Tag Archives: Organic

Are Conventional Farmers Doing it Wrong? 2 of 2

Yesterday I talked about why the organic label isn’t an indication of “rightness” when it comes to farming practices. As I mentioned, in order to provide some specific examples of how conventional farmers are also using some of the same practices that many believe define organic production, I surveyed a group of conventional growers. I asked seven questions and got responses from 11 conventional farmers from across the US. Verbatim answers are below (not all, because some had similar answers.) Caveat: this is in no way meant to be a study, I understand it’s a small, volunteer-based sample, but I hope it helps some people understand that organic production is not the only way to farm sustainably.

conv farm QA (1 of 3)Before we get into those examples, though, let’s talk a little about one thing that will come up in their answers: tillage. Tilling (literally digging and turning over the ground) is one way that farmers prepare the soil for crops. It does a number of things, one of which is to mechanically destroy weeds – and killing weeds is important because they steal resources (like water and nutrients) from crops and reduce efficiency. There are many benefits to tilling like incorporating nutrients into the soil, but there are also disadvantages such as release of carbon into the atmosphere and increased erosion.  No-till and reduced-till agriculture has become increasingly popular in conventional farming as it saves time, money and fuel, sequesters carbon, and maintains soil structure.  Conventional farmers use herbicides to kill weeds instead of tilling, which is something that organic farmers can’t do. (To be clear, tilling does not eliminate the need for herbicides, many farmers who till still use herbicides.) One of the farmers I reached out to said, “On a national level, the switch to no-till is huge in terms of environmental benefits. Carbon is stored in the ground and not released into the atmosphere, and secondly, erosion is drastically reduced. These two things alone makes conventional farming (with the use of no-till) superior environmentally to organic – at least on a large scale, as it is very difficult to farm organically without relying on cultivation for weed management.”

Ok, the Q&A. It’s long, but worth the read.

Question #1: Do you use cover crops? (Note for readers: Things that are grown when a farmer is not growing a crop to sell. Advantages: reduced soil erosion, weed suppression, soil amendment.)

  • Yes, we use cereal rye, hairy vetch, or tillage radish for cover crops
  • We have done both cover and not. We prefer cover crops out of convenience. Who wants their seeds blown away with all of your top soil?
  • We have just planted oats as a cover crop. We harvested peas in the field this year and are planning on putting in radishes in the spring. By planting the oats, we capture any remaining nutrients, which will be held by the oat crop. When we spray out the oats in the spring those nutrients will then be released back into the soil and will be available to the radish crop. Furthermore, having a crop growing keeps the soil “alive.” There is another whole layer of life in the soil in form of various microbes, and they are kept healthy by having a growing crop at all times.
  • We use cover crops and use soil samples to see what the soil and crop needs
  • No. There are not many/any economically viable cover crop options in our area. We do “rest” ground by putting it through a three year alfalfa rotation.
  • Sometimes. Everything we do is about conserving moisture – cover crops use moisture. It takes six inches of water to get wheat to a point it will help as a cover crop.

Question #2: Do you use crop rotation? (Note for readers: this is the opposite of a mono-crop – not growing the same thing on the same field year after year. Advantages: keeping pests and disease in check, reduced need for synthetic fertilizer, soil health)

  • conv farm QA (2 of 3)Yes, we rotate crops. We’re in a ten year battle over raising canola because we’re looking for crop rotations that are good fits
  • Don’t most people? Grow too much of the same thing, and it is like watching inbreeding!
  • Oh yes. We grow ten different crops. We rotate according to market demands, crop history, weed history, soil needs. Our soils are in excellent condition.
  • Yes, we rotate our corn and soybeans every year, and we no-till.
  • Yes, intensively. Typically winter wheat, corn, safflower or sunflowers, malt barley. If needed we’ll then go to summer fallow or back to wheat. Also this would be when we’d put ground in alfalfa and leave it for a few years.

Question #3: Do you use Integrated Pest Management (IPM)? (Note for readers: the strategy behind IPM is to try to control pests before they become a problem using things like beneficial insect populations and judicious use of pesticides.)

  • On our farm we hardly use insecticides because of crop rotation and the use of GMO crops.
  • We keep beneficial insect habitats in place
  • Yes, we use a variety of chemicals from different groups to avoid resistance issues, including organic options if that is the best fit, soil tillage or lack thereof (no-till). Several oat varieties we grow naturally suppress nematode activity, and we pay attention to protecting/enhancing beneficial insect populations.
  • To an extent. Not very formally, but we have a crop consultant who advises us, and we never blindly spray, just because we are told. We often weigh the cost/benefit of spraying. We don’t release natural predators, but we do consider carefully if it is worth spraying.
  • I have used IPM for decades. That is one thing that drives me up a wall about internet farmers. They come up these ideas that farmers have done for decades

Question #4: How do you limit pesticide use?

  • conv farm QA (3 of 3)First off, pesticides are expensive, so we don’t want to use any more than we have to from a financial perspective. Furthermore, when we chose which crop to grow, we take into account the history of the field, and if we can predict a weed or insect problem, we may chose not to grow that crop, or to grow it in a different location. Also, by planting wheat later in the year, we can avoid aphids. We may choose to plant a variety that we know has better disease resistance thereby potentially eliminating a fungicide spray.
  • We never use more then we should on herbicides, it’s not beneficial to the crop, soil, environment, and it’s expensive! When we spray we always choose a day with little wind and cooler weather. We are always mindful of where it may drift.
  • We grow non-organic oats and alfalfa, which get sprayed with nothing. Our Roundup ready corn and soy get sprayed as minimally as possible.
  • We raise GMO crops, scout fields, apply as needed – for insecticide when the count per plant reaches a specific threshold, and for herbicides we use the maximum rate (really cuts down on the need for additional applications which in the end is less pesticide) and time it so that other methods (canopy of rows) controls weeds.
  • Scout fields – especially when looking for pests to see if they meet at economic threshold for applying pesticides
  • GMOs
  • We use bt corn and cotton. When we don’t have to spray for worms we don’t kill off beneficial insects and then we don’t have to spray for secondary pests such as spider mites.

Question #5: Do you reuse by-products or take advantage of other farms’ by-products?

  • We run cattle too, so after we combine our grass seed, we bale straw for winter feed/bedding, and also bale wheat straw for bedding. Once straw is gone and fields start to re-grow, we use them as summer pasture. Also, a silly example – we got five goats to eat brush. When we bale alfalfa, I pick up the alfalfa the rake missed into a garbage can and take one to the goats every night until the alfalfa gets too big to drive on.
  • We try to keep our straw on the farm and just chop the straw finely. In the end of the hot summer it shades the soil, keeping it a little cooler and helps retain a little moisture and protects the plants and soil a little from the intense late summer heat. As it breaks down it adds organic matter and nutrients back into the soil.
  • I graze all of my grain crops. Reduces tillage.
  • Examples from farms I’ve visited for my Farming in Focus series:
    • by products (1 of 1)Lynn Trupp (March – sheep farmer) uses spent brewers’ grain that he gets for free from a local brewery.
    • Brenda Frketich (April – nine different crops) has an arrangement with a nearby cattle farmer where he cleans up her field by baling leftover plant material from the pea harvest and feeds it to his cows.
    • Marie Bowers Stagg (July – wheat) bales up leftover wheat stubble and sends it to a mushroom farm to become a home for baby mushrooms.
    • Ben Coleman (August – hops) composts leftover plant material and spreads it back on the fields.

Question #6: If you use irrigation, are there ways you’ve made it more efficient? (And other thoughts on water)

  • We adopt new technologies and are constantly looking for ways to conserve water. We’ve gone from flood irrigation to sprinklers to sprinklers heads in bubble modes. Those sprinklers are 97 percent efficient. This year I am installing drip irrigation. Very expensive but it is almost 100 percent efficient.
  • We have done drip, sprinkler, and flood. We now have 100 acres on the underground drip that uses the same amount of water that used to only flood about 40 acres. Using the low drops on the sprinkler has been an excellent upgrade for our 160 acres of alfalfa. As far as water efficiency, the drip is better than the pivot sprinkler and a bizillion times better than flood.
  • water (1 of 1)We have linears with low flow, drop tubes if possible rather than hard hose big guns as they are much more efficient (Sara’s note for the reader: “linears” are big spraying metal arms held between two wheels that slowly rolls across a field and waters from above. “Big guns” are stationary single pivots that water in a circle like you might do in your lawn.) We also have a field in wheat that has a few gently, rolling hills in it and must be worked before planting green beans, so in that field we are leaving all the wheat residue. When we work the soil in the spring, that wheat residue will provide a nice amount of mulch around the surface, which will help prevent the water from running down the hills.
  • We use drip irrigation. We manage storm water through installing roof run off management, critical area stabilization, a heavy use area, woodland management, and structures for water control, including a sediment control pond that has been in use for over 60 years. We use stream fencing to exclude livestock from accessing local streams. Our detailed Nutrient Management Plan is evaluated and updated every three years to address the nitrogen and phosphorous loading into local groundwater that feeds into Chesapeake Bay tributaries. We continue to remain vigilant and do our best to monitor and improve the watershed and soil health of our property.

Question #7: How do you preserve soil quality?

  • We soil test before making fertilizer blends.
  • We currently hold the award for farmers of the year in soil and water conservation for our region in Iowa and enroll in as many conservation stewardship programs as possible to preserve soil quality and minimize pesticide use. By lowering boom height on sprayers, having wider buffer zones from waterways, using no-till methods and cover crops, keeping beneficial insect habitats in place, etc. we are pretty proud of our farm practices.
  • Over the last 30 years our conventional farm has been inducted into our state Ag Hall of Fame and been awarded our county Soil Conservation Farm of the year (twice!) and Small Business of the Year, partially for our work in improving our farm to be as environmentally friendly as possible.
  • We use a variety of methods for soil quality – soil testing, amendments, micronutrient application, minimum and no-till when applicable.
  • This is huge to us. Our farm was not in great shape when we bought it, and we have put so much into improving the soil. The biggest issue to us was low pH, so we have put on lots of lime and our pH levels are now perfect for what we grow. This is important as nutrients in the soil are more available to the plant when you have the right pH. Furthermore, we switched to mostly no-till. This turned out to have huge, unexpected benefits to the soil. Increased earth worm activity, increased organic matter which improves water holding capacity and makes the soil more “mellow.”
  • We do conventional tillage but our equipment leaves a lot of plant material on the surface to control erosion (54 mph winds yesterday and the soil wasn’t blowing), we use field tile to control surface runoff, we have buffer strips along waterways. We also don’t remove plant matter (corn and soybean stalks) but till it in.
  • We are exclusively no-till and have been for 15 years. We keep water ways and highly erodible land in grass. We soil test and apply nutrients accordingly. We also use a stripper header for our cereal grains which leaves 99 percent of the crop residue in the field.
  • No-til when possible which greatly reduces soil erosion. We soil tests every year and put on compost and manure.

That’s all for the Q&A – I hope you learned a few cool things. I’ll leave you with a final thought on sustainable farming from one of the farmers who responded, “Personally, I’m in favor of taking the very best out of all management systems and combining them to suit your own farm. We can do best for our farms and soils if we adapt our management based on our own situation, and not get tied into a set of inflexible rules. I have nothing against organic agriculture. In a lot of ways, organic farmers have done a better job of nourishing and protecting their soil than conventional farmers, but I think conventional farmers are catching up. We can always learn to do better, and that is one of the things that is really exciting about being a farmer.”

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Are Conventional Farmers Doing it Wrong? 1 of 2

I just finished reading the book Tomorrow’s Table. It’s co-written by an intriguing married couple: he’s an organic farmer and she’s a plant genetic scientist.  I had really high hopes for a book that argues in support of combining organic agriculture and biotechnology.  If this book could reach the organic consumer, we might be headed to the middle ground necessary to feed our growing population.

It took me four months to finish it and it’s less than 200 pages. I finally got tired of it looking at me from the bedside table, and I reached the renewal limit at the library so I forced myself to finish it.

I should be fair. There are excellent points made in this book, especially for people who are solidly in the organic, GMO-hating camp or even those who are only leaning that way and working to form a fact-based opinion. The book does a good job of softly addressing and alleviating concerns associated with GMOs and clearly outlining the benefits and necessity of biotechnology for solving problems unsolvable by other methods. The take-home message is a truly important one – biotechnology has a place in organic agriculture, the two are not and should not be mutually exclusive. Getting over the ideological hurdle that divides GMOs and organic is a monumental task, and these authors offer a uniquely personal perspective on how we can bridge that gap.

IMG_20140705_122648136But back to why I didn’t like it: I really wanted to be open-minded and like Raoul, the organic farmer who wrote only two chapters. But in the end, I just couldn’t stomach his I’m-better-because-I’m-organic attitude. One page into his first chapter I read this, “The goal of conventional farming is high yields and inexpensive food. The goal of organic farming is health: health of the soil, the crop, the farmer, the environment, and the consumer.”

And that’s only just the beginning. He makes conventional farmers out to be pesticide-wielding, mono-cropping old-timers who only care about the bottom dollar and just haven’t gotten the memo about caring for the “soil, the crop, the farmer, the environment, and the consumer.” In contrast, he makes organic farmers out to be agricultural martyrs – hard working, salt-of the earth big thinkers who are doing it the “right” chemical-free way, even if it doesn’t make a lot of money, yields less and means sometimes you get worms in your corn.  I was so pissed off when I read that chapter that I literally got out of bed and booted the computer back up so I could write down my idea for this post.

Are conventional farmers doing it wrong? Are organic farmers the only ones using crop rotation and cover crops? Are they the only ones who have heard about beneficial insects and are the only ones thinking about soil quality? Are they the only ones with concerns about water quality and pesticide run-off? Are they the only ones thinking about the consumers who eat the food and the families that live and work on the farm?

No, of course not. To suggest that organic farmers care about the health of the soil, the crop, the environment, and the consumer and conventional farmers don’t is at best disingenuous at worst just flat out lying.

The very common insinuation that they are, in fact, doing it wrong is the reason conventional farmers get pissed off about organic agriculture. It’s the reason almost every conventional farmer I’ve ever met does an eye roll when they read organic marketing. I’m not even a farmer, but I’m tired of implications that conventional farmers don’t care, don’t know, are old-fashioned, and are ignorant because if they weren’t those things, they’d farm organically.  Don’t fall for that nonsense because it’s just not true.

Frketich_preview-1I put out a few messages on Facebook asking conventional farmers to tell me what I already know: conventional farmers do farm sustainably, in the true sense of the word – in a way that can be sustained long-term.  I wanted examples I could share that would help people see that conventional farmers are doing it right, and constantly working to do it better.  I asked seven questions, and tomorrow I’ll post verbatim answers I got from farmers who responded, but here’s the bottom line: many conventional farmers do the same things organic farmers do in terms of caring for the soil, environment, crop and consumer. They use cover crops, crop rotation and beneficial insect populations when it makes sense on their farm. Every single farmer who responded to my questions had detailed ways that they reduce pesticide use and preserve soil and water quality. Are there some farmers who probably aren’t doing it right? Maybe, but that goes for organic farmers, too. People are people, and a label, be it organic, local, or natural is not going to help you distinguish the right from the wrong.

I’ll be back tomorrow with specific questions and answers about conventional farming practices, but for now I’ll leave you with a quote from one of the farmers who responded to my questions, “We’re in farming because it’s in our blood. It’s what our families have been doing for generations, and it’s why we CARE. We care about the land, because it’s as important as family, it’s part of who we are. We care about the environment because it’s what makes up the land. We care about the animals because they allow us to make our living and we are grateful for them. We care about the crops we raise because we care about the consumers that buy them. We care.”

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Farming In Focus: April – Dairy

This is my second Farming in Focus post as part of a new project where I visit at least one farm each month and do kind of a day-in-the-life of a farmer through photo essay. This month I focused on dairies – I visited three, in fact. I had an ulterior motive, though, because I’m simultaneously working on a story about milk labels (more on that later) so I wanted to sample a few different approaches to milk-production, if you will. I visited one dairy in Oregon and two dairies in Washington as part of a trip I took to Spokane for the AgChat Pacific Northwest Regional Agvocacy conference.  This is also why I’m a few days late with this post – I have too much on my plate!

First I visited Cloud Cap Farms, an organic dairy in Boring, Oregon. (It’s really not all that boring, though, it was really interesting.)CloudCap Farm-1Melissa Collman is a fourth generation dairy farmer. Her family’s  dairy has been in business since 1924 and chose to go organic in 2004 as a way to financially stabilize their business. Organic dairies get paid a contracted price for their milk, where most conventional dairies get paid a fluctuating price based on current market value. Part of being organic means they are unable to treat their cows with antibiotics. One way that they reduce the need for antibiotics is to “hutch” raise their calves (each calf in it’s own hutch with an outdoor paddock) instead of “mob” raise them (all together). This way if one calf gets sick, they don’t all get sick. After about 60-90 days, they are moved to a group environment. If a cow does get sick, they try to use alternatives to antibiotics, but in the event that a cow gets something like pneumonia that can only be treated with antibiotics, they either treat with antibiotics and sell the cow to a conventional dairy or, very rarely, euthanize the cow.

CloudCap Farm-2One difference Collman has noticed since they went organic is that they feed their cows less than they used to, and as a result the calves are smaller and require less assistance in birth and the cows have fewer Displaced Abomasum (DA) or twisted stomachs. As a downside to not feeding the cows so much, they produce less milk. Part of that difference is because the components of the feed is different – for example, they can’t feed cottonseed or beet pulp because they can’t source it organically, and even if they could it would be cost-prohibitive. They currently feed their cows a forage-based feed with about ten percent grain, whereas when they were conventional they feed them about 25 percent grain. While the contracted price they get for their milk stays the same, they do suffer fluctuations in feed costs.  “It’s been a rough few years for us, I’m not going to lie,” Collman said. “The cost of feed is going up and not going down – the drought in California is hurting farmers. I really feel for my conventional counterparts who don’t get that contracted milk price.”

CloudCap Farm-3Something that really surprised me as I was walking around all three dairies is the amount that cows poop. Seriously, non-stop pooping. They poop where they lay, eat, sleep. They poop when they get up, they poop while they’re laying down. It sounded like someone continually dumping bags of oranges on the ground (and I’m not even going to talk about the pee-faucet those cows turn on.) So, what to do with all that poop? Most dairies have a lagoon to which they move all the manure. On Collman’s dairy, they flush manure water down these chutes and out into the lagoon. They separate the “solids” into a compost that they use to fertilize their alfalfa fields and re-circulate the manure water to wash out the barn. Stinky, but efficient.

CloudCap Farm-4One requirement for organic dairies is the cows must be on pasture, but Collman’s dairy was pasture-based before they went organic, so that made it a little easier for them. “I still thought we were amazing farmers as conventional farmers,” said Collman. She noted that she doesn’t believe organic is just a marketing ploy, that they truly believe in what they do and this production method is a good fit for  her family. “But what’s best practice on our farm isn’t necessarily best practice on another farm,” she said.


Next I visited Stauffer Dairy, about an  hour north of Spokane, Washington.

Stauffer farm-1

Brandon and his wife Krista milk about 150 cows on their first-generation dairy they started in 2009. They also have three young kids who were dashing about the whole time I was there, climbing on fences, hanging on Krista and trying to coerce me into coming to see their baby chicks. They seemed immensely happy to be there and to show me their way of life. Part of that way of life is to rake out and level the stalls twice a day, as Brandon is doing here. All the stalls get new pine shavings weekly. The heifers were moved from outside to be checked by their veterinarian before being moved to summer pasture and in this photo are in a corner of the freestall barn that isn’t normally used for milk cows. Krista also pointed out that some of the stalls need to be repaired. “Cow size stalls  and young heifers do not mix well. As you can see they made a mess and it is a work out to clean up after them.” Summer pasturing provides a welcome break for that particular chore.

Stauffer farm-2

While the cows were in the parlor being milked, Brandon was cleaning out the barn. (I like to think of him as a manure management engineer.)He drove this tractor equipped with what looked to me like a reverse-snow plow and shoveled those massive amounts of manure I mentioned before into their lagoon. Unlike Collman, their dairy is not set up to flush the manure into the lagoon, so they must push it out manually. Yes, those wheels are covered in cow manure and yes,  he’s smiling about it. You couldn’t pay me enough to do that job. Props to him, though, he didn’t bat an eye. The tractor scrapes all the manure to a slot that then transfers it to the lagoon. All the Stuaffers’ manure is used as fertilizer for feed that is grown for their farm as well as a neighboring dairy farm.

Stauffer farm-3

After filling up with feed, Brandon feeds the heifers in a transition pin (a heifer is a young female cow that has not yet had a calf.) The heifers stay in this transition pen for a short period after they are weaned off milk to be monitored for health, and checked by the veterinarian to make sure all is well. Then they are vaccinated for bangs (Brucellosis, a reproductive disease) and moved to pasture.  Stauffer farm-4The Stauffers purchase all of their feed – they feed a combination of alfalfa hay and silage, mixed with grass, barley and corn. Hay is dried forage like grass or alfalfa where silage is fermented forage.  I mentioned to Krista that Cloud Cap Farms has experienced fewer assisted births and DAs since they went organic. I asked her if they felt like conventional dairies suffered more in that regard than organic dairies. She told me, “Each farm is different. On our farm, we rarely have a DA, maybe once a year. As far as pulling calves, it is not common practice on our farm.”stauffer-6The Stauffers have 25 calves on whole milk right now. The feed changes as they get older, but one thing that remains constant is that they are feed alfalfa hay and/or silage as well as barley for their grain.


The last farm I visited was Douglas Falls Creamery and Barton Hay in Colville, Washington.

Barton farm-1Angie Barton and her husband, Dennis, own Douglas Falls Creamery, a certified raw milk micro-dairy on 470 acres two hours north of Spokane. They can only farm 80 of those acres (the rest are mountainous) but they lease an additional 100 acres  for a total of 180 acres to grow alfalfa, alfalfa/grass hay and barley or oat hay for the local goat, horse and family cow market. Barton is an animal expert with 40 years of experience  – she started working with goats when she was five years old. On their farm they have horses, Jersey cows, Icelandic and Friesian sheep, Alpine goats, one donkey, one pony, one llama, guinea pigs, two pot-bellied pigs, Blue Slate turkeys, laying hens, banty chickens, ring-necked doves, Japanese quail, emus (seen in this image), geese, Muscovy ducks, guinea fowl, pigeons and two dogs. They also have Barton’s four children and her niece living with them on their farm.

Barton farm-2I’ll freely admit that I’m not a morning person (and my husband will back me up on this) but I got up at 5:30 a.m. to take pictures of Barton’s twin daughters, Ellie (seen here) and Claire doing the morning chores. I said to Claire, “You do this every single morning?” and she said, “Yes. And every evening.” I said, “How do you go on vacation?” and she said, “We haven’t gone on vacation all together since we got cows.” Twice a day from March through November Ellie hand milks six to eight goats. And it was 30 degrees out there!

Barton farm-3 Barton got certified to sell raw milk in September of 2012 and they sell approximately 75 gallons a month at $4 per half gallon, the rest they mix with grain to feed the chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese and about five butcher hogs per year. In order to sell raw milk, you must have a small herd – Claire milks between three and five cows twice a day. They fully recognize the risk associated with raw milk and Barton told me they only do it for the taste, she doesn’t believe there is a nutritional advantage. “Jerseys have higher butterfat which we skim off mostly, but the milk is sweeter,” she said. “I’m not sure if it is because of the Jersey breed or not being heated or what we feed them, but I always say it’s like a fresh peach off the tree compared to canned peaches. I continue to tell my customers that pasteurized milk is the safest and that we don’t drink it for any other reason than the taste and that we know we can do a safe job, but there is always that risk.”

Barton farm-4

Barton says selling the milk provides them with enough to pay the costs of feed and a little extra, but they also have a hay business and Dennis has a seasonal full-time job. Dennis grew up on a dairy farm and has been in the haying business all his life. She says between all that, it’s enough to get by. “Although we don’t make our living entirely by farming, it just seems to be what we were meant to do and I can’t imagine living and raising a family any other way. I am so thankful that we have this opportunity.”

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Organic Junk Food is Still Junk Food

You know what I’m really tired of hearing? “We eat really healthy food. Every once in a while I feed my kids mac and cheese, but I make sure to buy the organic kind.” Or maybe it’s, “Oh, I only give them Annie’s organic cheddar bunnies, I would never give them Goldfish, those are just loaded with crap.” Or maybe it’s, “I love these organic fruit snacks from Whole Foods, they’re much better for you than the regular ones.” Or, it’s some derivative of one of those – I’m sure you know what I mean.

USDA organic, smart for youI’m calling momsense on that. And if you’re really honest with yourself, mom-who-makes-that-claim, you’ll also admit it’s total crap. I’m sick and tired of moms lying to themselves about the nutritional superiority of a food simply because they bought it at Whole Foods or because it says organic on the label. Look,  I’m not going to make any generalizations about what is or isn’t considered junk food. But if you think the regular version of {insert culprit food here} is junk food, the organic version is STILL junk food. I don’t care if you want to feed your kid cheese crackers or mac and cheese. I feed my kids that kind of stuff sometimes, and I’m not ashamed. I’m not a bad mom, and my kids are very healthy. I’m not judging anyone for that. But own up to it, and admit to yourself that you’re fine with occasionally feeding them those kinds of foods. Don’t pretend that it’s in any way better or that you’re in any way a better mom simply because it’s not Kraft (or Pepperidge Farms, or whatever brand it is that you think is inferior.) Don’t justify your behavior with the organic label. If you really don’t think they should be eating something because it’s nutritionally void, don’t get the organic version because you think it magically turns a food into a slightly better version of that food. That’s complete nonsense.

Now, I can already imagine feathers getting all ruffled. “But, here’s the thing, Sara, I buy those brands because they don’t use artificial flavors and food dyes, not because they’re organic.” Ok, I get that. But let’s be honest about what we’re talking about here. Mac and cheese is not a health food. It’s not the food dye in Kraft Mac and Cheese that makes it junk food; it’s the fact that it has virtually no substance that (in my opinion) qualifies it as a junk food.  And while I agree that food dye is by no means necessary in mac and cheese, the amount that your child is ingesting in a third of a box that you give them once or twice a month is trivial. I guess if you want to boycott Kraft for that, that’s your call. Alternatively, you could just not buy boxed mac and cheese. You could just cook macaroni noodles and make a cheese sauce out of butter, flour, milk and cheese. I’m just saying you have options that don’t include falling for the marketing hype. But I do get it. Everyone has their sticking point. I’m not different – I refuse to eat at Chipotle because their haughty marketing is offensive to farmers.

But that’s not really what I’m talking about here, anyway – I’m not talking about one product per se. I’m talking about this condescending superiority and elitism that many moms effuse because they think they have found a higher-quality version of what really boils down to potato chips. This belief that organic versions of foods are better for you is a real documented thing, too, I’m not just anecdotally pissed off about it. The Cornell Food and Brand Lab did a study in 2013 that demonstrated that people perceive foods (like cookies, yogurt and chips) with an organic label to be more nutritious, have fewer calories and fat, and to be more appetizing and flavorful. The researchers had people taste test the same product, side-by-side, but one was labeled organic and the other not organic. Even though people were eating the exact same cookie just with a different label, they perceived the one labeled organic to be better for them. It’s called the “health halo effect.” It’s pure marketing, and people have fallen for it hook, line and sinker.

saltinesI’ll confess, though. I’ve fallen for claims made on packages before. I used to buy whole grain saltines because I assumed they were better. Whole grains are better, right? Then one day I decided to actually compare the nutrition labels and see how different they are. Not different. At all. Basically the same calories, fat, sugar, protein, fiber, everything. Maybe you could make an argument that there’s more to it than just what the nutrition label says – maybe there’s some other element that would make the whole grain version better, but let’s be honest: they’re saltines not wheat berry salad. So then I decided to compare some other labels. I concluded that there is no substantial nutritional difference between products that many seem to think are vastly different. For example, Annie’s Organic Bunny Grahams actually have slightly more calories annies v honey maid grahamsand fat than Nabisco Teddy Grahams, but are identical in protein, fiber, and sugar content. Annie’s Organic Bunny fruit snacks are also slightly higher in calories and sugar than Mott’s fruit snacks, but not appreciably so. Annie’s Organic shells and cheese were marginally higher in calories, fat, fiber, and protein, and lower in sugar and sodium than Kraft Mac and Cheese, but again, not appreciably so. Pepperidge Farms Whole Grain Goldfish also fared slightly better, nutritionally, than Annie’s Organic Cheddar Bunnies, but not significantly. The bottom line is that these products are not really nutritionally different. You can’t make claims that one is Annies v Motts fruit snackssignificantly nutritionally superior.

I want to be clear about one point. We are lucky to live in a country where we have the choice to buy organic if we want to. Food is cheap and safe here, and it’s great we are free and capable of making whatever choice we want at the grocery store. I also support all farmers – even the organic ones. I don’t blame the organic farmers – they’ve found a niche and they’re supplying a product that is in demand. I blame the consumers for creating this ridiculous demand. The US organic industry is booming, and demand grows every year, it was an estimated $35 billion industry in 2014.  And it’s all because of marketing. When organic certification was being considered, USDA Secretary Dan Glickman said it better than anyone can, “Let me be clear about one thing. The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.” In fact, the organic industry has been accused of  “widespread, collaborative and pervasive industry marketing activities” that have caused “false and misleading consumer health and safety perceptions about competing conventional foods.” Basically, the only way the organic industry makes money is by scaring people about what’s in conventional food. They’re throwing conventional farmers under the bus in order to sell a product.  They’re selling fear, plain and simple. The organic label ONLY distinguishes a process method, it is not a USDA endorsement of that method, nor is it an endorsement of superior safety, nutrition, or environmental stewardship.

It’s been pretty well documented that organic food is not more nutritious. I’ve written previously on how it’s not more sustainable. Organic farmers do use pesticides, and some argue that because they’re less effective, they may be worse for the environment because they have to be used at higher rates and frequencies. Organic food is not safer, either. I’ve also written previously that while organic produce does technically have lower pesticide residues, conventional pesticide residues are so miniscule that there is no significant risk benefit to eating organic. You take bigger risks to your kids’ health everyday simply by putting them in a car. So, like I said, it’s all marketing. So much so that it’s even been called the scam of the decade.

Which brings me to my final point: there is absolutely, categorically, without a doubt nothing superior about believing marketing claims. You are not in an exclusive club because you shop at Whole Foods and buy organic food. I’m not a second-rate mother because I shop at WinCo and buy conventional food. Don’t tell me it tastes better, don’t tell me you think it’s more nutritious, don’t tell me it’s better for the environment, and don’t condescend to me because you think you’ve found the more righteous way to eat. You haven’t. All you’ve really done is come to the exact conclusion that the marketers hope you will: this product is better because the other one is bad.  If you want to keep buying it, that’s your choice. But the only one who’s really winning is the marketers. And, most importantly, this false division of foods based on imaginary superiority of ingredients is creating new and harmful problems in parenting – but I’ll save that rant for another time, I’ve probably preached enough for one day.



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Filed under Just Being a Mommy Stories

Breaking Down the Labels Series – Eggs Part 1.3: Feed/Supplements and Certifiers

Last time I outlined how the chickens live, but there are also labels that talk about what they eat and with what they are supplemented. (I know, right? Man, that’s a lot of labels.) Chicken feed is primarily grain-based (corn, soy, wheat, sorghum, barley, oats), but can include animal protein like meat and bone meal, and also includes supplemental vitamins and minerals.

Vegetarian-fed eggs come from chickens that were fed a vegetarian diet. As I said before, chickens are naturally omnivores, they eat egg in hay-1meat. This is the single most mystifying label to me. Why would you feed a chicken a vegetarian diet? “It doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of the diet of the hen,” Satrum told me. “However, the Internet has done a good job of scaring people about animal proteins. Meat and bone meal is a by-product from slaughter houses and it’s a very good product. It’s cooked, it’s cleaned, it has lots of protein, phosphorous, and calcium. If it wasn’t used as an animal feed it would probably be in a landfill somewhere. So it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. We don’t do it for the bird; we do it because it makes the marketing easier.” You heard that right, from a third-generation chicken farmer, his answer was basically: because the Internet told them so. So how do farmers make sure these chickens get the proper nutrition from a vegetarian diet? Satrum told me they supplement with non-animal derived protein often from soybean meal and mined calcium and phosphorus. Instead of feeding the chickens an existing product that has lots of the nutrition they need, we put it in a landfill and feed them stuff we have to mine out of the earth … OK, then.

Omega-3 enriched eggs are from hens that have been fed a diet supplemented with things like flax seed, marine algae or fish meal to increase omega-3 levels. There are different types of omega-3 fatty acids, but the bottom line is that they are believed to play an important role in your health: normal blood clotting, brain function, prevention of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and some inflammatory and auto-immune diseases.   Chhatriwalla told me that several studies have shown that the supplementation of chicken feed with omega-3 fatty acids will produce eggs significantly higher in omega-3’s, some as much as a 40 fold increase. “That being said,” she said, “levels that high would not taste good due to the fishy aroma of omega-3’s.”  All eggs naturally contain about 30 mg of omega-3 per egg, supplemented eggs around 100-200 mg. The tricky part, Chhatriwalla pointed out, is that no one really knows how much omega-3 you need.  Health experts recommend one serving of omega-3 rich foods per day (around 1000 – 1500 mg).  You can get that through about a serving of fatty fish like salmon, a tablespoon of canola or soybean oil, or a handful of walnuts or ground flaxseed. You would have to eat six to seven omega-3 enriched eggs to get that requirement.

Hormone-free eggs are quite possibly the most blatantly misleading label, because there aren’t any eggs that have added hormones. The USDA does not allow the use of hormones in poultry production. This is so misleading that the FDA requires any label making claims about no added hormones include a statement that says, “Hormones are not used in the production of shell eggs” in order to prevent consumers from thinking some eggs do contain added hormones. That’s not roundabout at all…

IMG_20140628_111548178Antibiotic-free labels are also a little misleading because all eggs in the US are antibiotic free, even if they don’t say so, because by FDA regulation, any eggs produced by hens being treated with antibiotics for illness would not be sold for human consumption. “In general antibiotics are used rarely in commercial egg production, because pullets, young hens, are vaccinated for appropriate diseases and management conditions keep the vectors of disease away from the birds,” said Hermes. “Stated simply, commercial layers raised indoors rarely get sick.” He also pointed out that in organic production, any medicated birds, young or old, must be removed from the organic stream, none of their eggs can be labeled organic. I found that part particularly interesting. So what happens to the “organic” hen when she’s recovered and off antibiotics? Can she be moved to a non-organic stream? “That is what is supposed to happen,” said Hermes, “however that assumes that the organic producer has a place to put these now ‘non-organic’ birds and an outlet for non-organic eggs.  The large commercial producers with some dedicated non-organic production could do this, however the logistics are difficult in these cases. The small producer with a few dozen or even a few hundred hens may not have an outlet.  In most cases I suspect that these birds are euthanized.” That right there is a reason, in my opinion, to not buy organic or antibiotic-free eggs. If you needed a reason.

Organic eggs come from hens that have been fed an organic diet without any direct-fed animal protein (but I think they can still eat bugs if they catch them.) I’m including this in the food and supplements section because the organic feed part is the only thing that really differentiates these eggs. Certified organic eggs are verified by third-party certifiers as mandated by the National Organic Program and must also meet other requirements: they have to be cage-free, they have to have access to the outdoors (but amount, duration and quality is undefined – for example it could be a parking lot and the birds may not even use it) and the use of hormones and antibiotics are prohibited (the hormone part is redundant since it’s prohibited in all poultry production, organic or not.) We’ve already discussed all those other elements, so the only thing new is the certified organic feed.  You’re probably already familiar with my thoughts on organic, but if not, see here and here.  To sum it up, you’re not limiting your exposure to pesticides in any meaningful way by eating organic eggs, and there is no substantial nutritional difference.

Third-party certifiers

chicks-1Oh yes, there’s more. If just the different ways of raising hens and what they’re fed isn’t enough, there are also claims on labels that talk about the third-party certifiers. It seems this is a way to make it easier for the consumer to know if they’re getting what they think they’re getting; a voluntary accountability system, so to speak. That would be fine if there weren’t a handful of different ways to get certified, making it even more complicated than before. Each certification system has different requirements for the duration and quality of indoor/outdoor systems, how much space each bird gets, what they eat, etc. I asked both Karcher and Hermes if they could recommend one certification system that they thought did it best. They both agreed they’re just variations on a theme. In fact, when I asked Karcher which one he could recommend that could help a regular person feel like they’re doing the “right thing” without getting duped he said, “Ha! When you find the answer to this one, please share!! Seriously though, every third party certification is, in my opinion, a one-up from the other one to entice the consumer to believe that this particular certification is the best. If consumers take the time to read the certification programs, they would find slight differences amongst them. Depending on what a ‘regular’ person believes, will ultimately dictate which program is the best.”

At the very least, most of the third party certifiers have definitions for what free-range and pasture-raised means, so that’s something. I’m not going to go more into the specifications of all the certification systems because it’s too lengthy, and I had a difficult time finding a good scientific source that listed each certification system without disparaging the others.  Eighty percent of all eggs produced in the United States are produced under the United Egg Producers certified guidelines, so that’s a good place to start. Others to look into are: Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, American Humane Certified, and Food Alliance Certified.

One very last point that’s worth noting: it’s easy for consumers to change their opinions on how laying hens should be raised. It’s not so easy for producers – they have already committed significant amounts of money to certain production systems. Imagine that you’ve already got millions of dollars dedicated to conventional housing systems and then California voters decide they don’t like your system. You can’t make that change quickly or easily, and, ironically, if you’re a small producer it might be financially impossible. It’s going to take time, and as consumers, we have to appreciate that. “In my experience of nearly 27 years in Poultry Extension,” said Hermes, “the poultry and egg industries are committed to producing safe, high quality products for their consumers, while being dedicated to the welfare of the birds.  So while public opinion in recent years has decided that caging is bad for hens, even though the science favors cages for their physical well-being, industry can’t make sweeping changes that cost millions of dollars over night.”

That’s it! That’s all I think you need to know on eggs. Now I’m off to have an omelet. I hope this helps you use your Momsense to make informed decisions as well. Stay tuned for the next in this Breaking Down the Labels Series: a look into labels for the actual poultry we eat.

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Filed under Using my MomSense

What Does Local and Organic Mean to You?

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?

IMG_20140613_153607760_HDRI 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.

IMG_20140327_105638394Ok, 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.  red pepper-1A 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. workers-1So 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.

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Filed under Something to Think About

How Dirty is the Dirty Dozen?

EWG protest photo-1I have a confession to make: I have, on a few very limited occasions and against my better judgment, bought organic produce because I thought it was better for my family. Shocking, I know. I just wrote a story about what a good job I think the EPA and the USDA do to help ensure our produce has safe, minuscule levels of pesticide residue. How could I be so hypocritical? The answer is fear in parenting. Like so many other parents, I was (marginally and with doubts in my mind) temporarily frightened by media reports that perhaps some produce contained dangerous levels of pesticides and we would be better off with organic. Where would I get that idea? From a list called the Dirty Dozen. Rest assured, though, I have regained my composure and I am back on the conventional produce horse. Worry not, it won’t happen again, because now I know more about how wrong the Dirty Dozen list is than I used to.


The Dirty Dozen is a list put together every year by a group called the Environmental Working Group. The EWG is a US-based environmental advocacy organization that takes on issues ranging from sunscreen to genetic engineering to cell phone towers and cosmetics. The EWG is well known for the Dirty Dozen list which uses publicly available data to rank produce according to levels of pesticide residue.  The list has been expanded to include the top 15 “dirtiest” produce; those the EWG has determined have the most pesticide residue. The EWG recommends consumers buy organic options of these “most contaminated fruits and vegetables.” The group also puts together the Clean Fifteen, which is a list of fruits and vegetables that fall at the bottom of the EWG’s ranking system for pesticides, ones you can buy conventional without feeling badly about it.

As you might expect, this concept is popular among parents. We’re always trying to balance doing the very best thing for our kids with the impact to our bank accounts. Not everyone can afford organic, so it’s inviting to hear someone say: “hey, don’t sweat it, you don’t always have to buy organic! Just focus on these specific items.” That helps parents feel good. They can check the “doing the right thing” box and move on.

It’s not surprising many parents use this list – the media regurgitates the Dirty Dozen like a mother bird feeding hungry chicks. The EWG packages its message in tidy little soundbites that basically write the stories themselves. Everyone covers it: CBS NewsCNNHuffington PostGood HousekeepingForbesFox NewsShapeWebMDPBS, even Oprah. I could go on and on, all you need to do is a simple Google search.

Seems legit, right? While I have heard the Dirty Dozen talked about in mom circles for years, even enough to convince me to throw a few extra dollars at the idea once or twice, I never actually looked at the EWG’s website to see where the data came  from. I recently did a casual Facebook survey to see how much my mom-friends know. Of the 24 who responded from across the US, 83 percent had heard of the Dirty Dozen and 75 percent could name two items on the list. Conversely, only 21 percent knew who was behind the Dirty Dozen, and only 8 percent had an idea about how the list was put together.

So how is the list created? Turns out, not very scientifically. The EWG states on its website that it uses data available from the USDA and FDA to create six evenly-weighted metrics to rank produce. Not a single one takes the tolerance level (what the EPA deems a safe exposure level) of the pesticide into account; the metrics and methodology don’t consider whether the amount present is actually a problem or not. The EWG’s metrics are instead weighted to basically vilify the mere existence of pesticide residue without consideration of whether the amount present is within the safety limits set by the EPA.


Not only are these metrics pretty questionable, but the EWG doesn’t make the subset of data it uses available for the public to view.  Without access to the specific data from the USDA and FDA that the EWG claims to be using, it is nearly impossible for anyone to verify or reproduce the EWG’s results.  Not surprisingly, this also makes it difficult to refute or differently interpret the EWGs findings. Nowhere on its site does the EWG even link to the USDA or FDA’s websites. I think I figured out where the EWG gets the numbers, but how would you know for sure if it isn’t said? After looking over the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program reports, I’m still not certain how all six of those metrics are determined or how the ranking system is created. Now, I’m not a scientist, so maybe it’s easier for someone familiar with that data to figure it out. But when you ask scientists, the consensus is disagreement with the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list.

In 2011, the Journal of Toxicology, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, published a study that concluded the EWG’s methodology does not follow any scientific procedures and does not back up their claim that you can avoid pesticides by eating organic varieties of the “most contaminated fruits and vegetables.” Steve Savage, a plant pathologist who has spent his career in agricultural technology, did an independent analysis of the data and concluded the EWG is misleading consumers. The Alliance for Food and Farming, a non-profit group made up of farmers and farm organizations, commissioned an expert panel of five scientists (one of whom has 22 years of experience at the EPA) to evaluate the EWG’s Dirty Dozen and those scientists concluded it is unscientific. Forbes contributor Henry I. Miller did an opinion piece on the EWG’s unscientific-ness, which I thought was great, but sadly it was an opinion piece, not a news article.

Does anyone else find it ironic that we, as consumers, demand that scientists back up their claims with data and peer-review before we even reluctantly (read the comments) consider them, yet moms seem convinced by what appears to be an unscientific, intentionally opaque analysis that isn’t peer-reviewed? Clearly, this gets me fired up.

So I reached out to Teresa Thorne at the Alliance for Food and Farming to talk to her about what the science really says. Her bottom line was that moms should not be afraid to feed their kids fruits and vegetables. “We don’t advocate for organic or conventional, whatever choice you make is the right one for your family when you’re choosing to eat fruits and vegetables,” she said. Thorne said the Alliance is concerned that the EWG is using fear and language that is making people hesitate to buy produce. “Moms deserve truthful, credible information. There are decades of research showing it’s safe; farmers are doing a very good job.”


Thorne also had questions about the EWG’s methodology and lack of information on its website. “In today’s world, when you are putting out a new report or study, why wouldn’t you reference the USDA data you use?” Thorne said.  “Why don’t they link to the data? The answer is the EWG doesn’t want people to know what the USDA and EPA say. Because they say it’s safe.” The USDA just recently released the newest Pesticide Data Program results, again confirming that pesticide residues do not pose a safety threat. Thorne encourages consumers to read that report, but if they don’t want to read the whole report (and it’s long, trust me) at least look at the press release and look at the USDA’s “What Consumers Should Know” sheet about the report. “The EWG manipulate that data and turn it into something very negative, when the government report is very positive,” said Thorne.

Interestingly, let’s take a listen to what the mainstream media has reported on the recent USDA report saying our fruits and veggies are safe: … [insert sound of crickets chirping] … nada.

The EWG often argues that the EPA’s safety limits are too lax and if consumers want to be sure they’re safe they should eat organic. But Thorne brought up a good point that organic consumers might not think about. “The fact of the matter is that the laws and regulations are stringent and protective,” Thorne said.  “Those laws and regulations aren’t just protecting consumers for conventional produce; they’re also for organic produce. Organic pesticides go through the same scientific process as conventional ones. It’s dangerous to damage that credibility unjustifiably. Doesn’t that undermine both?” That’s an interesting point. Especially since, as far as I know, the USDA doesn’t test organic produce for residues of approved organic pesticides.

I also reached out to the EWG for clarification on some of these issues: namely why it doesn’t link to the data, present the data on its website, or submit to peer-review? Also why doesn’t the methodology take tolerance into account, and what’s the EWG’s stance on organic pesticides? After some back and forth, I was told they won’t answer my questions until after they release the 2014 list later this week. (I get it; I used to work in PR.) So I’ll get back to you on that. I’m planning a follow-up article on the media coverage of this year’s Dirty Dozen and I will include the EWG’s answers to those questions.

We can anticipate that the EWG is going to, yet again, misconstrue the USDA’s positive report this week when it releases the 2014 Dirty Dozen list. The EWG will take that data and twist it around and try to convince you to buy organic options to help protect your family from “harmful pesticide residue”. Don’t fall for it. Don’t let the media feed you information and don’t let an activist group make decisions for you about what’s safe and what’s not. Use your Mom Sense, look into the science, and reach your own conclusions.



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Filed under Using my MomSense

The Unintended Consequences of Organic

After I launched this blog, one of my very best friends reminded me that the reason lots of moms make the choices they do, including buying organic, is because they’re trying to do their very best to reduce their children’s exposure to chemicals they see as harmful. She said, “If you can reduce their exposure just a little bit, doesn’t that make sense?”

I agree – it makes perfect sense.  Sometimes.

I’m no different than any other parent. I want to minimize my kids’ risk, I want them to be safe, and I hope that I’m making good, informed choices. One of the most difficult parts of being a parent is bearing the burden of making decision for someone’s long-term future without any input from them. I find that overwhelming at times; it’s scary thinking you might make the wrong choices.

What some people don’t appreciate, though, is that the choices we make have far-reaching effects.  While this is true to some extent in many contexts, this is especially true with food.

on the tractor-1

For many things, like avoiding sun exposure, the only people impacted by your decisions are you and your family. But with food, you’re impacting the entire agricultural system, from the marketers who are trying to say things on the package that consumers might want to hear, to the breeders who make selections based on what they think consumers want, to the people across the world who just want food at all. When you vote for organic with your pocketbook, it impacts a connected system that we share on a global level. Agriculture relies on our shared, finite resources like water and land.

This is where the challenge of making decisions becomes even harder, because sometimes what seems like a no-brainer turns out to be more complicated. The only way to solve it, I think, is to properly evaluate the risk against the benefit. People are willing to take extreme risks with their safety when they can experience a clear benefit. For example, one of the biggest risks we take every day is getting into a car. According to the CDC, accidents or unintentional injuries is the fifth leading cause of death in the United Sates. Motor vehicle accidents make up the largest part of that category; more than 33,000 people died in a motor vehicle accident in 2010. Yet most of us strap our kids into a car almost every single day. We take that risk because we can see a clear benefit.  As consumers, we don’t see the benefit of conventional farming, but we think we can identify a risk, so it seems easy to make that choice.

The benefit is there, but we just might not see it. Conventional farming yields 25 percent more, on average, than organic farming. That means for every acre of land that’s farmed organically, we could be feeding a quarter more people if we used conventional methods. Not only that, but organic farming reduces the efficiency of all the inputs required to grow food: water, fertilizer, pesticides (yes, organic farmers also use pesticide), and fuel (to plant, manage, harvest and to transport the food).

If we had infinite resources this wouldn’t be an issue, but we don’t, and it is an issue. The amount of land that we commit to agriculture is shrinking as our population grows. The FAO projects our population will grow by one third between 2009 and 2050 and predicts we’ll need to raise food production by about 70 percent over that time. This feat will take all the tools we have, and that includes technology. I’m not saying that organic farming doesn’t have a place in that, it surely does. Having the choice to buy organic is a luxury in the United States, and I’m OK with having choices. But we need to be encouraging the overall system to be sustainable and efficient; using the fewest resources necessary to responsibly get the most out of every acre. If a farmer can do that, but doesn’t qualify for “USDA certified organic,” we should be voting for that.

When the choices that we make at the supermarket start a movement that impacts those in other parts of the world who don’t really have the luxury of choice, I’m not OK with it. There are farmers in India that really don’t have the luxury of farming organically; they need every bushel to feed their family. There are starving people in Africa that would love to have our conventionally farmed produce, because it would be food to feed mouths.

I can’t complete this post without harping on another fact: let’s acknowledgecarrots and zucchini-1 the fact that organic farmers also use pesticide. They use organic pesticides, but they’re still pesticides. Classifying a pesticide as “organic” does not mean that pesticide is harmless or even safe.  As with any pesticide, what matters is how much residue is present compared to how toxic that residue is. You simply cannot grow crops without controlling weeds and bugs – any backyard gardener knows this. My first year gardening in the Pacific Northwest, I lost an entire head of romaine lettuce literally overnight to slugs because I didn’t know I had to apply slug repellent.  I’m working on a more in-depth story on organic pesticides, so stay tuned for that, but remember that organic is not equivalent to pesticide-free.

I empathize with parents who choose organic because they’re trying to avoid exposure to pesticide. I understand what you’re aiming to do, but the benefit to your family (if any) doesn’t outweigh the risk to the global food supply. As I outlined in a previous post, there isn’t a real risk when you eat conventional produce, but there is a real benefit: efficiency in the use of our shared resources. And the availability and affordability of food for our children, our children’s children, and children in other parts of the world you will never meet but should probably care about, is a clear benefit.

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Filed under Something to Think About

Why My Family Eats Conventional Produce

I can’t tell you the number of conversations I’ve had that go like this:

Me: Let’s go apple picking!


Mom-friend: Yes! Let’s find an organic or spray-free orchard, though.

Me: Why?

Mom-friend: I want to avoid pesticides; I just don’t think the government does enough to guarantee our produce is safe.

Me: Really? Do you know what they do during that process?

Mom-friend: Um, no. Do you?

Me: Um, no. But I bet it’s a lot.

When I hear that line of argument against conventional produce (“I just don’t trust the EPA/USDA/FDA”) I want to drag that mom over to the computer and pull up the EPA’s website and walk her through some of the information they have on their website. But, believe me, it’s not very fun. I could write a whole post on why I think the EPA, USDA and FDA need serious help organizing and clarifying the information that’s on their websites. I’ve recently looked through a lot of it, for this and some future articles, and it’s almost as fun as trying to get your toddler to find the shoes they’ve hidden somewhere in your house when you’re late (never mind, you don’t need shoes, let’s go.) Perhaps this is why few consumers actually take the time to look into what the USDA and the EPA do. It’s tedious and science-y.

I thought it would be useful to actually investigate some of the things that I don’t think parents really think about when they toss aside the extensive work our regulatory bodies do to help reassure us that conventionally grown produce (those that are sprayed with synthetic pesticide) is safe. If you don’t read any further in this article (because I am going to talk about studies and use words like “tolerance level s” and “toxicology”) I will try to sum it up for you here: They do a lot. It’s extensive and exhaustive. At the end of the day, I feel very confident that they have looked at it from all angles and have put regulations in place that err on the side of caution to reassure us our produce is safe.

getting rid of weedsBut don’t take my word for it. Let’s take a look at what happens when a company wants to start selling a pesticide. Those companies have to do both an environmental and human health assessment, but I’m going to focus here on the human health assessment. It’s a three pronged approach: toxicology studies, establishing a tolerance level and dietary risk assessment.

First, the company (who is really called the registrant) must do toxicology studies. The goal of these studies is to show what effect the pesticide could cause, and to establish a level at which there is no adverse effect in animal testing. The studies systematically expose different mammalian species (such as rats and mice) to the pesticide at varying amounts and measure the effect. The EPA outlines extensively how this must be done; it’s not left up to the registrant. They must measure toxicity arising from acute exposure, chronic exposure, and sub-chronic exposure. They measure inhalation toxicity, oral toxicity, dermal toxicity, carcinogenicity, reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity, and neurotoxicity, just to name a few. Look here for the full testing requirements.  The goal of these studies is to literally uncover the worst possible outcome from exposure to the pesticide. They take extensive tissue samples, analyze them all and determine the dose level at which there are no observed adverse effects, called the NOAEL. Then, because the studies aren’t actually done in humans, and because sensitivity can vary across individuals, a safety factor is applied to the animal NOAEL, which lowers the dose level anywhere from 100-1,000 fold less than the observed level. Using the NOAEL and the safety margin, the EPA establishes what is called a reference dose. A reference dose is an acceptable amount of exposure to a substance that has reasonable certainty it will cause no harm (also known as the safe exposure level).

The registrant also has to do field trials to establish a tolerance level. A tolerance means, assuming farmers use the pesticide according to the legal label (EPA-approved pesticide use instructions), we shouldn’t find produce with pesticide residue exceeding that amount. I don’t think the term “tolerance” is a great one, because I feel like it implies an impact to your health, like how much your body can tolerate. Tolerance is really talking about the maximum anticipated amount of residue on produce. Think of it like a speed limit, only one that you rarely even reach, and even if you go over by a teeny bit, it does not mean certain death. The EPA establishes that level by reviewing extensive registrant-conducted field trials in which the pesticide is sprayed at the maximum labeled rate and the produce is sampled at the shortest interval before harvest. For example, if pest control requires that the pesticide can be sprayed at a maximum of two pounds per acre and no later than seven days before harvest, the field trials will use those conditions. In practice, most farmers will likely not use the full two pounds (pesticides are expensive, they’ll use as little as possible to be effective). The scientists collect all the produce samples from the field trials (done over  one or two seasons throughout the US growing region) and they establish a method to measure the pesticide residue (parent compound plus any metabolites that the pesticide may have been turned into as a result of its interaction with the soil and plant.) The samples are analyzed to determine the concentration of the pesticide residue in the samples collected from all the trials, which may range for example, up to four parts per million (ppm).  Lots of factors affect the residue levels (rainfall, temperature, crop variety, etc.) and they often vary up to 10-fold across all the trials, due to these factors.  The EPA then uses these results in a statistically-based calculation to establish a tolerance, such as five ppm in this example.  The intent is to set a tolerance that is high enough so that it won’t be exceeded if the pesticide was used properly, but is still close to the maximum level measured in the trials.

So now we have the tolerance level (the pesticide shouldn’t occur in the produce above this amount) and the reference dose (people shouldn’t consume more than this in one day.) The only unknown is how much produce do people actually consume? How many apples, for example, do people eat on a daily basis? The EPA uses something called the Dietary Exposure Evaluation Model to figure that out. This database contains survey information for different age groups (infants, young children, teens, elderly, etc.) over different periods of time documenting how much of different foods they ate. The initial dietary risk assessment assumes that everyone is eating the produce for their whole lives that contain residues at the tolerance level. This means that they’re assuming every single acre of apples has been sprayed at the maximum rate and the shortest interval before harvest, and that there is no residue reduction from processing, apples 2-1washing, or cooking. They make the very conservative assumption that every apple you eat has the highest allowable pesticide residue on it, which the USDA knows from the Pesticide Data Program doesn’t happen (more on that in a future article on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen List.) Assessments are made for both acute risk (a single day’s consumption) and chronic risk (a lifetime’s consumption). Acute risk assumes that you eat a very large (95th to 99.9th percentile of surveyed consumption) amount of apples in a single day. Chronic risk is based on average daily apple consumption over a lifetime. The amount of apples eaten under both scenarios is multiplied by the tolerance level to give the worst-case pesticide exposure, which is compared to the relevant reference dose (acute or chronic) to determine if the potential exposure is safe (below the reference dose; don’t forget that the reference dose incorporates a 100-1,000 fold safety margin). It’s especially important to note that these dietary risk assessments are not limited to exposure from a single food (e.g., apples) but are for aggregate summed exposure from all approved food uses of that pesticide, plus any potential exposure from drinking water. Total exposure must fall below the relevant reference dose (with its conservative safety margin) before a pesticide can be approved for use.

It’s also important to understand that the decisions of the EPA are legally binding.  It is a federal crime to promote or use a pesticide in any manner that is not approved by the EPA and printed on the label. When a pesticide use is approved, the EPA reviews the exact text of the label that will be printed to describe its proper use, which cannot be changed without prior re-approval.  States also have authority to review and approve pesticide labels. The residue tolerance levels are enacted by the EPA through rule making, and are printed in the Code of Federal Regulations; food containing residues in excess of the tolerance is adulterated and may not legally be sold or distributed. Only after both federal and state approvals of all these documents are complete is a pesticide “registered” for use.

Whew.  See? Not as flippant as you might think.  Not just one or two studies, not conspiracy theories about pesticide companies hiding data, not just someone from the EPA having dinner with someone from the chemical company and shaking hands about money-making over some scotch while they cackle ominously about the fate of our children’s health. I hope no one actually thinks that, but it would make a good caricature for the op-ed section, no? Real scientists doing real studies that actually try to guarantee safety. This is why I feel confident feeding my family conventional produce, and why I’m calling momsense on being afraid of conventional pesticides.

If you’re interested in the real data, and want to follow the registration of a pesticide from start to finish (ala “How a Bill Becomes A Law” only not animated, and not really fun to watch) follow the below progression. I’ve arbitrarily chosen the pesticide fluazinam, which is a broad spectrum contact fungicide often used on potatoes.

  1. Click here to view the CFR entry for fluazinam tolerances
  2. Open the PDF file at this link to see an example of an EPA dietary risk assessment for fluazinam
  3. Click here to see the Federal Register Rule arising from the fluazinam dietary risk assessment
  4. Click here to see the EPA approval of the fluazinam label based on the above decisions
  5. Click here to view the final printed label translating these regulatory actions into a real pesticide use label

* I have to give extensive credit to my dad for helping me with this article. He spent much of his career working on pesticide label registration and has expert experience navigating the regulatory websites and databases.

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Filed under Using my MomSense