Burning questions about organic food

Organic radishes at the Pacifica Farmers Market in Organic radishes at the Pacifica Farmers Market in Pacifica, Calif. (March 16, 2011) Photo Credit: AP

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Erica Marcus Erica Marcus (face disguised) is Newsday's food writer.

Marcus has covered food for Newsday since 1998. ...

Now that a study has shown that organic food is no more healthy than nonorganic, should I just save my money and buy conventional?

Earlier this month, Stanford University published a report concluding that there is little evidence organic food is more nutritious than conventional. The study, a meta-analysis of 237 previous studies, has been hailed by organic skeptics as a triumph for conventional agriculture at the same time it has been criticized by organic supporters as a misrepresentation of the facts.

My own reaction was initially "so what?" I have never championed organic produce because I thought it contained more vitamins and minerals. My own belief is that all natural, unprocessed foods, organic and conventional, contain many wonderful components, none of which is capable of conferring eternal life or freedom from disease.

WHAT DOES ORGANIC MEANS

For most of human history, all agriculture was organic: It employed only natural fertilizers (manure) and very little in the way of pesticides. It was only about 60 years ago, after the development of synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides (such as DDT, banned in 1972) that some people became concerned about the effects of these chemicals. Taking inspiration from traditional methods, such as crop rotation, cover crops and crop diversification, they developed an approach now known as "organic."

The original promise of organic agriculture was that a system that didn't use synthetic chemicals was better for the planet, better for the farm workers, better for the consumer. The promise was not that organic oranges would contain more vitamin C.

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Today the label "Certified Organic" signifies crops that have been grown without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and livestock that is fed only organic feed and is raised without antibiotics or hormones. (Additionally the only way to know that you are not eating genetically modified food is to buy organic.)

BENEFITS AND COSTS

As it happens, the Stanford study revealed that more than a third of conventional produce contained detectable traces of pesticide residue, compared with 7 percent for organic, and that organic chicken and pork was 33 percent less likely to contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria. If you are choosing organic to reduce exposure to pesticides and superbugs, that may be all you need to know.

On the other hand, the label "organic" does not bestow magical powers. Organic spinach is just as vulnerable to E. coli as conventional. Now that agribusiness has entered the organic market, your organic mesclun may well have been grown on an enormous farm 3,000 miles away. And many small local farms are not organic, whether because they use some proscribed chemicals or because they choose not to go through the time-consuming and expensive process of getting organic certification. Given the choice, I often opt for local conventional produce over industrially grown organic.

WHAT ABOUT PRICE?

@Newsday

Organic produce is more expensive than conventional. If exposure to pesticides is your primary worry, consult the "2012 Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce," published by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. The EWG's so-called "dirty dozen" are apples, celery, bell peppers, peaches, strawberries, nectarines, grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, blueberries and potatoes. You may want to spend the extra money to buy these organic. The conventional fruits and vegetables with the lowest pesticide residue include onions, corn, pineapples, avocados, cabbage, peas and asparagus. Buying these organic may not be worth the money. See the full list at foodnews.org.

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