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Wednesday, July 31, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Food

Organic produce is growing more popular, but is it really the healthier choice?

Seattle Times staff reporter

Americans are munching organic cherries, crunching organic kale and noshing on organic kiwis and other produce at a record pace. And Seattleites, living in one of the top markets in the country for organic food, are at the head of a worldwide boom in the popularity of organics.

But some underlying questions nettle at the ankles. Does anything more than intuition tell us that organic produce is really healthier for us? Is it actually grown without synthetic pesticides, as most organic growers advertise? Do the pesticide residues found on conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, and lodged in our bodies, pose a health risk? And what's fueling this 8 to 20 percent per year growth in organic-produce sales?

Like most subjects that involve food, money, and government regulation, this one is complicated, highly political and full of ambiguity. But with the aid of a handful of food experts, a couple of national consumer groups, and a sprig of common sense, you can wade through the rhetoric and choose a path best suited to your income, philosophy and affinity for risk.

Birth of a movement

After 1940, most American farmers replaced their "organic" methods — crop rotation and cultivation to control weeds, and using animal manure as fertilizer — with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. The new products worked as promised, lowering production costs and increasing crop yields.

But as chemical agriculture grew, so did the opposition. The loudest early opponent was magazine publisher J.I. Rodale. In 1940 he bought a 60-acre experimental farm in Pennsylvania, where he applied what he called "organiculture" methods, which was then modified to organic agriculture. Inspired by critics of chemical agriculture in Germany and England, he wrote several books that railed against the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, claiming they robbed the soil of organic material and the microbiological action that promote healthy plants. His detractors called him an "apostle of dung" and a "humus huckster."

But it wasn't until publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson's seminal book "Silent Spring," in which she warned of the danger of pesticides such as DDT, that the organic movement began to gain significant ground. Her book set the stage for the environmental movement and made consumers look at their food supply in a more critical light.

The organic-food business remained small but vital through the '70s and '80s. Even as late as 1990, it scratched out sales of just $1 billion (about 1 percent of total U.S. grocery sales). But a decade later, organic food had reached nearly $8 billion in sales and had become the fastest growing segment of the retail food industry. Last year, the industry nearly reached the $10 billion mark, of which produce makes up about half the sales.

To put things in perspective, though, it helps to look at the size of the organic agricultural movement within the context of the entire agricultural industry. Certified organic cropland represents just 0.3 percent of the total, and 1.5 to 2 percent of American farmers.

Who's driving this small but rapidly growing market? It appears that most of the buyers are baby boomers and people between 18 and 34 years old. Only about a quarter of organic consumers say they buy organic to help reduce agriculture's impact on the environment. The largest majority, nearly two-thirds of organic consumers, cite health and nutrition as their main reasons for buying organic food.

Is it more healthful?

And that's where things get a little sticky. Goldie Caughlan, the nutrition education manager for Puget Consumers Co-op Natural Markets and a consumer adviser to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Standards Board, says it's illegal to make health claims for organic food. That provision was written into the legislation that created the federal organic program in order to secure votes from Congress members who represented big agricultural states. Caughlan said it's up to consumers to decide for themselves whether organic produce is healthier, at least until more studies are done.

"The jury is still out on whether organic produce is better from a vitamin or fiber viewpoint than conventionally grown produce," said John Reganold, a Washington State University soil scientist who has extensively studied organic-farming techniques. Recent studies have found a 30 percent higher vitamin C content in organic oranges, and significantly more amounts of iron, magnesium and phosphorus.

Gene Kahn is a Chicago native who 30 years ago founded Cascadian Farms, one of the first modern organic farms in Washington. Cascadian Farms is now part of Sedro Woolley's Small Planet Foods, one of the largest producers of organic food in the world and owned by General Mills. Kahn, the president of Small Planet Foods and a General Mills vice president, thinks "poor science" is behind most of the studies that have come out for or against the higher nutritional content of organic produce. He argues that most organic-industry claims about nutrition are "pure hype and propaganda, and self-serving." There's anecdotal evidence, he says, but nothing scientific.

As for health benefits, organics are preferred by many consumers because they have fewer chemical-pesticide residues. That's fewer, not none.

"Some people are surprised there are any residues in organic produce at all," said Edward Groth, a senior scientist with Consumer Union, the parent organization of Consumer Reports magazine.

Residual pesticide levels

Groth led a study published earlier this year that looked at the residual pesticide levels of a broad sample of American produce, both organically and conventionally grown. Nearly three-quarters of conventionally grown crops had residues, while about a quarter of organic produce samples harbored residues. Conventional produce was six times more likely than organics to have more than one pesticide present.

Groth was quick to add that residues on organic produce "are pretty well explained as leftover contamination from pesticide use from long ago, like DDT, and drift from other nearby conventional farms." By excluding these environmentally persistent chlorinated insecticides from the results, the number of organic samples with residues dropped from 23 to 13 percent. The reduction in conventional produce was much less, from 73 to 71 percent.

"While the risks to health associated with dietary pesticide residues are still uncertain and subject to debate, risk is relative, and lower exposure undoubtedly translates in lower risk," the report stated. "Consumers who wish to minimize their dietary pesticide exposure can do so with confidence by buying organically grown foods."

But to opponents of organic agriculture (and they are legion, led by chemical companies and conventional farmers), the report said something else. "Consumer Reports said, 'organics had fewer pesticides,' " said Kahn. "But the chemical industry turns it around and said, 'pesticides found in organic food.' "

Wash all produce

Consumer advocates like Groth and Caroline Smith De Waal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the co-author of a new book, "Is Our Food Safe?" say the best way to protect yourself from pesticide residue on any produce, organic or conventional, is to carefully wash and/or peel it. Bacteria from improperly composted manure used as organic fertilizer also can be removed by washing.

For those who can't afford a diet of organic produce, which can cost 25 to 100 percent more than conventional fare, because of higher production costs, there is a way to limit your exposure to pesticides. Certain conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, like strawberries, apples, pears, lettuce, spinach, and celery, have consistently more pesticide residues on them than others. Some, like apples, can harbor as many as 10 different residues, according to a 1999 Consumers Union study called "Do You Know what You're Eating?"

So consumer advocates say people can minimize their exposure to pesticides by buying organic versions of these foods. A thorough scrubbing and perhaps peeling of conventional produce should remove most of its residues.

Fudged facts on synthetic pesticides

First-time buyers of organic produce, and even some veterans, believe that organics aren't grown with synthetic pesticides. That's not hard to understand, because many organic farmers advertise their wares this way. It makes consumers feel good about buying organic. On the Cascadian Farm Web site, for instance, promotional copy states in several places that crops are grown without the use of synthetic pesticides. Yet this isn't entirely true.

The United States Department of Agriculture has developed a list of more than 40 synthetic substances approved for use in organic crop production. Although they are not known to have adverse effects on the environment or to human health, they are used by a number of organic farmers.

One such synthetic is a petroleum-based horticultural oil that in late winter and spring is applied to the bare wood of fruit trees to suffocate insects and their eggs. Miles McEvoy, manager of the Organic Food Program at the Washington State Department of Agriculture, said that this kind of pesticide, along with things like insect mating disruption devices (also a synthetic), allows farmers not to use broad-based organophosphate pesticides that end up forming residues on produce.

Kahn admits that the claim on Cascadian Farm's Web site about not using synthetic pesticides is "not literally true. But it is largely true. In terms of anything significant that would affect the environment or consumer health, it's fully true."

He said the Web site is "five years obsolete" and needs updating. Now that he works for General Mills, the $13 billion-a-year company that bought Small Planet Foods in 2000, he said he hopes to use his influence to steer the organic industry into more "fact-based marketing."

Gut feelings vs. science

Facts are, in some ways, a scarce commodity in the marketing of organic foods. Instead, marketers seem to rely more on their customer's belief that organic food "doesn't necessarily deliver a measurable health improvement or benefit, but it simply makes them feel better," according to the Hartman Group's Organic Consumer Profile.

Yet one fact stands out: Study after study has proved that eating lots of fruit and vegetables, organic or not, fresh, canned, or frozen, can improve your health.

Smith De Waal wrote in "Is Our Food Safe?": "It would be worse for your overall health to stop eating fruits and vegetables to avoid pesticide residues than to keep eating them, pesticides and all."

In the meantime, science has a ways to go before it can add factual heft to the gut-level feeling many organic buyers have that organic food is good for the body and good for the planet.

Scott McCredie: 206-464-2430 or smccredie@seattletimes.com.

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