avoiding the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables, and eating the 12 least contaminated ones instead.

12 MOST CONTAMINATED
FRUITS & VEGETABLES
peaches
strawberries
apples
nectarines
bell
peppers
celery
imported grapes
pears
potatoes
red raspberries
spinach
cherries

12 LEAST CONTAMINATED
FRUITS & VEGETABLES
asparagus
sweet corn
avocado
bananas
cauliflower
onions
kiwi
sweet peas
mango
papaya
pineapple
broccoli