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Betting the Farm on Organics
"I am a farmer's daughter," I told myself again and again as I knelt on the ground, pushing away the soil to see if the green tint had faded from the pate of new spring potatoes. My sons, then five and two years old, stood by with a sturdy bucket and garden hose to give our bounty a good wash. We tugged at the wilting green tops, expecting to uproot clusters of walnut-sized starchy gems--instead, naked stems. We were stunned to be outsmarted by a sight-impaired mole, with a keen sense of smell. It, too, had patiently waited for the precise moment of agricultural perfection, and it had stripped our potatoes clean from the tops.
With looks of fortitude on their tiny brows, mud on their knees, and shovels perched on their sunburned shoulders, the boys took in their first farming lesson and headed to the back pasture to capture the thief. Our potato experiment came as a directive from my father, a Michigan farmer. "Buy organic potatoes," he said after hearing about a neighboring potato farmer whose kidney had shriveled to an unrecognizable mass. The suspected cause was decades of exposure to potent chemicals applied to his potato crops.
This was perhaps the first fatherly advice I can recall. While nearly all dads dish out dating advice to daughters, most of his paternal advice and our conversations edged around farming and food. After years of estrangement from divorce and what I call unpredictable family weather patterns, our tie was at times as deeply rooted as dandelions or as fragile and bitter as spring radish shoots.
But from season to season, no matter the family climate, his homespun stories about his Midwest hundred-acre woods kept me fastened to a lifestyle that few ever experience in this urbanized society--the family farm. From an early age, my father learned that self-sufficiency was no farther than the backwoods. Orion was his lantern and the oak and maple his companions. As an adult, all he needed to fill the pantry for a year was a fishing pole, a garden, a hog in the pen, a dairy cow in the barn, chickens in the yard, grain in the fields, and a deer hanging in the shed.
He laughed at our potato-thieving mole and his tone let on that I finally understood, at least partially, the complexity and unpredictability of farming. Clever moles are just one of many problems potato farmers are up against. Beetles, blight, and fungus that can wipe out entire crops are common enemies, which is why this particular sector of agriculture has been so reliant on insecticides and fungicides--hence his advice to buy organic potatoes.
This was in the late 1980s, and I couldn't have told you what an organic potato really was or where to find them at the time, even though my address was in California's Central Valley, the nation's fruit, nut, and salad bowl. I had moved there from Manhattan and my prior zip codes included Washington, D.C., Hawaii, and London--all a far cry from my new rural residence. Perhaps my need to grow potatoes (along with peaches, plums, tomatoes, and cucumbers) was due to my desire to play catch-up. Conceivably, by playing in the dirt with my two boys I could make up on lost father-daughter years. Like reading through a family album of long-forgotten relatives in one afternoon, my hope was to learn about my familiar farming ancestry in one growing season; instead it's taken me more than twenty years.
In time, the navy ordered my husband to more suburban settings in Canada, Italy, and Colorado, but I didn't forget my father's advice. Still, organic vegetables were hard to find and the added expense wasn't something I could easily afford. For many years I was what the industry calls a cherry picker. If organic produce was on sale and within easy reach I bought it; otherwise there were no organic potatoes in my shopping cart.
It wasn't until years later, during my first job in journalism, that I realized my father's down-to-earth advice did indeed have merit. I was thirty-five years old and working as an unlikely intern for a media and publishing company that served the health-food industry. The industry is known for utopian ideals and very liberal views. As I was a navy wife, my politics leaned toward the center and my wardrobe didn't include a single pair of Birkenstocks.
What's more, my relatives who made their living tilling the Midwestern soil were nothing like this breed of farmers. It seemed that all the organic supporters I interviewed staked their entire being on organic farming. For them it was a passion, almost a religion. Even my sister-in-law, who had lived in Seattle for decades, packed up and started a Community Supported Agricultural (CSA) farm in Mount Vernon, Washington. She farms as many as forty different items, including fruits, vegetables, eggs, and flowers, for her customers who collect their weekly share of food directly from Riversong Farm.
Why Buy Organic Produce?
Even with my loose ties to farming and my work in food journalism, which at the time was smack dab in the middle of the organic food revolution, I still needed pragmatic, methodical, Midwestern-style answers that transcended emotions. During some particularly tight financial months, the higher price for organic food was just too costly.
Most likely you've read, as I had, that organic fruits and vegetables are not subjected to pesticides. But why then were there newspaper headlines saying that organic foods had pesticide residues from chemicals like DDT? I'd been taught in journalism school, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." I needed facts to justify a thinner wallet. Doubts, along with these questions, lingered in my mind each time I stood in the produce section:
Was organic food really grounded in strong science or was it tethered by thin threads that could easily break when the next food fad came along?
Are organically grown fruits and vegetables really better for my family?
Did I fear being judged by coworkers, many of whom were single and didn't have a family to feed?
It takes a conventional farm three years to transition to organic; that's at least how long my conversion took. What changed my mind was a report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which was backed by the very independent Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports). The list, called the dirty dozen, analyzed pesticide residue levels from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) government records. The no-nonsense list narrowed down the most common foods with the highest pesticide residues. Guess what? Potatoes were on the list. (I know, I should have listened to my dad.)
Photocopy and Clip
Finally, I had a manageable organic directory to work from. Instead of feeling guilty about not filling my cart with every organically available food and panicking that I was spending my kids' college funds, I now could use a workable list--one that fit my budget and relieved my doubts.
It's important to know that the residue levels on the dirty dozen are after these foods were washed and peeled for normal consumption. That said, I think (and hope) you can tell I'm not an alarmist. In general, the foods listed in the first two columns are higher in pesticide residues than others. However, to be fair and perfectly clear, the lists are not meant to imply the foods exceed EPA tolerable levels for male adults--it's the younger consumers who need more safeguards.
Very few foods ever exceed the EPA limits for adult males for three reasons. First, the agency must account for all pathways to exposure, such as diet, drinking water, and home use of insecticides, which means a piece of fruit is just one piece of the puzzle. It is the EPA's job to determine the health risk of each approved pesticide and set restrictions called tolerances, which is the maximum amount a particular pesticide can be in or on a food. The tolerance is not about pesticide residues; it is an estimate for one's exposure to a particular pesticide or its breakdown product.
Second, the EPA similarly looks at cumulative exposure to groups of pesticides that may cause cancer and considers all the ways we might be exposed, such as inhalation or through the skin. Third, the agency adds a 100-fold safety buffer when it applies the standards for pesticide residues.
Every year the USDA tests for pesticide residues on more than 13,000 samples, purchased at grocery stores, of fruits, vegetables, grains, milk, and drinking water (USDA Pesticide Data Program). In 2004, 76% of fresh fruit and vegetables showed detectable residues, 40% of these contained more than one pesticide, and only .2% exceeded the EPA's tolerable levels.
The EWG examines this same data and narrows it down to forty-six commonly eaten fruits and vegetables. The EWG dirty-dozen list is based on what is called pesticide load, which quantifies how many pesticides were found on a single fruit or vegetable and within the entire commodity. For instance, 92% of the apple samples contained pesticides; of those, 27% contained two pesticides, 24% contained three pesticides, and 12% contained four different pesticides. For potatoes, 79% contained pesticide residues, 52% contained one residue, and 21% contained two types of residues (this is a big improvement since my potato-farming experiment in the early 1980s).
The EWG list is significant, especially for pregnant women, infants, and children, because it raises awareness flags for foods that are commonly eaten by children and by moms-to-be during pregnancy. Ask parents of growing children and they will attest that kids eat a lot, and it's often the same foods again and again. In the 1990s reports began to emerge showing that the tolerable levels for pesticide residues may have been too lenient for kids. What was easily legal and tolerable for an adult male may pose an unnecessary risk to a child or unborn baby.
The issue was twofold: Pesticide tolerance levels had not been adequately analyzed for infants and children. Nor had science delved deeply enough into how low levels of exposure to certain chemicals could affect development. The presumption was that infants' and children's rapid rates of development and constant changes in metabolism could make them more vulnerable than adults to toxins, especially at certain times of development.
The National Research Council (NRC) called these potentially damaging opportunities "windows of vulnerability when exposure to a toxicant can permanently alter the structure or function of an organ system." The NRC goes on to say in their report "Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children" that "children may be more sensitive or less sensitive than adults, depending on the pesticide to which they are exposed," adding that there is no way to predict the infants' and/or children's sensitivity to these chemical compounds from data derived entirely from adults.
To right this anomaly, the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) became law in 1996. The law requires the EPA to identify safe pesticide levels for adults, children, and infants, as well as make regulatory decisions about new and widely used chemicals. The law required the EPA to add a tenfold safety buffer to the already-established 100-fold safety factor when setting pesticide standards.
The first stages of the act required phasing out organophosphate (OG) pesticides, known to cause neurological problems in children if exposure is too high. Half of all pesticides used in foods eaten often by children are organophosphates. The effects from acute exposure to OG pesticides such as paralysis, seizures, and tremors are well-known. However, there were, and still are, no large human studies showing just how low-dose exposure to these chemicals interferes with children's central nervous system development. Rather than employ a wait-and-see approach, the FQPA called for reform.
The most common sources of OG pesticides are fruits, vegetables, and grains. Since the FQPA evaluation began in 1993 the amount of OG applications on all foods declined by 44%. The latest comprehensive reports show about 19% of all fruits, vegetables, and grains have detectable levels of OG pesticides, which is down 10% from the highest levels in 1996.
It's a good start; however, OG pesticides are still commonly applied to nearly half of the foods most frequently eaten by kids--including apples,* apple juice, bananas, carrots, green beans, oranges, orange juice, peaches,* pears,* potatoes,* winter squash, and tomatoes (* = on the dirty-dozen list). For the last federally released progress report of the FQPA, Consumers Union gave the agency a C - because of an organophosphate called azinphos-methyl (AZM). Among USDA apple samples from 2002, 37% tested positive for AZM. Apple juice and applesauce were considerably lower in residues (.1% and .6%, respectively, which suggests that processing may reduce exposure).
During the summer of 2006, the EPA submitted a proposal in the Federal Registry to begin phasing out use of AZM following a lawsuit filed by the United Farm Workers. Contradictory guidelines regarding the potent chemical put the EPA in a quandary when in 1999 the agency said that the chemical posed no risk to consumers or farmworkers. However, by 2001 research confirmed that farmworkers should not reenter orchards for as long as 102 days after AZM application, even though EPA standards allotted for a mere two weeks. Farmers who cultivate almonds, Brussels sprouts, pistachios, and walnuts will begin the phaseout in 2007. By 2010, apples, crabapples, blueberries, cherries, parsley, and pears will require less toxic alternatives.
The good news is that you can make a dramatic change in your child's exposure to pesticides now in a very short period of time. When children eat organic, as compared to conventional, foods the risk from pesticide exposure drops to well below what the EPA considers a negligible hazard to health. And by making the switch, you cause the levels and number of chemicals in the bloodstream to drop very quickly--within as little as seven days. The latest research shows that after one week of switching to organic foods, children's blood levels of common farming chemicals drop to negligible levels.
Overall, the FQPA has remarkable potential to substantially reduce exposure to pesticides, especially since diet accounts for up to 80% of exposure (the remaining is from water and home-use chemicals). Some states have taken the issue very seriously and have dramatically reduced pesticide and insecticide use through programs called Integrated Pest Management (see more later). For instance, in 1978 more than 201,000kg of pesticides were applied to potatoes grown in New York. By 1998 that level had declined by 52%, capping out at a little more than 52,000kg.
Busting the Myths About Organic Foods
If organic food were a Hollywood movie star, any publicity would be good publicity. But for organic food, there is a lot of noise from detractors drowning out some commonsense information. For many years I've watched the organic industry fend off verbal blows that say organic food isn't healthier. I've heard television reports state that organic food is more susceptible to dangerous microbes. And I've also read that it's just another fad that will soon pass. With each assault, dazed and bruised supporters stayed on task, steadily moving forward until they reached an economic momentum that the conventional grocery stores and food manufacturers couldn't ignore any longer.
For the first time, amid the Birkenstock crowd at health-food trade shows were suits with briefcases and clipboards. I'm certain these supermarket execs must have drawn straws to see who would attend; this was, after all, foreign territory. At conventional food trade shows the most exciting spot was the beer tent, but here the stimulants and relaxants were herb based. When hunger struck, tofu hot dogs were plentiful, as well as whole-wheat pizza with dairy-free cheese. When trade show fatigue set in, massage chairs were at every corner, as well as aura readings for a quick karma check.
The new age wonders proved to be rich ground for conventional grocers. Grocery store profit margins are dismally small, only 1-3%, because of one overriding philosophy--grow lots of food and sell it at the cheapest price. This viewpoint, born out of America's post-WW II need to reduce malnutrition, was being challenged by a post-Vietnam generation that proudly boasted 20% sales growth for a food sector that was written off as a fad that only eco-minded hippies would support.
While the organic industry forged ahead, detractors stood in the back lobbing insults to weaken support for organic agriculture. The first assault targeted the conception that organic food wasn't any healthier, even though that was the common consumer belief. In the early years, the organic industry had no desire to prove such a claim; there were too many other mountains to climb, like USDA organic certification.
Once USDA organic certification was approved in 2002 and this symbol began appearing on foods, researchers did indeed take the time to find that organic foods were higher in vitamins, minerals, and proteins (averages were higher in the following categories: calcium 63%, chromium 78%, iron 73%, magnesium 118%, potassium 125%, zinc 60%). The difference is due to a phenomenon called dilution, whereby nutrients in conventional produce have declined anywhere from 5 to 35% in the last fifty years because of pesticides, fast-growth fertilizers, and poor soil conditions. Since organic agriculture is as much a soil science as a food science, this news wasn't really that surprising to organic farmers.
Another attack cried fraud when a Consumers Union report tested conventional and organic produce for pesticide residues. The report showed that as much as one-quarter of organic produce showed some signs of pesticide residues. Never mind that many of the pesticides detected were long since banned, like DDT, which is still present in the soil and will most likely remain so for a very long time.
In addition, pesticides on conventional produce don't always stay where they are applied. These chemicals drift in the slightest of breezes and easily run off into the same groundwater used to irrigate organic crops. Know that while organic fruits and vegetables are not sprayed with synthetic and unapproved pesticides or herbicides, this doesn't mean they are completely free of any contaminants--they do, however, contain a fraction of what is seen on conventionally grown foods.
Also know that organic farming methods allow the use of common kitchen substances like mint oils and cloves to avert pests. In strong concentrations, even the most docile-sounding ingredients work effectively as pesticides. Organic agriculture also allows more potent substances, also considered pesticides, like Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria (Bt, the same bacteria, is inserted in genetically modified corn) and pyrethrum, a plant-based insecticide derived from the powdered, dried flower heads of the pyrethrum daisy. Even though these substances are allowed in organic food production, you wouldn't want to eat them, as they are naturally toxic. Nor would you want to dump these substances in the water or feed them to your pet, because they harm some wildlife. A perfect example is the controversy about the potential for genetically modified corn (Bt corn) to kill monarch butterfly larvae--nicknamed the Bambi of the farming world by The New York Times. While this might have been sensational news to nature lovers, this fact was not a big surprise to entomologists, who have always known that corn pollen exposed to Bt, organic or otherwise, will kill monarch butterfly larvae under just the right conditions.
Pesticides are designed to kill or at least repel pests, whether the substances come from your kitchen cabinet or a jar with a skull-and-crossbones danger warning. It's a matter of degree and scale. Critics of organic agriculture will use examples like Bt and pyrethrum to discredit organic agriculture. Know that pesticides are classified in four categories: highly toxic (class I), moderately toxic (class II), slightly toxic (class III), and relatively nontoxic (class IV). None of the thirteen pesticides allowed in organic farming exceed class III levels, and they are made from ingredients like bacteria and fungus, found in soil, flower petals, clay, and oils from plants. Conversely, conventional agriculture cannot make the same claim for the multitude of chemicals approved as insecticides and herbicides.
During the heaviest antiorganic stone throwing, few knew that most of the attacks were from an organization called the Center for Global Food Issues, a division of the Hudson Institute. It was founded by Dennis Avery, a supporter of biotech, who believes that genetically modified farming can help solve world hunger. Philanthropic efforts aside, the biotech industry has much to lose from the growing popularity of organic agriculture, since genetically engineered farming is prohibited for organically certified crops. Conversely, organic farming has much to lose from genetically engineered farming, because when a significant amount of modified genes drift into organic crops it can downgrade them to a conventional class, thus wiping out any chance of profit.
The Hudson Institute has the right to say and publish what it wants; just know where the motives lie. Also, know that each group threatens the existence of the other, which is why the attacks are so vigorous. You may remember the public apology from ABC News 20/20 coanchor John Stossel regarding a misinterpretation of data about bacteria and organic agriculture. Stossel and his staff were caught in a battle of words and wit going on for years between the Hudson Institute and the organic industry. It involved a myth that organic produce was higher in E. coli bacteria because of a lack of regulations regarding manure fertilizer.
Eventually, Stossel and others discovered that the E. coli reports were unfounded, hence the televised apology. To be sure, organic farming has a mandatory grace period for manure application and harvest--conventional farming does not. Since the Stossel debacle, reports show that manure on conventional crops may contribute to antibiotic resistance--something vegetarians thought they were protected from. It turns out that conventional manure may be tainted with the very antibiotics used in animal farming, which is exposing unwitting consumers to antibiotic residues that could reduce their ability to fight off infections.
This brings up the last point of organic certification--regulation and inspections. I know of no other industry that has asked so fervently to be regulated. For a farmer to be deemed a USDA organic-certified farm, the land must go through a three-year transition away from prohibited pesticides. During this time the farmer must adopt federally approved farming methods that include a variety of approved nonsynthetic fertilizers, antimicrobials, and biological-derived pest controls. Then the farm and the product are verified by an approved USDA third-party certifier. Only then can the food bear the green and white symbol.
This system is not without fault. In July 2006, The Dallas Morning News reported that the criteria for organic certification may not be enforced as strictly as has been promised by USDA. The article reviewed the 268 complaints submitted to USDA; 50 of these were for products that were not organic--although they claimed to be (the companies were ordered to stop). Also among the complaints were problems with overseas companies claiming to be organically certified, though perhaps they are not. These grievances are harder to enforce. For instance, the Beijing Consumers Association reported that among 268 organic food samples taken from city grocery shelves, 25 were counterfeit. Even U.K. consumers were shocked to see that pork and chicken labeled as organic and sold at shops on London's high streets were not actually organic.
Any certification system is only as good as its enforcement and oversight. Two events prior and post the Dallas newspaper report show positive movement in this direction. In the same summer as the Dallas newspaper story, the National Organic Program called for comments to tighten the certification parameters for imported organic foods. Just a week following the Dallas Morning News report, USDA revoked the accreditation for a third-party organic certification company, the American Food Safety Institute, in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, citing seven violations.
Food fraud is nothing new. Prior to the USDA organic certification rules, violations were common and inconsistencies in compliance from state to state even more so. In the mid 1990s, prior to the national standards, only seventeen states had mandatory organic certification requirements. Violations included selling conventional beans and grains as organic, dozens and dozens of farmers sold foods as organic when they were not, and one olive oil supplier went so far as to harvest olives from a golf course and label them as organic. In fact, a lack of consistency is one of the primary reasons a national organic standard was needed in this country. Above all, remember that the organic rules are new and the demand for such products is growing at a much faster rate than anyone predicted. The convergence of these two factors means that unethical opportunists will squeeze out whatever profits they can before they are caught. To add to the ruckus, as you will read in this book, there are the internal arguments within the organic industry about just how strict the organic certification rules should be.
If you doubt the severity of the rules, remember that when the first set of organic rules was released by the USDA, the organic industry and hundreds of thousands of supporters said the regulations weren't strict enough and asked for a reappraisal. Farming practices, like allowing sewage sludge to be used as fertilizer and using genetically engineered seeds, as well as allowing irradiation to kill harmful pathogens, were a few measures that quietly slipped into the original draft documents.
Since President Lincoln founded the USDA in 1862, no other issue than these three--sewage sludge, genetic engineering, and irradiation--has generated such passion and public comment. Luckily, Lincoln didn't have e-mail. Hundreds of thousands of organic supporters sent in e-mail and faxes criticizing the draft rules. Since the final rules were released in October 2002 there have been other attempts to loosen policies to satisfy less stringent agricultural desires, such as allowing for unapproved synthetics and nonorganic feed for livestock. As you will see throughout this book, each attempt to weaken the rules has been met with its fair share of comments, political activism, and consumer boycotts. So no matter what you may hear from critics, there is little reason to doubt the integrity of organic certification, because its own disciples won't tolerate ambiguities that allow for weakened standards.
Buy Locally; Thank a Farmer
At risk of family disownment, I will tell you that I still don't buy all my produce from certified organic sources. Buying local is just as important. Unless you live in Florida or California, it's not always possible, especially in climates like mine, with short growing seasons that are bookended between damaging spring frosts and heavy late-summer snows. However, staying true to local farmers, when possible, can precipitate big changes in the economic and environmental health of your community.
The grocery store has replaced any opportunity for urban and suburban dwellers to know much about the people who grow our food. Farmers' markets are our only opportunity to thank a farmer. Since the 1980s we've been told that the family farm is dying. Our first notion is that big farming is taking over, much like the mega-grocery stores that eat up any chance of survival for mom-and-pop corner grocers. In truth, the family farm is evolving much the way the rest of the country is, from single incomes to dual careers. Here is a snapshot of the family farm in the new century:
Most farms in this country--as many as 98%--are classified as family farms.
Small family farms gross $250,000 or less a year and account for about 91% of all family farms (about 6% are considered disadvantaged). They own about 70% of all available farmland, and as many as 82% of farms are enrolled in the federally funded Conservation Reserve and Wetlands Reserve Programs, which provide technical assistant for conservation farming practices and wetlands restoration.
Large family farms account for 7% of all farms and gross $250,000 or more. Corporate farms represent 2-3% of farms overall.
Although small family farms are larger in number and own most of the land, they contribute only about 28% of total crop output. Large family farms produce about 58% of total crop output. Non-family farms account for 14% production.
As the numbers show, farm production is shifting from small farms to large farms. The transition is occurring for two reasons: the number of retiring farmers outweighs the number entering the field, and profit margins continue to decline. To make up for smaller profits, as many as 40% of all small family farmers consider farming a second income. My dad, for instance, worked for the Michigan State Police and farmed on the side. Today he is supposed to be retired, but he hires himself out as a farmhand (he's as strong as any eighteen-year-old, more knowledgeable, and very reliable).
One way farmers are gaining notoriety and income is by selling directly and marketing through farmers' markets or grocers. Specialization is the key to survival. Entrepreneurial-minded farmers are selling high-end products like grass-fed and organic pork and beef, specialty fruits and vegetables, and organic dairy products for higher margins than conventional crops because they can set the prices rather than rely on commodity prices.
Although the portrayal of the small family farm is shifting, the total value add from farms of all sizes to a state's well-being is as significant as that of a large factory or corporation. For instance, in Iowa farmers' markets alone contribute as much as $33 million in sales and additional economic activity to the state. Combine this with the monetary contributions farmers make to the tax base, added with the revenue from commodity farm sales and related small businesses, and most communities would collapse without the farms' presence--not to mention we would be very hungry.
If you need another excuse to buy local beyond supporting your local community, think about its impact on the earth. I would like to leave a smaller oily footprint on the pavement when I hand life's baton to my grandchildren--buying food from local sources can make a big blow to pollutants.
Let's stay in the same state, Iowa, to prove the point. A University of Iowa study looked at seven foods and how far they traveled to get to Chicago, the distribution hub in the Midwest. The researchers limited the fruits and vegetables to domestic and Mexican produce--squash and pumpkins had the lowest mileages at 781 and 233 miles, respectively; sweet corn 813 miles; apples 1,551 miles; asparagus 1,671 miles; broccoli 2,095 miles; and finally grapes at 2,143 miles. These seven foods collectively traveled 9,287 miles, the same flight distance from New York City to Sydney, Australia.
The second phase of the study measured emission reductions and fuel consumption for twenty-eight Iowan-grown foods versus foods shipped in from afar. Fuel emission reductions were as high as 8 million pounds, and fuel savings reached as high as 346,000 gallons. The truly amazing find was that the study's food sample size represented only 1% of the total consumption for Iowans--though the impact on emissions was equal to removing sixty-five cars from the road. So while you may think the only way to help solve the current fuel situation is to walk or to buy a hybrid car, buying locally grown food whenever possible can make a huge difference in our dependence on oil imports.
Most states have USDA-supported local buying programs for fruits, vegetables, and other grocery products. In my state, it's Colorado Proud, as noted by this symbol. Each state has its own logo and marketing program. One worrisome trend in farmers' markets is to allow vendors to truck in products from outside the state and even the country. This type of competitive pressure can easily put local small farmers out of business. If you see such practices in your own farmers' markets, voice your opinion until someone listens.
My only warning about the newly founded interest in buying local is that there is criticism that organic food that is trucked in or flown in isn't organic because of the food miles. As I mentioned earlier, food miles matter, but only Californians and Floridians can live year round on only locally produced food. In other climates, such as mine, winter tables would be limited to pinto beans, popcorn, potatoes, onions, apples, and pumpkins--no thank you. For those of you who are fortunate to have local foods all year long--bravo!--but let me buy my California organic lettuce and Florida oranges in January from the supermarket.
Letting Go of Supermodel Food
You may have to get over the eye-candy factor when buying local food from farmers. For supermarkets it takes a great deal of commitment from the management to buy local fruits and vegetables. Their first priority to the consumer is a regular supply of fruits and vegetables that meet a certain eye appeal.
America's obsession with visually perfect food often prejudices our opinion about what good food looks and tastes like. Here's an example of how wasteful it has become. Years ago, while attending a grocery store food conference in Baltimore, I stole away for a morning field trip to a local farm. My traveling companions were African farmers here to learn about the American grocery market. The farm was a model of sustainability--no chemical pesticides or herbicides, and mounds of vines, leaves, tomatoes, and squash were piled high between the rows for organic compost. The farmer had a comfortable contract with local health-food stores to supply vegetables.
The farmer kindly allowed us to harvest a few tomatoes to take back to our hotel rooms. While I picked through the vines, the African visitors reached into the compost pile for perfectly fine samples. The farmer embarrassingly explained that these weren't fit for the store because they weren't the right size. Too polite to question the farmer, our guests waited until we filed back to the bus to ask why these glorious specimens were thrown away. We responded timidly with no good answer.
Buying local often means turning a blind eye to fruits and vegetables that are perhaps not uniform size or lack the shiny wax coating that makes them glimmer under the hip halogen lights in the produce section. Even if a vegetable isn't the Gisele Bndchen of the tomato world, good looks don't always mean the best flavor or the most nutrition. Get over this; the difference in taste is dramatic. You won't need much convincing after biting into a Colorado peach, Washington apple, or New Jersey tomato that has traveled only a few miles to your kitchen.
USDA Certified Organic Farming is the manipulation of the environment to suit man's need for foods. It's been happening since Stone Age man discovered how to grow grain for food. The level of exploitation has waned and waxed since the end of WW II when new chemicals emerged from advances in war technology.
Today organic agriculture seeks to manipulate the environment in the least damaging manner by prohibiting most conventional pesticides and fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, as well as prohibiting bioengineered species and irradiation. Before a product is labeled USDA-certified organic, a third-party government-approved certifier inspects the farm for compliance. Be wary of produce stands and vendors at farmers' markets that claim their fruits and vegetables are pesticide-free; there is no such valid claim--either a farm is certified organic or it's not.
You'll have to read the fine print to find organic certification on produce. The traditional green organic seal doesn't fit easily on lumpy green peppers or velvety mushrooms, so suppliers place the Price Look Up (PLU) code on the packaging, on a sticker, or directly on the produce with a laser tattoo. Conventional produce has four digits, usually starting with a 3 or 4; organic has five digits, beginning with a 9; and genetically modified (GM) fruits and vegetables have five digits and begin with an 8.
If you are wary of GM fruits and vegetables, rest assured that you won't find many examples in the produce section, yet. Patents exist for potatoes, summer squash and zucchini, radicchio, tomatoes, and papaya. However, with the exception of papaya, each time the USDA has tried to move crops from the experimental phase to production, it's been met with such opposition that few crops have succeeded commercially. A GM tomato, the FlavrSavr brand, was sold in supermarkets from 1995 to 1997, but it was a financial bust. A few farmers have attempted to grow GM summer squash, but they, too, have had trouble convincing the public to buy it.
Genetically modified papaya is the only fresh GM food that has any long-term history in the fields and the store. About half of Hawaii's papaya crop is genetically modified, a move that rid the plants of a damaging virus called papaya ringspot. Supporters say the gene modification saved the papaya industry from demise. Non-GM papaya growers are concerned the gene will drift to their plants, limiting the number of available products for organic customers, especially for overseas clients. Unless you live on the West Coast or in Hawaii, it's not likely that you've seen GM papaya, because most papayas are imported from Brazil, Mexico, and the Caribbean, according to a study by Cornell.
Certified Naturally Grown The Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) label is for farms that grow produce using at minimum the USDA organic standards but have sales of less than $5,000 per year. The CNG label follows the same labeling guidelines as the USDA organic seal, but it's more applicable to smaller farms that grow more than one crop. Look for the label at a grocery that buys local produce, as well as on fruits and vegetables sold at farmers' markets, CSA farms, local restaurants, co-ops, and small grocers. CNG randomly tests 10% of its members' products for pesticide residue to ensure the integrity of the program.
Biodynamic Farming This nongovernmental certified farming program declares the entire farm as sustainable and biodynamic. The rules are more stringent than those of organic food production for pest and weed management, crop rotation, composting, as well as water and energy conservation. Harvesting follows a moon calendar, which means you may see biodynamic farmers on their tractors in the moonlight. The principles of biodynamic farming were established by Rudolph Steiner; followers adopt an overall lifestyle that supports their environmentally conscious growing methods and interest in following the natural growing seasons. This means you won't find fresh peaches in December or just-picked apples in July that are certified biodynamic.
Integrated Pest Management I don't mean to pick on potato farmers; they have had a tough time with the low-carb craze. It's just that potatoes are particularly prone to pests and diseases, which is why pesticide and fungicide use is prevalent. A farming system called Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is turning the conventional potato industry around in a very positive direction. IPM uses old-fashioned farming methods, like those my grandfather taught my dad, such as soil preparation, well-timed planting to reduce infestation, frequent scouting and pest trapping, introduction of beneficial insects, as well as a definition of a clear threshold of infestation before a pesticide can be applied. IPM doesn't mean absolutely no pesticides or fungicides, just less. A Consumers Union study, using 1998 and 1999 data, showed what you might expect: the order of highest to lowest levels of pesticide residues were conventional, IPM, and organic. Today as many as 37% of potato growers have IPM programs, or better, in place.
One of the most noted IPM programs involves a collaborative effort by the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, the World Wildlife Fund, and the University of Wisconsin. Through a shared interest in cleaning up Wisconsin's potato industry, farmer participants reduced toxicity indexes by as much as 50%, especially for pesticides considered very toxic. Protected Harvest also certifies California IPM-grown strawberries, as well as California wine grapes. Protected Harvest also has grants to expand to dairy, almonds, tomatoes, and stone fruit in the Central Valley in California, which will begin in 2007.
There are varying degrees of IPM; some are more ecologically minded, while others have been nicknamed "Improved Pesticide Marketing," a phrase coined by Rex Dufour regarding the number of disparate IPM definitions. Ideally, IPM should mean, "ask questions first and spray later, but only as a last resort." But since IPM is not a government or third-party certified farming method, the decision about when to apply pesticides can be too hasty or suitably reserved, depending on the commitment by the farmer. The most stringent IPM method endorsed by Dufour is called bio-intensive IPM (BioIPM), which recognizes the same methods as more conventional IPM programs; however, the threshold for pesticide application is higher with bio-intensive methods.
The IPM system is a good one, one that should be visible in more grocery stores. It accepts the reality that not all farmers can or are willing to go completely organic. The biggest fault is the lack of a single list of prohibited substances allowed on crops and uniform oversight--there have been dozens and dozens of different definitions of IPM since its inception during the Nixon administration in the 1970s. When the concept was first introduced the goal was to convert as much as 75% of American farms to IPM; however, today the scope is somewhere between 4 and 30%. It wasn't until the last five years that the USDA even began setting goals and desired outcomes to define IPM as a marketable farming practice.
The most well-supported IPM consumer labeling program, sponsored by Wegmans grocers in New York, is a perfect case of demand outstripping supplies. In 1997, the company began an IPM certification program in cooperation with Cornell Cooperative Extension and the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets for its private-label fresh, canned, and frozen fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, the program is on now on hold as a victim of its own success. A company spokesperson says the IPM program isn't defunct; it's temporarily on hold until more producers sign on. Another victim of lack of support was the Massachusetts "Partners with Nature" IPM marketing program, which lost funding from the Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture in 2000. The program had operated for six years, with as many as fifty-one growers.
Dufour says the biggest barrier to acceptance of IPM programs is pressure from chemical companies, especially for farmers who lack the type of historical knowledge that is often passed down from generation to generation or at least a close relationship with local farm bureaus. It's not too surprising that farmers who rely on crop management advisers apply as much as two-thirds fewer pesticides as farmers who turn solely to chemical companies for advice. He says that often chemical company salesmen will serve as pest control managers--but since their paycheck depends on selling chemicals there is some conflict of interest in the relationship, a problem my father has witnessed all too often.
Dufour manages a USDA-sponsored free phone hotline and online resource for farmers who grow organically or simply want to convert to more sustainable farming methods, but the chemical salespeople are persistent and seem to always be available, he says. "Somewhere along the way, the concept of IPM was hijacked...," says Dufour, "and drifted away from ecological pest management."
The leading detractor for change is the true potential for, or fear of, crop loss. It wasn't until 2000 that Congress passed a bill to improve crop insurance coverage for farmers who choose IPM farming methods. The incentives for farmers to change to IPM practices are multifaceted; however, without adequate support and cold, hard cash from supporters other than chemical companies, there may be little incentive for the farmer to take such a risk.
Wash Behind Your Corn Ears: Food Safety Labels
Produce isn't the first food category that comes to mind for food-borne illnesses, but from 1990 to 2003 it was the leading cause, with 25,823 reported cases, outnumbering poultry by more than 13,000 and beef by almost 15,000, according to the numbers from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The cases include E. coli in bagged greens, salmonella from sliced tomatoes and cantaloupes, hepatitis in green onions, and parasites from raspberries. The sudden rise in illness has upped the awareness of microbes in convenience foods like bagged and presliced produce, and food scientists are working to correct it. For instance, you may notice that bagged lettuce resembles a plastic blowfish. This is from modified atmosphere packaging whereby ozone is pumped into the bags to prevent bacterial buildup. (See the Addendum in the back for additional information on spinach and E. coli.)
Fresh foods pose a greater risk for illness because we are eating more of them, which is a habit we shouldn't change. The other reason for the increase in illness is that more fruits and vegetables are imported from across the globe, where the standards for clean water irrigation and health and safety procedures may be less stringent.
One solution is awareness and traceability through mandatory country-of-origin labeling for produce, which has been met with strong opposition from food associations and has yet to be approved. There are behind-the-scenes improvements including good agricultural and manufacturing practices for all sectors of the supply chain and a traceable audit system, which emerged from new laws designed to protect food from bioterrorism--not food-borne illness.
At present, the only visible consumer warning is a result of government-supported "Fight Bac" education campaign with this clever character. The best protection is to wash your hands with soap and water before and after handling fruits and vegetables and follow these guidelines:
1. Don't buy bruised fruits or vegetables, and cut out any visible blemishes.
2. Rinse produce under running water, including those with skin and rinds that are not eaten. Rub or scrub firm-skinned produce with a clean vegetable brush, under running tap water.
3. Do not use detergent; water is fine. Vegetable washes are designed to remove wax, but they aren't antibacterial. Statistics show that washing fruits and vegetables under running water will remove some, but not all, pesticides from the skin.
4. If you are a high-health-risk individual, such as a person with an autoimmune disease or one who is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer or chronically ill, wash all fruits and vegetables--even if the label says prewashed. The FDA says that bagged, ready-to-eat produce need not be washed; however, one of the recent illness outbreaks involved bagged prewashed lettuce, so be aware.
5. Dry produce with a clean towel.
6. Keep produce separate from raw meat, poultry, and seafood in your shopping cart and at home. If produce comes in contact with raw meat or fish, throw it out.
7. Refrigerate all cut and peeled or cooked fruits and vegetables within two hours or throw it away.
8. Throw away any bruised and damaged portions of fruits or vegetables that will not be cooked. If in doubt, throw it out.
In recent years the EPA has begun the monumental task of removing some of the most toxic pesticides that have built up in our farming system and soil since the 1930s. The agency is paying better attention to the vulnerability of children to pesticide residues, but there is still work to be done.
While detection is not an indicator of health risk, the pesticide residue levels still raise concern. Environmental toxicologists say 80% of all pesticide exposure over a lifetime is from our diets (water and residential exposure accounts for the remaining 20%). Therefore, changing one's diet can be the single easiest way to reduce exposure. Now that organic foods are so readily available in grocery stores, you won't have to resort to growing your own as I once did.
The excuse of cheap food at any cost isn't supported any longer by consumers. It would be a good day if the only two choices consumers saw in the produce department were IPM and organic. Unfortunately, IPM has not been marketed as well as organic, namely because it isn't a single entity with monitored guidelines. For a successful program, one that consumers can trust, IPM needs the same government commitment and third-party certification for growing methods and finished products as the organic industry. The Protected Harvest IPM program is a good starting point.
There are other changes that need to take place before you will see any absolute and radical changes in the system, namely, interest from consumers and farmers. The chief reason the organic industry is growing at more than 20% a year is plain ol' profits. Yes, organic agriculture decreases exposure of pesticides, and yes, it is better for the environment. But now that organic agriculture and food production has moved past being a burgeoning cottage industry into mass markets, profit is the driving force. In other words, if we don't buy organic and IPM foods in quantities large enough to support the bottom line, neither will survive.
It will take a different kind of cajoling to convince conventional farmers to at least switch to IPM. The organic industry was founded by pure emotion and passion, while conventional farmers are grounded in more conservative rural values and are less willing to risk it all for a new world order. In the organic industry when activist groups called for boycotts and verbal assaults to attack the farming industry as a whole, organic farmers and like-minded consumers responded. But these tactics only make independent, salt-of-the-earth conventional farmers dig their clay-caked boot heels farther in the dirt. The most successful IPM programs are those that use cooperative partnerships, instead of bashing, as is witnessed by the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association and Protected Harvest collaboration. This pesticide reduction program based itself on not only the knowledge of conservationists but also the wisdom of conventional farmers and field-wise experts from farm bureaus.
Last, farmers need some guarantees and protection while making the conversion, such as better-funded research and crop insurance. Few consumers realize that farmers work on such slim margins that they have little room to maneuver and that financial ruin is at times as close as the next bend in the road. Let's take one last look at potatoes as an example. In 2000, the average consumer price for a ten-pound bag of potatoes was $3.80--the farmer saw $.66 of that; the remaining $3.14 went to packers and storage businesses, marketers and retailers. Of the $.66 the farmer saw, more than half, $.37, paid for the seeds, land, water, equipment, fertilizer, pesticides, and labor. This leaves the farmer with a $.29 profit--if yields are down and pests are up there are few options to change the status quo. Farmers say the money to come up with new techniques has to come from somewhere other than their well-worn pockets--like wealthy food processors and USDA-sponsored research grants, not chemical companies. It's time for the detractors to stop slinging the manure--organic is here to stay--IPM needs better support at the government, retail, and consumer level.
EATING BETWEEN THE LINES Copyright 2007 by Kimberly Lord Stewart.
Excerpted from Eating Between the Lines by Kimberly Lord Stewart. Copyright © 2007 Kimberly Lord Stewart. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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