I didn’t do much research when I started to prioritize organic food several years ago, but with two kids to feed, I decided I should take a look at the facts to see if organic produce is worth the cost premium. The short answer to my question is yes, the investment in organic produce is worth it, but not for the reasons you might think. This researched helped me keep organic into my budget, and decreased the guilt I’d feel about giving my kids non-organic.
Most people choose organic produce to reduce their exposure to pesticides. There is compelling research that pesticides from food build up in our bodies. (This video summarizes what other more in-depth studies have proven.) The Environmental Working Group’s study of pesticide residue on produce indicates that some samples of a single fruit contained 15 different pesticides. And yet little is being done to study the effects of long-term and combination exposures before bringing a pesticide to market.
Health Canada approves pesticides for use, and declares acceptable exposure limits of both chemical and natural pesticides. However, approval data is focused on exposure rates for direct contact with the pesticide (such as farm workers). It doesn’t appear that manufacturers need to demonstrate safety for low-level long-term exposure (such as through diet), nor is there a review of the impact of combinations of pesticides.
Also missing from most organic vs conventional discussions is the impact of pesticides on those involved in the manufacturing process as they would be exposed to much higher concentrations than either farm workers or consumers. The long-term environmental impacts (soil health, water quality, air quality, etc.) also aren’t thoroughly considered.
It will take time to discover what impact pesticide exposure through food has on our bodies, for both chemical and natural products. Organic certification isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t completely eliminate exposure to toxins – pesticides, regardless of whether they’re chemical or natural are designed to be poisonous, afterall. And if you’re buying organics all year-round, chances are much of it isn’t local. In reality, a combination of conventional and organic produce is a more realistic option for most. And since pesticide residues on produce are very low, eating some conventional produce every now and then isn’t the end of the world (when it comes to your health).
How can you buy organic food on a budget?
Consider using the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) list that ranks 48 fruits and vegetables according to pesticide residues. This Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen ranking isn’t perfect, but it’s one way to prioritize where you spend your money.
I’ve updated my standing grocery list to remind me which products are in the top, middle, and bottom of the list (see resources at the end). I prioritize organics for foods with highest pesticide residues and those that are eaten raw (cooking decreases pesticide content). For produce in the middle and bottom of the list, I factor in cost and local availability and may choose non-organic. This quick reference approach has allowed me to more effectively save money, buy in-season, and support local farmers and organic growers.
Vote with your dollar.
There are many issues to consider when evaluating our food choices, and no single approach will address all of them. But simply being aware of the impact your purchases have on your health, the environment, and farm workers is a step in the right direction. Happily empowered with new information, I’m ready to hit the farmer’s markets. It’s been a long winter, and I’m looking forward to some delicious summer fruits!
P.S. What Does Organic Mean?
Canadian and US organic standards are very similar. They require no: synthetic chemicals (pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics), genetically modified organisms, irradiation, sewage sludge, and synthetic processing aids and ingredients (sulphites, nitrates, nitrites). The organics standard in Canada also includes practices that restore and sustain ecological stability of the farm and surrounding environment.
The search for data on natural pesticides was not very fruitful (pun intended). It seems that the environmental groups and academics are focused on the dangers of chemical pesticides. I didn’t find any solid studies on natural products. (Though there was one literature review that offers some interesting food for thought about characteristics of organic and conventionally grown plants, such as carcinogens, pathogens, pesticide residues, fungi, and chemical composition of the food itself. Its primary findings were that the science on organic practices and its impact on food safety isn’t conclusive.) Another singular study demonstrated that natural pesticides aren’t as selective as chemical versions and kill pests and non-pests alike.
P.P.S. Additional Resources
There is no shortage of editorial-style articles and blog posts about organic vs conventional produce focusing on pesticides (i.e. Slate vs HuffPost). But I chose to focus my research on websites from industry (Monsanto, Dow), environmental groups (EWG, Pesticide Action Network), peer-reviewed scientific journals, and government bodies responsible for food and pesticide safety and certification. Click on the image below for my tipsheet on Organic Food Resources.