What It Means to Be Organic

Today’s Veggies: Are They All They Appear to Be?

fruits and veggiesOver the last century, agribusiness and modern transportation methods have meant that Americans have access to a wide variety of fruits and vegetables year-round, shipped from all corners of the planet. In order to produce the needed quantities and to ensure that veggies arrive undamaged in our supermarkets, growers have turned to pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, irradiation and genetic engineering (producing what’s known as GM foods or GMOs).

But some experts and parents question the health effects of these methods, particularly pesticides, especially on children whose small size and state of rapid development make them more vulnerable to toxic substances. Children may be exposed to more pesticides than adults, too, because of their eating habits – they consume larger quantities per pound than adults of milk, apple sauce and orange juice, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Peril of Pesticides, Questions About GMOs

At high levels, pesticides have been shown to adversely affect health in a number of ways, including acute poisonings, cancer, brain damage and reproductive harm. Recent studies have linked exposure to pesticides with childhood leukemia, kidney tumors, brain tumors, and learning and memory problems, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental action organization. Children living on or near farms, for example, have registered very high levels of pesticide exposure and have suffered severe health effects, according to the NRDC.

Another area of intense debate is the environmental and nutritional effects of GMOs. GMOs are foods that have been genetically engineered by artificially inserting selected genes from one organism into another completely different organism, according to the American Corn Growers Association trade group. Farmers began planting such crops as a way to increase their productivity while reducing herbicide and insecticide use. Many consumer groups oppose their use, arguing that without the benefit of long-term studies, there isn’t enough information to merit their current widespread use.

Rising Organic Movement

The controversy on these fronts continues, but meanwhile, in response to these concerns, a movement toward organically grown fruits and vegetables has developed in the United States.

Approximately 10 million households are now buying organic foods on a regular basis, according to the Organic Consumers Association advocacy group. At the current rate of growth, the group claiming “the nation’s organic food industry will be the dominant form of American agriculture by the year 2020.”

What Does “Organic” Mean?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Organic Program:

  • Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water.

  • Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.

  • Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation.

So how do you know if something is organic? Federal regulations require producers and handlers of foods to be certified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent to sell, label or represent their products as “100-percent organic,” “organic” or “made with organic (specified ingredients or food groups).” The USDA can also approve State Organic Programs, which can have more restrictive requirements.

Is Organic Worth It?

But how is a parent, standing in the grocery store, to know whether purchasing organic fruits and vegetables is worth the higher cost and extra effort?

The USDA makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food.

“I don’t think it is necessary to only purchase organic produce, particularly because it is often much more expensive,” says Johanna Dwyer, director of the renowned Frances Stern Nutrition Center at Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston. Any raw produce should be thoroughly washed. Some, like bananas, have skins or peels that can be peeled to prevent undue exposure.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also recommends that families wash conventionally grown fruits and vegetables under running water before eating them and peel them when possible.

“Our view is that it definitely is preferable to serve organic food to our children,” says Joanne Stepaniak, an advocate of vegetarianism and co-author with Vesanto Melina, M.S., R.D., of Raising Vegetarian Children. “However, not all families can afford organic produce, so we feel that more produce, even if conventionally grown, is far better than less.”

Moving Towards Organic

Stepaniak does, however, offer the following suggestions for increasing the percentage of organic produce in your family’s diet:

  • Join a consumer-supported agriculture program (CSA), which often offer organic and less expensive produce than found in stores.

  • Form a buying club, which allows members to buy organic goods in bulk at lower prices.

  • Shop at farmers’ markets.

  • Grow your own vegetables in containers.

Experts don’t dispute that high levels of pesticides can cause health problems, but many groups assert that regular consumption of fruits and vegetables doesn’t expose adults or children to hazardous levels of pesticides.

The Produce for Better Health Foundation (their website is Fruits and Veggies More Matters), a nonprofit consumer education organization working to increase Americans’ consumption of fruits and vegetables, cites USDA data showing that “99 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables consumers buy in the store have either no pesticide residues or residues below established tolerances – whether those are organic or synthetic pesticides residues. … The levels of these residues are so infinitesimal that reputable health authorities have concluded that they are beneath any realistic threshold of harm.”

But a study conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Washington showed that children who eat organic foods do have lower levels of one type of agricultural pesticide (organophosphorus pesticides – called OPs) in their bodies. Researchers tested 18 children fed primarily organic diets and 21 children who eat mostly conventional diets and concluded that “consumption of organic fruits, vegetables and juice can reduce children’s exposure levels from above to below the EPA’s current guidelines, thereby shifting exposures from a range of uncertain risk to a range of negligible risk.”

In March 2003, the EPA released a new proposed risk-assessment strategy that assumes, for the first time, that infants and children are more vulnerable than adults to the cancer-causing effects of certain chemicals. However, these new guidelines, if approved, will not necessarily translate into stricter regulations, experts say.

So while researchers try to discover definitively just how much exposure is too much, parents are left to weigh the potential benefits and costs of organic produce for themselves.

Proponents of the organic movement continue to argue that organic produce is the way to go.

“Americans should feed their kids organic produce because it means that they are lowering their exposure to pesticides – known to have adverse health affects – and to untested genetically engineered food,” says Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association. “Organic farming also places less stress on the planet, leaving kids with a healthier place to grow up. It gives them the best odds for good health.”