I went to the local farmers’ market recently and was a little blown away by the marketing I saw. Signs promising “no spray: nada, zip, zilch” and pictures depicting farms with a mountain in the background (Mt. Hood?) and happy organic cows with happy organic farmers. The terms “local” and “organic” seem stapled together so strongly that you almost can’t find local without the organic. Interestingly, though, all you have to do is go to the grocery store and you can find plenty of organic without the local. It’s a question I think about a lot: is the perception of local and organic the same as the reality of local and organic?
I think there is a bit of a disconnect between what people like to imagine organic means and what it actually means. The spirit of the idea is good: people want to believe that organic food comes from small local farms that produce food that is healthier and more environmentally sustainable than conventional agriculture. But that doesn’t line up with what it actually is: not more nutritious and not more sustainable. They pick up organic produce at the grocery and imagine small-scale local farmers sitting in their front porch rocking chair in their overalls with a piece of straw between their teeth, enjoying an ice tea after a long but fulfilling day of hand weeding and picking bugs off by hand. The old-school way; the way nature intended; the way my grandfather did it.
There probably are organic farmers that fit that mold. But when you buy organic produce at the grocery store, you are probably not supporting that farmer. In fact, that farmer probably contributes to about four percent or less of the total organic sales. The University of California-Davis came out with a review in 2009 that looked at California’s organic farms by size and sales and the bottom line was that small organic farms contributed to very little of the organic market. The smallest sector (what can be grown on about 0-2 acres) contributed so little that they show up as zero percent in the study. The next sector, which is roughly the 2-20 acre range, contributes to four percent of the organic market. Most of the organic produce (at least in California, which is a good model of the organic industry) comes from the mere eight percent of farms that likely have around 700 acres. Those farms are not what most folks consider small.
Ok, well, if it’s not small-scale, at least it’s local organic food, right? This idea of “local and organic for all” is a bit of a farce. In 2011, the percentage of US acreage that was certified organic was less than one percent. In fact it was 0.64 percent. In Oregon, where one can expect quite a high amount of organic agriculture, roughly two percent of the total acreage is certified organic. Considering more consumers are buying organic, you might wonder from where that organic produce is coming? The Organic Trade Association states that almost three quarters of Americans buy organic at least some of the time. It seems unlikely that less than one percent of the US acreage is feeding our organic consumption. So that has to mean that a whole lot of it is coming from outside the US. Even if you accept that imported organic food does in fact meet the US organic standards, how exactly does that fit into the local and organic idea? So it’s not small-scale, and a lot of the time it’s not local, either.
The other big fat ugly misconception around organic produce is that it is pesticide-free. The organic industry has done a mind-bogglingly good job at marketing it that way, and so people believe that it is that way. It is not that way. Let me be a little clearer: organic production often uses pesticide. Here is a list of synthetic substances approved for use on organic produce (including copper sulfate, elemental sulfur, paracetic acid, Streptomycin, Tetracycline, magnesium sulfate, selenium, cobalt.) Pesticides approved for use on organic production are approved based on their natural-ness, not based on their safety. Just because it’s natural, doesn’t mean it’s safe. Cyanide, nicotine and caffeine are also natural. If you’re unfamiliar, Streptomycin and Tetracycline are antibiotics (yes!! antibiotics) used to control fire blight in organic apples and pears. There’s been a bit of controversy lately over those in particular, and they won’t be allowed after October of this year. Copper and sulfur have problems of their own. Copper accumulates in the soil and copper fungicides are more toxic to mammals and aquatic vertebrates and are used at much higher rates than their synthetic counterparts. Sulfur pesticides lead to the most farm worker complaints and appear to be harmful to birds. Even these pesticides, when used properly, are really nothing to worry about (except that they are less efficient). The same way that there is really nothing to worry about with conventional pesticides. All of these pesticides, whether approved for organic or conventional production, are regulated by the EPA. But the point is still there: organic farmers are not immune to the same struggles that conventional farmers face. They also have to fight weeds, bugs, and disease. They also have to produce a crop that makes them money. And they do this by using pesticides.
Ok, so organic produce has organic pesticide residue on it, but at least it doesn’t have yucky conventional pesticide residue, right? Wrong. Organic produce is also allowed to have up to five percent of the tolerance level of prohibited pesticides (what’s a tolerance level?). Samples show that they do, in fact, have trace amounts of these substances on them. While organic produce surprisingly goes largely untested for residues, in 2012 the USDA did a pilot study to test a small sample of organic produce for residues of pesticides that aren’t allowed in organic production. It found that almost 40 percent of the samples tested had those allowable levels of conventional pesticide residues. Five percent of the samples exceeded the allowable limits and were in violation of organic standards. So if you’re buying organic produce because you think it is completely free of conventional synthetic pesticide, it is not. It does have very, very low levels of conventional pesticide, if any, but so does conventional produce. In fact, the PDP tells us that conventional produce has similarly low levels of conventional pesticides, well below the tolerance level. Just out of curiosity, I looked at how residues on conventional bell peppers from the 2014 PDP report compared to organic bell peppers from the pilot study. A significant number of the pesticides tested had average residue detections at or below five percent of tolerance level which means they would have been allowable levels under the organic label. In all fairness, the organic produce did have even lower levels of residues, but come on, we’re taking about levels so incredibly low it’s a distinction without a difference. The bottom line is that the conventional peppers, and their significantly more expensive organic cousins, may have similarly low levels of conventional pesticide residue.
One other thing to think about when you think about organic: if you look at that list of approved synthetic substances for use on organic produce, under the “to use as herbicide” category there is very little listed. In 1975 the use of the short-handled hoe was banned to prevent worker injury. It turned out there was a bit of a loop-hole in the 1975 ban – they didn’t say anything about pulling weeds by hand. So in 2004, California also banned hand-weeding to prevent back injuries and protect workers. Seems like a good idea, no? You know who is exempt from that ban? Organic producers. Why? Because it would jeopardize the organic industry. Organic growers filed for an exemption because without the use of herbicides, they have no other option but to pull weeds by hand in certain crops like lettuce. So picture yourself working on a 700 acre organic farm (an acre is nearly the size of a football field) and hand-weeding. That’s the “old-school” way, right? Yeah, old school like the 1800s when life expectancy was much, much lower.
“Ok, fine. You’ve convinced me, I’ll just buy local and forget about the organic.” I think that’s a good plan if you can actually find it. But, of course, there’s marketing in that, too. At least the organic label has defined definitions. What does “local” actually mean? Within the state? From an adjoining state? From the US? From Earth? There are no regulations on who can say their product is local. In fact, I was at the grocery store yesterday looking for apples and under the “local” sign were apples grown in the US. They didn’t say anything about what part of the US. In 2008 Congress defined local as within 400 miles. That really doesn’t mean anything about what the “local” sign at the grocery store means since it’s not regulated.
Look, all I’m saying is know what you’re paying for. Know that when you buy organic at the grocery store, it’s probably not from a small-scale local farmer, it’s not pesticide-free, and much of it requires back-breaking labor. If you can somehow afford to buy all your produce year-round at the local farmers’ market and you feel confident that your idea of organic lines up with reality, that’s awesome. But I don’t think most consumers are doing that. They may think they are, but they’re probably not. Don’t let fear and marketing convince you to pay twice as much (or more!) for a product that isn’t different or better. Call momsense on that.