Saturday, April 19, 2008

How to buy Organic without breaking the Bank.

As you can probably guess, I advocate buying locally, organically grown foods as much as possible. But like most people the world over, rising food prices have been hitting me hard. I greatly appreciate that I am not starving as a result of this inflation. I have a job and a roof over my head and I still shop at my local farmers' market. At the same time, as a full time graduate student living in an expensive city, I have had to change my eating habits, mainly by trying to eat out less, and searching for organic bargains (they do exist).

If you are trying to eat healthily and sustainably, but finding that food prices keep you from buying all local and/or organic products, you might want to try shopping selectively. The other day I opened my hotmail account only to see that MSN has come out with a slide show of the top 12 foods that you should buy organic. This handy list of the top ten vegetables, fruits and grains that you should buy organic is from the consumer's union's 2001 report on the EPA.

Why should you buy organic for these particular foods as opposed to any others? As the lists explain, some "conventionally raised" food products can be particularly bad for you. The reasons are legion. To keep it simple, lets tackle each group at a time:

Dairy products and beef: Monsanto's Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) was approved for use by the FDA going on 20 years ago and has raised concerns ever since. This hormone forces dairy cows to produce more milk when raised conventionally and opponents believe that it poses serious health risks to humans. Read more about it at Wikipedia. rBGH aside, milk cows and beef cattle are normally not allowed to graze freely and beef cattle may be force fed in overcrowded stock pens to quickly bring up their weight. Animals are packed so tightly together that heavy doses of antibiotics are necessary to keep down the levels of infection and disease. The same applies to chicken and pig farms, where thousands of animals are jammed together in large buildings. These animals don't merrily run around in a grassy field, in fact, many of them never see the sun in their entire lives.

Even if you don't care about what this does to the animals, it is important to remember that you are what you eat. Stressed out farm animals loaded full of growth hormones, pesticide and herbicide residues and antibiotics not only aren't good for you, they also don't taste as nice. Why do you think they massage wagyu cattle? A happy animal equals better meat and dairy. This goes for eggs too. Crowded and insanitary conditions only increase the chances of salmonella, mad cow disease or other fun stuff making its way into your kitchen.

Fruits and Vegetables: While perusing the two lists that I linked to above you probably noticed that some fruits and vegetables appear on both. So, if you can't afford to buy all organic produce, why should you at least ensure that these particular items are? For two reasons. Some fruits and vegetables have thin permeable skins that allow pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizer residues to soak right in. No amount of washing will remove these chemicals, so if you buy conventional strawberries, peppers, celery or apples, just to name a few, be aware that you will be consuming the residue of up to 40 different fungicides, pesticides and herbicides. Yeah, I said 40. That brings us to number two. Some crops are hit with up to 500 lbs of chemicals per acre (think strawberries). And these aren't innocent chemicals either. Pesticides are meant to kill things, and some are very persistent carcinogens and mutagens. You want to reduce your exposure to these babies as much as possible.

Soy products and Canola: If you buy conventional soy products in the USA, you are pretty much guaranteed to be eating genetically modified (GMO) soy. Most conventional canola oil and other canola products are GMO as well. What's bad about genetically modified organisms? Well, some say nothing and others say a lot. Personally I don't like the effects of the GMOs as they have been observed so far. There is no labeling requirement for GMO products in the USA, so if you want to play it safe, buy organic. Certified organic products cannot be genetically modified.

You can read more about the issue here and here. Or just Google it. This is an ongoing controversy with a lot of people on either side, and if you don't know anything about it and want to learn more, the Internet is full of institutions, corporations and individuals arguing both for and against genetic modification (specifically manipulation, splicing and inserting of genes) of animals and plants. It is important to clarify that genetic modification as it is used here does not mean hybridization, or the natural crossing of different varieties of a plant or animal to yield a new variety. Genetically modified organisms are usually created by inserting genetic material from one plant or animal into the genetic structure of another. For example, Monsanto's infamous Roundup resistant soybeans. If you want to avoid supporting these creations, buy organic soy and canola much as possible.

Wheat products: Conventional wheat has some of the highest pesticide residue levels on the market today. For this reason the Consumers Union suggests that you buy organic wheat and wheat products whenever you can.

The Bottom Line: Of course it all comes down to money. And sadly food, health and economic class are closely intertwined not only abroad but right here in the USA. The bottom line is that sometimes one can't afford to buy organic. At the same time, what we eat is also about choices and priorities. Do we pay for cable TV or do we buy organic veggies instead of conventional ones? Should we splurge on consumer electronics or organic meat? Do we purchase an extra grande cappuccino on the way to work each day or do we use those extra bucks to make sure our fridges are stocked with organic milk instead of the conventional stuff? However, if it ever comes down to either buying organic strawberries or paying the rent, please just put that pint basket down and call it a day.


Anonymous said...

Very helpful guide. Thank you

Anonymous said...

Do you have any info when it comes to rice and dried beans? I've been looking, nothing relevant (other than this blog) comes up on Google, and the only thing I can find on beans is that some types have thin pods that easily allow absorption of pesticides into the bean itself, but it doesn't say which types of beans specifically. I'm interested in long-grain brown rice, wild rice, and small red beans.

Anonymous said...

Check out for some info about beans at least.

Ajie said...

Organic rice for sale, $250/5kg excluding handling fee from Indonesia.