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Is Organic Food Worth the Price?

A handy guide for your next market trip

In an ideal world, we’re on a first-name basis with our local farmers, fill our wicker bike baskets with organic fruits and vegetables grown within a 50-mile radius and pedal home with a baguette-filled tote bag slung over one shoulder while whistling a Serge Gainsbourg song. But life isn’t always like that. As much as we may want it to be all hand-harvested organic pea shoots, choosing organic is often more likely to mean buying the value-pack of organic hearts of romaine at Trader Joe’s, then wondering how much better it is than the conventional stuff. “Organic” doesn’t necessarily mean local or even bucolic, so should you bother? The short answer is yes, but for reasons you may not expect. Here’s some info that may help you feel a little less ambivalent about buying organic.

Yes, you can trust the USDA

You’re an expert label reader, and a skeptic — you figured out long ago that high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose and dextrose all mean sugar. Good for you. But there’s no need to doubt the veracity of the USDA organic label, which, according to Naomi Starkman, founder and editor-in-chief of the food policy web site Civil Eats, is the gold standard. “By law, USDA organic foods cannot contain GMOs, synthetic fertilizers, industrial pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones or artificial food ingredients,” says Starkman. “The label is verified, third-party certified, and produced and processed in accordance with the federal organic regulations.” Yes, organic is a work in progress, but it’s a work in progress with a stellar rep (and one that continues to meet consumer expectations).

Speaking of GMOs

The USDA prohibits organic labelling of GMO crops — i.e., genetically modified organisms used to create products like non-bruising apples and blemish-free potatoes. Animals who munch on GMO feed (and the eggs that they lay) are also excluded. The USDA has even created guidelines to help organic farmers avoid contamination between their fields and those growing GMO crops nearby.

Is it ever safe to eat non-organic?

The answer is, sometimes. You may have heard of the dirty dozen and the clean 15, which are cheat sheets that come out each year and share what produce you really ought to buy organic and what’s okay to buy conventional. The lists are based on data collected by the USDA, which measures the level of pesticides that different crops are treated with. “Avoiding the dirty dozen reduces your pesticide intake by 80%,” says Alexandra Zissu, author of The Complete Organic Pregnancy and The Conscious Kitchen.

Read the signs

When you’re shopping at the grocery store, how do you know you’re not paying a premium for a conventional Gala apple that accidentally rolled into the organic bin? The PLU (“price look-up”) code on stickers that appear on fruit and vegetables will tell you all you need to know. If the number contains four digits, that means it’s conventional. If it’s organic, the number has five digits that start with a nine. GMO produce also has a five-digit number, but it starts with an eight. (Don’t get it twisted.)

Should you buy local, organic or both?

In a way, it’s all about parsing out what matters to you most. Is your main concern harmful pesticides winding up in your body, the water system and the soil? Or are you trying to minimize your carbon footprint and invest in local communities? If you answered all of the above, then buying locally-grown, organic produce is the best choice. But that’s not always an option. “There are always trade-offs,” says Starkman. “I’m a big fan of the 80/20 rule. 80 percent of the time I try to buy local and organic, 20 percent of the time, I do what makes the most sense given the season and availability.”

Can it be organic if it’s not marked “organic”?

Only food that is raised organically according to USDA standards can bear the USDA organic seal. There are likely vendors at your local farmer’s market who’d rather not pay the third-party certification that’s required to get it. They may be growing food according to standards that are A-OKAY by you. The only way to find out is by asking. “That’s the coolest thing of all — you have to look people in the eye and ask questions,” says Zissu. Other designations that might mean something to conscious consumers include single-origin, certified naturally grown and fair trade.

Big Organic doesn’t mean Bad Organic

For many reasons, we’re more likely to buy organic food from the grocery store than from a farmer. (Especially if you live in a place where there’s winter.) This lacks the quaintness of the farm-to-table experience, and might lead us to wonder if Big Organic — huge farming operations with output that can accommodate the demand of major grocery chains — can be a force of good when it’s so…available. There is an upside, according to Starkman. “Ultimately, the more acres converted from conventional/industrial production to organic, the fewer chemicals and toxins in the environment and in us, the better,” she says. “While many people feel that ‘big organic’ is anathema to the notion of sustainable agriculture, I truly believe they are part of the solution.” Starkman cites Costco’s model for meeting the demand for organic produce at its stores as a positive one — the company is investing directly in organic farms and working with them to scale up production for the chain.

Take a holistic view

There is more to buying organic than what ends up in your body, though that is a major consideration. There’s the environmental impact, such as the toll that pesticides have taken on soil, water quality and pollinators, like our beloved, now-endangered, bees. There’s the way pesticides affect the people who handle them. And there’s the impact that buying organic has on preserving biodiversity and supporting local economies. When you’re weighing your shopping options, keep in mind that your choice has a ripple effect.

Photos by Krista Anna Lewis.

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  • Hilary

    This is great information, thank you! Near the tail end of last year, I fell off the bandwagon of going to the Farmer’s Market once a week, which I’ve felt bad about since. This is the right kick in the butt to get me going back there.

  • NATASHA

    I try to eat organic as much as possible, yet not only for myself. Growing up in a heavy farm area the use of harmful pesticides while farm workers were in the fields and their exposure to checmicals has lead to many health problems, including fertility and birth defects in female farm workers.

    Organic is better for all of us!

    some scholarly info:

    https://www.cdph.ca.gov/programs/ohsep/Documents/migrantfarmworkers.pdf

  • Scilla

    This is the most useful and helpful information about this issue all rolled into a nice little sweet pea, thank you!

  • Rae

    I am a huge proponent of buying local produce when possible, avoiding overuse of pesticides, and reducing our carbon footprint whenever possible, and for those reasons I appreciate the information provided here. However, I’m not a fan of the tone this article takes regarding GMOs – for starters, genetic modification is used to produce much more important crops than “non-bruising apples and blemish-free potatoes” (Golden rice, anyone?), and GMO’s are NOT inherently bad for you! In fact, if we’re going to continue to feed our world’s ever-growing population, GMOs are increasingly important. All I’m asking is that we all do our research and understand what a genetically modified organism IS before we decide to avoid them .

    • Alice

      YES!!! Yes to all of it!

    • Meers

      Agreed Rae! Everyone please make yourselves aware of the science. Studies have shown GMOs to be safe. We have been genetically modifying our food during the entire course of agricultural practices- GMOs as we now know them are no different. Corporations with shady business practices lead us to doubt the technology itself- but the safety of the techniques and methods themselves have been supported by science. Golden rice is an example of what can go terribly wrong when we aren’t scientifically literate on this- higher food prices and fewer options for those in poverty. Articles like this, while well intentioned have not closely examined the scholarly work. Please check out this article from NYT that shows the opinions that the vast majority of scientists hold on GMOs. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/01/us/stop-bashing-gmo-foods-more-than-100-nobel-laureates-say.html?_r=0

      • Rae

        Thanks for sharing that! The discontinuity between the public and scientific communities’ opinions on this issue (and on lots of issues TBH) bums me out.

        • Meers

          Agreed. I think people assume if you’re pro-GMO you’re pro-greedy corporation. So in there the discussion of the science itself actually gets lost. As a scientist myself (neuroscience) I see the disconnect between academic work and popular press articles. It’s particularly bad when it comes to food science because the myths are perpetuated by the organic industry and well-intentioned people who are too busy to look into the actual science buy into it.

    • snakehissken

      Not only that, but sometimes GMOs are modified to promote disease resistance, which means less pesticides, especially in developing countries that still use the really nasty ones banned in the US. I’m an ecologist and I’m no fan of monocultures of genetically identical crops or patents on genes, but GMOs aren’t automatically bad.

      Plus organic does not mean pesticide-free. Here’s a link to a list of the pesticides allowed for use on organic crops: https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic/national-list

    • Maria Jia Ling Pitt

      GMOs are super interesting and provide many underdeveloped or developing communities with the food and nutrients they need. It fascinates me that a lot of folks hate GMOs, but are unaware that many anti-GMO speakers and advertising is paid for by the organic industry. If you’re ever interested in hearing from scientists and the communities they work with, the Talking Biotech podcast is super interesting and informative. http://www.talkingbiotechpodcast.com/

    • Aaron

      These are crusty old industry talking points, unfortunately. The main two:

      1. Golden Rice has been in development for a crazy long time, like over 20 years, and it’s still not available. It isn’t actually helping anyone and never has. Time will tell if it ever will.

      2. GMOs don’t increase yields and are irrelevant when it comes to feeding extra people. This is the single most prevalent GMO myth, in my experience. It’s total nonsense. I think this is something the biotech industry would desperately love to be true, but it simply isnt.

      You can avoid them or not, I don’t care either way TBH. But let’s be realistic about what they do and don’t do for us. They’re mostly used for herbicide resistance and pest control. 🙂

      • Rae

        My point is that GMO’s have the potential to solve really important problems, and public outcry against them only serves to make it more difficult for scientists to ever make a meaningful difference. I’m aware of their most prevalent uses currently; do you think we should stop here and not explore what else the technology could do, just because uniformed shoppers think they need a “GMO-free” sticker on their apple?

        • Aaron

          Do they have the potential to solve important problems? Because there are no real-world examples. All we’ve heard about for decades is “potential”, and it hasn’t added up to much. If your point is that some people are categorically against GMOs without quite understanding why, then I suppose that’s true, but being in favor based on equally bad misinformation isn’t helping either. What GMOs are, at the end of the day, is a tool to make life marginally easier for farmers. That’s all well and good but it’s not a panacea for all of our societal ills. The idea that the best or only way to help people in poverty is by genetically engineering their vegetables (for years and years, and at tremendous cost) has always seemed ham-fisted and unrealistic to me. It’s OK by me if you eat genetically modified food, but we do not need it.

          • Rae

            Yes, I do think that they have potential beyond ‘making life marginally easier for farmers.’ And if the public continues to oppose advancing GMO development and experimentation, then we are never going to realize that potential. And one last thing – as a scientist, I hold a firm belief that no increase in scientific knowledge is ever superfluous. Regardless of whether or not adequate examples currently exist to convince you that GMOs are useful, you can’t deny that it’s a fascinating and impressive biotechnology and I think that in its own right makes them deserving of further exploration.

          • Brit

            We may not need it now, but does that mean we won’t ever need it? Possibly, possibly not. Your logic would dictate that we drop anything that has been in development but has not immediately produced some tangible result. That’s not how invention and innovation works- look at medicine. Look at cancer research, Alzheimer’s research…etc. Decades and loads of money usually precede the results we hope to get. It doesn’t guarantee we will find cures, but the alternative is to sit back and do nothing and succumb to diseases we could possibly have cured/prevented. The same logic applies to things like GMOs… We may never need them but we also may find that we do somewhere down the road. That’s why its not a waste to invest in research and development, even if nothing comes out of it.

    • Miss J

      Yes, in a lot of cases the modifications are made due to prevention of disease, just like when it comes to salmon and the whole story of wild caught vs. farm raised fish, it’s a better option to buy farm raised (only salmon though) because it has more parasites than other fish.
      In any case, as a gourmet enthusiast and nutrition consultant, I am very glad that you’re starting to include more articles about food. And since we are speaking of food, I would like to add in light of yesterday’s article about chia seed puddings that you can make in your sleep, Instagram has helped us see food as fashion- one year it’s kale, another it’s cauliflower, cupcakes, whatever. I can’t wait to see what people will be posting this year, because I’m so tired of seeing avocado toasts, chia seed puddings, and mediocre cupcakes- they’re all so last season. 🙂

    • Anita Frattle Levy

      If there is nothing wrong with GMO then why are countries banning them and why are we labeling them. You make it sound like much ado about nothing, yet even Russia banned them. You enjoy them and I will eat organic.

  • Brie

    Thanks so much for including this piece today. You all are great at encouraging this community to be conscientious consumers, highlighting the importance of knowing the source (of clothes, food, etc.) and being intentional about your choices.

  • Oooh nice. I needed to know all of this! I tend to eat non-organic but I buy organic whenever I can!

    Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog
    http://charmainenyw.com

  • pia_k

    instead of the ’80/20′– a more practical rule of thumb for those on a budget: the dirty dozen– buy organic for leafy, exposed fruits and veggies, and buy non- for those with a tough exterior skin (barrier from pesticide exposure). Also not sure if the gmo topic should be discussed here (could be a whole other article!)