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Telling The Truth About Organics

Madeline Morris |
May 10, 2013 | 11:39 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Organic or not, these strawberries could still harm your health (Glen Euloth / Creative Commons).
Organic or not, these strawberries could still harm your health (Glen Euloth / Creative Commons).
"Organic" is to "conventional" as "Lamborghini" is to "Toyota." Pick up an organic peach and it’s as if you’re holding the nectar of the gods. Trade it in for its "conventional" counterpart and you may as well be a pauper.

Whether you take this view or not, it is a widespread phenomenon. A recent survey by Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab proved that people believe a food to be healthier, more valuable, and even less caloric if it dons that divine "organic" label. 

This apotheosis seemed to crop up overnight and has grown like the wind in the past few years, sprouting into a $29 billion industry. A Birkenstocks-wearing following has found salvation in markets like Whole Foods, one of the key leaders in the organic movement. Nowadays, it seems many would rather eat poison than mass-market, lowbrow fruits, vegetables, and meats. To this cult-like following, conventional foods are poisons, hosting a variety of otherworldly pesticides. 

But it may behoove organic fundamentalists to read up on the latest studies before they spend their life savings on overpriced tomatoes. An anti-organic minority backed by scientific research is on the rise, and they are eager to burst the all-encompassing (at times, holier-than-thou) organic bubble of the 21st century. 

Condemning the organic industry as a hoax and a mass brainwashing, they point to organic produce as the real poison. That flawless, perfectly shaped “organic” apple you are holding is one of discord in disguise. Such mouth-watering organic produce fall under the “too good to be true” category, which we’ve come to know so well in this life. Are these cynical claims valid, or do they stem from bitter conventional food activists?

It’s a hard-hitting debate, and it doesn’t get any easier when you try to look at the facts objectively. Troll the web, and one will quickly find there is no clear-cut definition of what it means to be “organic” and its consequent effects. It could be said that the elevated nutritional value of organics is their most commonly cited virtue, warranting grocery receipts twice as expensive than in years past. 

The Organic Consumers Association agrees, reiterating that “organic food is certainly safer and better than the chemical-doused, genetically contaminated, or irradiated food typically found on grocery store shelves.”

For years, most of us have had this same train of thought, assuming that “natural” always coincides with “better” and “safer.” 

Dr. Bruce Ames, professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at UC Berkeley, has an urgent message for those that accept this ideology. A toxicologist who has devoted his life to preventing disease, Ames speaks of a fearmongering revolution that has dominated the food industry.

Ames conducted a study and discovered that about half of all “natural” chemicals are carcinogenic (capable of causing cancer). So, when you’re proudly enjoying an “organic” broccoli floret, you’re actually ingesting tons of natural chemicals, about half of which are carcinogens. The same applies to pesticides. By his math, our exposure to natural carcinogens in food is 10,000 times greater than our exposure to synthetic carcinogens. 

This truth has not been exposed to the public because, according to Ames, “people are interested in poisoned apples. They’re not interested in non-poisoned apples. That doesn’t sell newspapers.” 

The Environmental Protection Agency supports this point by determining that there is “reasonable certainty of no harm” in regard to pesticides. The EPA says that the amount of pesticides people are exposed to when consuming standard conventional produce is too small to pose any risk at all. That’s not what we are being told.

People like Ames declare that it’s the quality of pesticides that matters, not the amount. Many would be shocked to learn that studies prove “natural” fertilizers used on organics are just as bad, if not worse for you than synthetic pesticides. 

Take Rotenone, one of the most common natural chemicals used in organic farming. Recent studies have shown it to be linked to Parkinson’s Disease, and the United Kingdom put a temporary ban on it until further research. Yet the United States continues to use it exhaustively, even though its potential health hazard is not completely understood. 

However, many, like Dr. Chuck Benbrook, uphold that synthetic pesticides will always be worse than organic. Studies do prove that there are fewer pesticide residuals on organic foods than on conventionally grown counterparts. Benbrook takes a “better safe than sorry” approach, but makes no mention of organic pesticides like Rotenone. 

“By reducing a number of known risk factors for any one of dozens of health problems, consumption of organic food tips the trajectory of population-wide health outcomes in a more health-promoting direction. By how much, no one knows,” said Dr. Benbrook.

Many farmers follow the same approach, and some exhibit extreme pesticide-phobia. Zachary Ghamlouch, co-owner of The Grove, a certified organic family-run farm in Riverside, California, reveals that he and his family use manure from purely organically-fed cows to farm their produce.

Ghamlouch is skeptical when people say that organic fertilizers are harmful.

“If a food is truly organic, it is not going to have anything in it that would cause illness," he said. "Yes, nature is mysterious in all ways, so you might have an anomaly here and there, but the likelihood of it is just way out there.” 

Neelie Hespen, owner of Choc., a gluten-free, organic, and eco-friendly brownie company, also recognizes the value of organics. She makes it a point to source only the very best ingredients for her brownies. However, Hespen believes that not all organics are created equal.

“I’m finding out through more research that just because something is certified organic doesn’t mean it’s the best," Hespen said. "I do my due diligence to find the products, go to the farms, figure out exactly what I am getting, and if I believe in their practices.”

Now this act of "organic infidelity" may infuriate Hespen, but it is a no-brainer to a struggling farmer. Buy low and sell high to maximize profit. When living paycheck to paycheck, it’s almost counterintuitive to buy raw materials at twice the normal price. Instead, it’s much more appealing to invest the minimum and slap on an organic price tag, doubling the profits. 

How is this possible?

The organics industry is still in its early ages and, at $29 billion, it is a business industry. It is too young to have had sufficient government regulation, because if it had, there’d be enough subsidized studies to assess whether or not organic produce truly out-delivers conventional produce. 

As such, we are not at that point. Pesticide use, nutritional value, farming logistics and environmental sustainability are all pieces to the larger puzzle, still waiting to be solved. In a country where critical science behind organics is missing, hidden, exaggerated, or otherwise distorted, it could be a while before we know if those organic peaches were truly divine … or just overpriced. 

Reach Reporter Madeline Morris here. Tweet//Follow her here.



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