Organics: Privilege or Responsibility?

Recently Mark Bittman of the New York Times wrote about sending the wrong message in an op-ed piece called "Leave 'Organic' Out of It." I am fan of Bittman, who writes about food for the Times opinion pages and is the Times magazine's lead food columnist. The article talks about communicating around some of the more current food issues. 

As my eyes hit the article somewhere midway, the first thing I saw was: 

Eating organic food is unquestionably a better option than eating nonorganic food; at this point, however, it's a privilege. But that doesn't make it a deal-breaking matter. Reducing the overload of synthetic chemicals and drugs in agriculture and the environment is a huge issue, as is eating better, but neither necessitates 'going organic.'

I disagree. For me, eating organically is a responsibility, not a privilege. My commitment to organics is to make sure I do my part to leave my children with a better, healthier planet. It's not just about today and this moment -- rather, it's about doing things with expanded thought and an interest in seeing a healthier future. It's bigger than eating a healthy lunch -- we must insure that future generations have healthy lunches.

The science is clear on the havoc that some pesticides, including those intended for home, lawn and garden rather than agricultural use, have created in our waterways -- not to mention the impact they have on human health. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports,

Approximately 1.1 billion pounds of pesticide active ingredient are used annually in the U.S., and over 20,000 pesticide products are being marketed in the U.S. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 10,000-20,000 physician-diagnosed pesticide poisonings occur each year among the approximately 2 million U.S. agricultural workers.

I am fortunate to know a few farmers. Although some of them don't have organic certification, I trust them implicitly. 

When I travel that is often not the case, and as a result I regularly reach for USDA Organic if it is available and affordable. I choose certified organic because I know firsthand what's involved in earning the green-and-white label of the USDA Organic brand, and that label is the only assurance I have when I don't have access to my local farmer. While I understand the greater good that comes with organic farming -- I am interested in reducing any potential exposures to pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics.

Buying organic supports a system that works to reduce harmful chemicals. Although not all chemicals are harmful, we do not have all the information about all of them.  A lack of scientific evidence does not mean a product is safe, as we learned from cigarettes and so many other products that were assumed safe until they were proven dangerous.

The USDA website says "organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used." These principles are important to me today and are important for a healthy future.

For me, there is also a convenience issue. When I shop I don't have time to review special guides or read extensive labels. Any choices I would make outside of the USDA Organic brand are purely guesswork -- unless, of course, I know my farmer.

While knowing your farmer seems rare, more and more people are getting to know their farmers in places like Detroit, where neighbors know their farmer and can trust their food to be good, even if it is not certified organic. Interestingly, Earthworks Urban Farm, a program of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, is the first organically certified farm in Detroit. According to its website, the soup kitchen serves 1,000 meals a day.

Since the founding of Less Cancer over a decade ago, organics have come a long way. The USDA reports that "the organic industry is one of the fastest growing agricultural segments in the United States today, with sales reaching nearly $35 billion in 2012."

If we are ever going to make changes in our health and the health of the environment, we are going to need a few assurances about the chemicals we use to grow foods -- especially because we do not have a full understanding of the consequences.

Organics a privilege?  Not so much.