Should you buy organic?

Whether for health, taste or to support sustainable farming, the choice to go organic isn’t just a simple one

Illustration By Martin Wickstrom

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Push a cart through any grocery store and you’ll be confronted with thousands of choices and questions. Seven-grain Kashi crackers or Triscuits? Oreos or Newman’s Own cookies? Grass-fed beef or regular, or maybe tofu? Conventionally grown strawberries on two-for-one special, or a basket of little (but redder) organic strawberries at $4 a basket? Bags of stubby faux-baby carrots, or big carrots with the feathery leaves attached and a little dirt still lurking in the skin? If you get the bunch, will your kids eat them? If you get the bag, should you pay extra for organic? Is there a real difference?

Organics has become big business. Many large mainstream supermarkets are jumping into the organic market—Safeway, for instance, has introduced an organic house label—and the variety and accessibility of organic foods has exploded. This sector of the grocery market is growing at some 15 percent to 20 percent a year—a particularly impressive number in the low-growth food-retailing sector.

On the most basic level, certified-organic food conforms to the United States Department of Agriculture’s standard, adopted in 2002, which ensures that that organic food has been produced without the use of harmful chemicals, such as pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. These organic standards are enforced by more than 50 domestic third-party certifiers accredited by the USDA. This seemingly simple standard, however, leaves plenty of unanswered questions for consumers and food producers alike.

Making sense of what the label “certified organic” means isn’t necessarily easy. Although national organic standards guarantee a certain uniformity in farming and food-production practices, they don’t guarantee that food is locally or sustainably produced, which is a priority for many who are sensitive to environmental concerns. Others question whether the “certified organic” label justifies the higher price tag organic foods command and whether organics will ever be affordable for lower-income shoppers. Talking to Sacramento consumers reveals that they are buying (or not buying) organic foods for a variety of reasons, varying from health concerns about their kids to a commitment to local agriculture—concerns that underscore the issues and controversies that swirl around organic foods.

What is organic?
The organic-agriculture movement arose from 1960s and 1970s counterculture, which encouraged a back-to-the-land sensibility and a corresponding rejection of large industrial food production. Farming without using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides became another way of rejecting mainstream culture—and of producing food that was seen as more authentic and better for you.

Bija Young, produce clerk, stocks the shelves at Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op with organic citrus.

Photo By Larry Dalton

The organic label in California has its roots in the early 1970s, when grassroots organizations of farmers banded together to set standards for the term “certified organic.” In California, the result was California Certified Organic Farmers, formed in 1973, now the state’s largest organic certifier and trade association.

In many ways, this grassroots image still clings to the organic label. As Michael Pollan points out in his recent book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which explores different food systems (including conventional, big organic and local organic), marketers are happy to reinforce this image through what he calls “supermarket pastoral”: a farmer’s wife depicted on an egg carton, say, or a cow luxuriating in tall grass on a milk carton. But these days, an organic farm (or processing plant) often is enormous, on the scale of analogous conventional farms.

Sean Feder, director of inspections for CCOF, has been an organic inspector since 1991, and he notes that while organic standards have remained similar over time, the demographics of food production have shifted. “Fifteen years ago, the legal definition of organic was essentially what it is now, because generally the federal rule is in line with the compliance standards we had before,” Feder says. “However, then when you said organic, there was more of an implication that [a product] came from an old-fashioned, family-owned farm.”

Not all farmers agree with Feder’s assessment that organic standards have remained strong enough. Shawn Harrison, executive director of Sacramento’s Soil Born Farm Urban Agriculture Project, feels that the organic industry’s growth has undermined the original movement’s vision. “The organic label as a whole has been watered down, tremendously so, in the last five years or so,” Harrison says. “The original vision for certified organic was that it would be this tool to ensure the quality and integrity of the food for the consumer and create standardized guidelines for small growers. And what’s happened is that … the bigger guys have come in and there’s money to be made and they start buying out some of the smaller farms.” Harrison acknowledges that big organic is preferable to big conventional agribusiness. “Any kind of organic food production is good because there are limiting uses of herbicides and pesticides and are measurably more sustainable, but in a lot of ways this is counter to the original vision of organic, and that is small, local food production.”

Whether farms or food producers are big or small, labeling food “organic” means following certain guidelines: no synthetic fertilizers and pesticides may have been used for at least three years, though many products and soil amendments are approved for organic use. An annual inspection is required, and growers and processors must keep detailed records of all food production. For Jim Durst, a fourth-generation farmer in Esparto who has been growing organically since the late 1980s, growing asparagus, tomatoes, melons and squash organically carries with it a complete philosophy.

“Do you know the difference between conventional and organic agriculture?” Durst asks. “The premise for conventional agriculture is that you feed the plant. In organic agriculture, you’re more concerned with the soil and its microorganisms and you feed that.” Practices to achieve this end include crop rotation and cover cropping (that is, growing crops that fix nitrogen in the soil). Durst contends that healthier soil creates more nutrient-rich crops; tests done by the Rodale Institute on conventional and organic crops support his view.

Alta Tura has subscribed to an organic community-supported agriculture program through Good Humus Produce for more than 10 years. “Organic [is] better for the earth and the people who work on the farm,” she says.

Photo By Larry Dalton

What drives consumer demand for organic foods? The sense that such foods are “healthier” often comes from concerns about pesticide residues for both personal health and the environment. Others hope to buy local for freshness or to support regional economies, or are concerned about farmworker safety, the use of fossil fuels in food production, or the use of synthetic fertilizers, which cause algae blooms and other problems for marine life.

Comparing conventional and organic agriculture on these grounds seems to make the choice clear. Offsetting these sometimes abstract worries, however, are concerns about price and availability. Because prices for organic food are typically higher than for comparable conventional items (milk, for instance, may be up to twice the price), the organic movement has been met with charges of elitism.

Moreover, as big growers and food processors have jumped into the organic market and the connection of the organic label to local production, sustainability and environmental responsibility has become murkier, many consumers are left wondering whether organic is worth the price—or, in the case of organic agribusiness, whether it represents a choice they want to support.

Buy organic, buy local?
Alta Tura buys organic out of a strong concern for supporting local farms and helping the environment. For 10 years, she has subscribed to an organic community-supported agriculture box from Good Humus Produce in the Capay Valley. CSA subscriptions can take various forms, but in the most common—and the one that Good Humus uses—the farm assembles a box of its produce weekly, dropping it off for subscribers to pick up at a central location near them. Subscribers pay in advance, on a quarterly basis, and the type and amount of produce they receive varies with the seasons. She chose to get the box, she says, “for all the reasons the farmers say. It’s good for the farmer. It’s a way of supporting a local business, and we like organic because it’s better for the earth and the people who work on the farm.”

These larger environmental effects, Tura notes, are “the main reason we eat organic—not so much out of concerns of getting poison toxins in the food we eat. We’re more concerned about what happens to the earth. And I like the idea that it doesn’t take as many nonrenewable resources to get it to me. If everybody would do more local buying of their food, we’d cut way back.” (Pollan notes that on average it takes “between seven and 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to deliver one calorie of food energy to an American plate.”)

Tura does most of the rest of her shopping by walking to the Trader Joe’s near her East Sacramento home. There, or at other stores, she’d rather choose locally grown items than organic: “If I have my choice at the store between buying something that said it was organic and came from another country or it was not organic and came from the [Central] Valley, I’d buy the non-organic, unless it was something like strawberries”—that is, one of the crops grown with the most damaging practices.

Paul Cultrera, general manager of the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, says the Co-op’s move to all organic produce has been met with an enthusiastic customer response: “Our customers said, ‘We want local and we want organic,’ “ he says.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Tura is also drawn to the human face of small, local organic farming. She gets much of her information about organics and agricultural practices, as well as recipes for the food that comes in her box, “from Jeff and Annie”—the Mains, who own Good Humus and who write a weekly newsletter to accompany their fruits and vegetables. The Mains have farmed organically since 1976, and they are working to preserve Good Humus’ 20 acres permanently through an agricultural easement.

This kind of organic farming was the aim of the original movement. But while the Capay Valley is within the 100-mile radius that committed “buy local” activists often consider to be part of a region’s “foodshed,” there are even closer local farms. Sacramento County’s only certified organic farm is tiny Soil Born, a nonprofit that is expanding from its current backyard-sized location on Hurley Way to a larger site in Rancho Cordova along the American River Parkway. On the new site, agriculture will go hand in hand with habitat restoration, undertaken in partnership with the California Native Plant Society.

Soil Born runs a small CSA program. Proceeds from it and from retail sales help fund community programs, where they work with kids, seniors and low-income residents to improve access to organic food. Harrison says CSAs have been “one of the shining lights of the organic small-farm movement. It’s an easy way for people to get a direct connection with the grower, something we’ve gotten away from: Farmers grow the food.”

For Harrison, the local provenance of food is integral to the organic movement. “There are two very different organics, and most consumers are not aware of that. We advocate for local sustainable organic, and in a lot of ways our vision is very different from, say, that of a consumer who buys an organic product at Whole Foods. They actually may buy some of our product and they buy some other local products, and we advocate for that, but most of their products are not [local].”

Others, such as Durst, take a slightly different view, pointing out that consumers have come to expect access to a wide range of food, often non-local. “There’s a mythology going around that locally grown food from small farms is better for everybody,” says Durst. “If you really analyze what is locally grown, does that mean somebody in Minnesota can’t have oranges, and does it mean that you don’t want to eat any more mangoes? Because they’re not going to come from the Sacramento Valley. These are good rules of thumb, but people need to recognize that people in Minnesota may want to have an orange.”

Durst’s own produce is shipped up and down the West Coast through distributors. In answer to those concerned that non-local produce is not as fresh, he points out that his produce can be ready for sale in Portland the day after picking. Even areas like California, where local produce is abundant, may have to rely on food shipped from elsewhere at certain times of year when local crops are out of season. California grows a great deal of lettuce, for instance, but in winter it’s grown in Arizona; local asparagus is in season in spring, but this time of year it is shipped from South America.

Sarah Ellis estimates that between 80 percent and 90 percent of the food she buys is organic, thanks in part to concern for the health of her 1-year-old daughter, Ava.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Soil Born sells its products locally at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, as well as at Whole Foods, where store team leader Mimo Massyle says that 10 percent to 30 percent of produce items are locally sourced, depending on the season. In the gleaming produce department hangs a sign showing how many organic items are available (50 percent to 60 percent of the produce department is organic, Massyle says), but there’s no comparable tracking for local produce.

At the Co-op, general manager Paul Cultrera says all the produce is organic, a switch made several years ago when it became clear that organic produce was outselling conventional. “Before we made the switch, we talked to customers and I was surprised at how receptive the customer base was,” Cultrera says. “I thought they would be concerned about price, but the overwhelming response was, ‘We want to buy locally and we want to buy organic.’ ” The Co-op carries between 50 percent and 60 percent organic products on its grocery shelves; Cultrera estimates that about 75 percent of the Co-op’s new products are organic.

Because small local farms often fall outside mainstream distribution channels, working with local growers can be challenging. “Buying locally directly from farmers is a hassle,” Cultrera says. “It’s a lot easier to call your distributor and say, ‘Bring me a truckload.’ It’s tougher to call 20 or 30 local farmers.”

Cultrera credits the Co-op’s educational efforts with the growing organic customer base locally. In turn, there has been strong customer demand for further information. “We started a signage program to indicate which farm produce comes from,” he says. “It’s gotten to the point where we joke that some people want to know which field at Full Belly Farm something comes from.”

Much of this demand comes from dedicated organic consumers, who, Cultrera says, often track issues of interest to the natural-foods community, such as the acquisition of small organic companies by large food conglomerates. “The really hard-core natural-foods shoppers come in and tell us that Dagoba [an organic-chocolate company] has been acquired by Hershey, and say, ‘What are you going to do about that?’ ” Cultrera says. “People really speak up here.”

At the same time, many customers are more interested in freshness and health than in consumer activism. As the organic movement has spread, its products have attracted more shoppers—especially parents, whose concerns for their kids’ health have led some analysts to characterize kid-friendly organic products like milk and certain produce a “gateway.”

Shawn Harrison, executive director of Sacramento’s nonprofit Soil Born Farm Urban Agriculture Project, is concerned about the difference between big organic producers and small local farms such as Soil Born: “There are two very different organics, and most consumers are not aware of that,” he says.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Organic food and health
Health concerns, particularly for her 1-year-old daughter, underlie the shopping habits of Sarah Ellis, an architect whose second child is due in March. She moved to a predominantly organic diet when trying to conceive her first child, and says she was “really conscious” of it when she was pregnant. She was first exposed to organic and natural foods while growing up: “We always had good food,” she says. “My mom always shopped at health-food stores. We didn’t have a lot of money, but she put the money into good food.”

Now, Ellis estimates that 80 percent to 90 percent of the food she buys is organic, and she cites concerns about the health effects as the reason: “Number one is the pesticides that are used in food production,” she says. According to CCOF, the Environmental Protection Agency considers 60 percent of herbicides, 90 percent of fungicides and 30 percent of insecticides to be carcinogens.

Durst agrees that pesticides are dangerous. “We’re all exposed,” he says. “It’s in the air we breathe. It’s on the food. It’s present in the soil. There’s still DDT in the soil that was applied in the ’50s, and it’s still in our food chain. It’s just that we’ve allowed certain levels of parts per million, and so as long as you stay below those levels it’s deemed safe. I think our tolerance level should be zero.”

Ellis does relax her standards on some out-of-season produce or especially expensive items. “I sometimes buy conventional and wash them with a veggie wash, so the pesticide comes off,” she says. “I figure it’s better to just get some produce.” With a toddler at home, certain foods are necessities, organic or not. “I did buy non-organic raisins the other day, even though with dried fruits I’ve heard there’s more of a concentration of pesticide residues, but I was desperate.”

Unlike Tura, Ellis—who shops mainly at the Co-op, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods—is less concerned about the distinction between agribusiness and local producers. On a Whole Foods shopping trip, she looks at conventional and organic grapes (the prices were the same) and chooses organic carrots, commenting that carrots were the first product where she noticed a taste difference between organic and conventional produce. “Organic carrots are so much more rich in flavor, I could just eat them straight,” she says. “I notice a taste difference with organic eggs and certain fruits and vegetables.”

Whole Foods team leader Massyle agrees, citing flavor as the primary reason for buying organic: “You can’t beat the taste,” he says. “I’m not a doctor—to comment on the health benefits—but most customers notice the taste.”

In addition to the taste, there may be health benefits to organic foods aside from its simple lack of pesticide residues. “It’s been scientifically proven that there’s more nutritional value [in organic produce],” Durst says. “Because of the soil, there are more minerals and more usable antioxidants.” Both that and the lack of pesticide residues, he says, drive consumer demand for organics: “Especially when people start having kids, there’s something about the health of their kids.”

Despite the growing availability of organic food, however, it’s not available to all. Such health concerns might be a moot point to people who find organic food too expensive or who can’t find it where they live.

Organics and the price-conscious consumer
Natasha Martin, an educational consultant who lives in Natomas, shops primarily at Trader Joe’s and a Bel Air near her home. She estimates that between 10 percent and 15 percent of the food she buys is organic. “I look for certain items in organics, but I’m very price-conscious as well,” she says.

Martin comparison-shops to see how far apart prices are and makes her decision based on the differential. “If [an organic item] is within the same dollar range, I probably would buy it,” Martin says.

She also prioritizes her organic purchases based on where she feels she’s getting the most for her dollar. For fruit, she feels that organic often means better taste and quality. She’s also conscious of pesticide residues in greens. “Lettuce is my biggest thing, and spinach,” she says. She notes, however, that the recent spinach scare, which implicated organic spinach, “highlighted trying to buy things that are a little more local” and avoiding large agribusinesses. “But I’ve rediscovered sautéed spinach,” she says, laughing.

Many such price-conscious consumers prioritize their purchases according to what makes the best use of their dollar. A widely publicized list of the “dirty dozen”—conventional produce containing the highest pesticide residues—has been issued by the Environmental Working Group. The worst offenders: peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, imported grapes, spinach, lettuce and potatoes.

Not everyone agrees that organic food carries too high a price tag. Durst, for instance, notes: “It’s not that organic food is too expensive. It’s that a lot of the other food is too cheap.” Among the hidden costs of conventional food production are billions of dollars in federal subsidies, as well as environmental and other damages. “If all of the factors are taken into consideration, the organic is actually cheaper,” Durst says. “If you can spend a little more money for things that may be from a more socially responsible food-production system, there’s a lot of value in that.”

For consumers like Martin, whether to pay that higher price for what may be higher value is a choice. Lower-income consumers, however, may not have reliable access to any fresh produce, let alone organics, and they can’t afford the extra premium that organic food commands. That is the kind of inequality that Soil Born farm was founded to address.

“One of our goals as an organization is to improve food access and get food into the diets of those who are not getting good access to fruits and vegetables,” says Soil Born’s Harrison. “Del Paso Heights or Oak Park are perfect examples of neighborhoods where access to fresh, whole produce is somewhat limited. The idea is that we would be able to get food boxes and donations to soup kitchens to those areas.”

The inspiration for working with these underserved populations came from his and farm director Marco Franciosa’s previous volunteer experience. “We saw that there was a great way to grow food—high-quality, nutritious food—but that the people who really need it the most don’t have access to it,” Harrison says. “We wanted to get ourselves in a position where we could grow food that was either subsidized by local donations or through our sales. We don’t want to undervalue food, but there are certain situations where people just can’t afford it.”

The Co-op, whose Sacramento location is not far from the edge of Oak Park, does draw what general manager Cultrera says is “a fair amount of business” from that neighborhood. It has instigated a 10 percent community-discount program for low-income residents, which is extended to anyone shopping using food stamps. “We’ve seen the percentage of our food stamp sales more than double,” Cultrera says. “It’s still a small overall percentage, but we’ve been able to try to reach out to a part of the community that felt excluded” because of price.

“What we see, here and everywhere, is that the profile of the natural-foods shopper is widening,” Cultrera says. “There are more people coming from lower-income and ethnic groups. The traditional natural-foods shopper no longer exists.”

The future of organic
As organic agriculture and food production has grown, splits in the community—and in consumer reasons for buying (or not buying) organic foods—have developed. Some have questioned whether the future of organic foods lies in two directions: one label for small local farmers, one for industrial organic.

“There needs to be something to distinguish the grower who’s doing everything right,” Harrison says. “The majority of the growers are doing it right, but there are a few really big ones that are borderline. They’re not the organic I imagine.” Cultrera agrees that large-scale organic production risks making the label as a whole less meaningful. “If organic means something that’s grown in China and flown across the ocean, it may be grown organically, but how sustainable is that? The emphasis on local is very important to us.”

Harrison cautions that he would be reluctant to see a secondary “organic” label because of the risk of confusing the customer. Instead, he says, a label for “food miles,” indicating how far away a food was produced, might be the solution. The CCOF’s Feder, however, points out that large-scale organic production is an improvement on conventional production—something most in the organic community concede. “I’m glad that the large, big, huge farms are going organic,” he says. “It means [fewer] pesticides on the land. It’s better for farms, good for the birds and good for the consumers.”

Should you buy organic? Ultimately, the decision comes down to personal choice and priorities. Price-conscious consumers may shy away; those who oppose agribusiness may seek out small-farm products through CSAs or at farmers’ markets. Feder notes that the choice to buy more organic operates on many different levels: “On the whole, it’s more environmentally friendly. If people want to be supporting smaller businesses, there may be higher percentage of family farms in organic offerings than in conventional, but you really have to look for other labels like locally grown.” Feder, who lives in Davis and shops at the Davis Co-op, says nearly all the produce he buys is organic. “I’m really not that comfortable eating conventional broccoli and celery.”

The expanding consumer awareness of concerns, of pesticide residues and environmental effects of conventional agriculture, mean that, despite rifts within the organic community, the growth of organic seems likely to continue. As Durst puts it, “Why wouldn’t I eat organic food?”

Illustration By Martin Wickstrom

Dirty dozen
Highest in pesticides
sweet bell peppers
grapes (imported)

Illustration By Martin Wickstrom

Cleanest 12
Lowest in pesticides
sweet corn (frozen)
sweet peas (frozen)
kiwi fruit

From the Environmental Working Group’s Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce