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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