Monday, September 26, 2011
Why Eating Organic is the Single Greenest Thing You Can Do
"There's so many benefits that come from that one choice," Maria explains. "You've removed a bajillion pounds of dangerous, synthetic, disease-causing environment-destroying chemicals from the soil, the water our bodies. We would all immediately be healthier. Our children would be healthier."
I arranged a phone interview with Maria after meeting her last spring during Cooking for Solutions, a great conference and food fest on sustainable agriculture and fishing organized by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I'd read her book and wanted to delve deeper into the issues surrounding organics. Tomorrow, I'll offer a dissenting view from Steve Savage, an agricultural consultant who is dubious about many of Maria's claims.
Today, while the acreage farmed organically remains small -- less than 1 percent of U.S. farmland -- organics are a big business. U.S. sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic fruits and vegetables represent more than 10 percent of all sales of fruits and vegetable, the group says.
• Pesticides have been shown to cause a wide range of adverse effects on human health including acute and chronic injury to the nervous system, lung damage, injury to the reproductive organs, dysfunction of the immune and endocrine systems, birth defects, and cancer; these effects can manifest as acutely toxic effects, delayed effects, or chronic effects.
For its part, the agricultural industry says pesticide residues on food are harmless and regulated by the government.
The picture is darker when it comes to farm workers. A long-term government study of more than 80,000 farmers and their wives from Iowa and North Carolina, called the Agricultural Health Study, offers some warnings. While the farmers studied are generally healthier than the general population, pesticide exposure has been linked to Parkinson's disease, prostate cancer, lung disease and some brain disorders. (Details here.) One study found that farmers who "used pesticides longer and more often said they had more neurological symptoms than those who had not used pesticides or had used them less frequently and for fewer years."
What's more, anecdotal evidence on the impact of synthetical chemicals on birth defects is downright scary, as Barry Estabrook reported in Tomatoland. [See my July blogpost, Rotten tomatoes.] Tom Philpott of Mother Jones recently reported on methyl iodide, which is sprayed on strawberry fields and has been called "reliably carcinogenic" by the Pesticide Action Network.
That's probably reason enough, for many of us, to choose organic. But what about the costs? Maria makes a couple of good points in that regard. First, she says: "If you can, grow a garden, which is fun and good. It's great exercise, and kids love it." If not, shop carefully and cook more: "Eat less processed food. Do more cooking. Every step of processing food add more cost." In Maria's Farm Country Kitchen, she offers gardening tips, recipes and political commentary:
Stop wasting American tax dollars supporting, subsidizing, and encouraging the toxic chemical and GMO farming that are promoted by unethical companies who spread lies and poison around the world in order to line their own pockets. We've been ripped off and contaminated long enough.
I asked Maria about evidence that organic growers are less productive that conventional farmers. That's not so, she says, noting that most big farms in the U.S. produce corn and soy for non-food use.
"Most people don't eat that corn and soy," she says. "It's made into high fructose corn syrup. It's made into feed for factory grown animals. It's made into biofuels that do not feed people." She's right about that -- more than a third of the US corn crop goes into the making of ethanol. Something's wrong, she says, when "a farmer who is growing chemical corn is getting subsidized and a farmer who switches to growing food that people need to eat gets no help whatsoever."
What do you think? Should we be subsidizing organic farmers? Or not?
Come back tomorrow to learn why Steve Savage believes that organic food, whatever its virtues, can't meet the world's growing demand for food.Maria Rodale photo by Cedric Angeles Photography.