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Does eating right mean eating organic?

by Rian Ervin
Jan 18, 2012


Rian Ervin/MEDILL

People debate the health reasons for eating organic. High prices can be deterring, especially when the quality of conventional food may be just as good.

Connie Migliazzo discovered her passion for organic living at the University of Virginia, where she helped build the school’s first community garden.

“Conventional agriculture is made up of acres and acres of monoculture farms that may look efficient, but in reality are destroying the soil, and depleting the biodiversity of both soil organisms and pollinating insects,” Migliazzo said.

Migliazzo spent a year after college working on an organic farm in Shelter Island, New York, and is currently a landscape architecture graduate student at Harvard University.

“The reason organic food is more expensive is not because it’s trendy or because there is a huge demand,” Migliazzo explained Wednesday. “It is because instead of spraying acres of field with pesticides and herbicides in 10 minutes with a crop duster, organic crops are being hand-weeded and trimmed by individual workers.”

People are often drawn to organic food for health reasons, but high prices and the lingering question of whether the quality of conventional food is truly inferior can be deterring.

Organic food tends to more expensive because of the time and labor involved for the farmer to produce it, Migliazzo said.

In fact, a recent study from the University of Minnesota found that organic farming is economically sustainable in the long-term due to higher organic price premiums than for conventional corn and soybean production.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 30,000 organic operations around the world meet its certification standards, and these numbers are increasing.

“Organic basically means that there are no pesticides, toxins or chemicals,” said Shelly Herman of Irv & Shelly’s Fresh Picks, a Chicago area delivery service that works with more than 100 local and organic farms.

USDA organic standards prohibit organic farmers from using methods such as synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering, said Michael T. Jarvis, USDA's public-affairs director.

Jessica Crandall, registered dietician and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics headquartered in Chicago, has witnessed controversy over eating organic.

“I have a lot of clients who get upset when I tell them they don’t have to eat organic,” she said.

While Crandall does recommend eating organic or hormone-free meat, she said organic fruits, vegetables and dairy aren’t different than their conventional counterparts.

The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., has a different viewpoint.

Using data from the USDA and Food and Drug Administration, it compiled a list of conventional fruits and vegetables that are most likely to have pesticide residue.

Included in its “Dirty Dozen” list are: Apples, celery, strawberries, peaches, spinach, nectarines, grapes, sweet bell peppers, potatoes, blueberries, lettuce, and kale or collard greens.

“Pesticides are toxic by design, meant to eradicate bugs, weeds and fungus, so it is common sense people should avoid making them a staple in their daily diets,” said Sara Sciammacco, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Working Group.

Yet before a pesticide can be used in the U.S., it must be evaluated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

According to the EPA website, the EPA limits how much pesticide residue is allowed to remain in or on treated food. These limits are called tolerances. To set a tolerance level, the EPA does safety testing to ensure the pesticide can be used with “reasonable certainty of no harm.”

Crandall said she has seen hundreds of patients who have chosen to eat non-organic foods and she has never seen someone harmed by this decision.

“However,” she added, “I have also seen patients who I am concerned with eating organic, because there seems to be a higher risk for bacterial growth.”