To buy organic, or not to buy organic? Does it make a difference?
It might as well be the existential, soul-defining question of our age, the way it’s debated hotly in popular media, academic circles, and blogs.
Organics, of course, have zero to do with the soul but can sometimes feel as important as religion or faith.
The question runs deep into people’s convictions about the world, their health, government and big business, personal rights, social justice, environmental stewardship and financial ability.
Personally, in our home, we are still a mixture of organic and conventional, both produce and dry goods. It’s been a journey over the last 8 years, before which time I never thought much about organics at all except to grab baby carrots in the organic version when they cost the same as the conventional.
Since then, I’d say our path has ambled something like this:
- 2005/6: Try to buy organic produce when convenient, especially the Dirty Dozen, for the baby. He’s so little and doesn’t need those chemicals.
- The popular parenting magazines would tell me at the time that buying milk and meat organic should be a priority, since the pesticides and toxic chemicals build up in the animals in greater proportion/density than produce. I would laugh, thinking, “I could do that, but then we wouldn’t have any other food…” We had one humble income, and my 6 hours a week working in a school kept us in the black instead of red, with plenty of penny pinching.
- 2007: After a while I would try to stock up on “NatureWell” brand ground beef when it was on sale, hoping that it really was better than the store brand…but it probably was such a small step up that it made little difference in the long run. Mostly a marketing gimmick.
- 2008/9: When child number two was born, 3 years after number one, that was when our conversion truly began. I started reading Nourishing Traditions and other real food blogs to figure out how to start my own…and it was all downhill from there! A month before I started blogging and only a month after I started poking into traditional foods, we were getting a gallon, one precious gallon, of raw milk a week. I still bought conventional whole milk to make homemade yogurt though, but it was a step in the organic direction – 100% organic and grassfed milk.
- Our consumption of organic produce increased as the next few years passed, mostly when I could source it at a similar price to conventional, especially local at the farmer’s markets. I still was far from getting everything organic, even the Dirty Dozen, but I was making strides.
- 2010: I began buying a good deal of our beef from a local farmer at the market, grassfed, organic. A huge shift in financial commitment, but meat (and other food) prices were beginning to rise alarmingly in the regular grocery stores at the time as well, so the price difference wasn’t as vast as it had been. I learned to use less meat in my cooking in general, and we also began to source whole organic chickens from a local farm. That drastically changed our menu plans – no more boneless, skinless chicken breast! Just whole birds, lots of chicken stock, less meat in each meal and ever more homemade items to save on packaged food costs.
- Some dry goods begin to shift to organic because I was ordering in bulk from Country Life, but not if the price difference was very big. I still don’t prioritize organics heavily in the budget.
- 2011: Baby number three is born, we move into a new house after living with my in-laws for 5 months, and I have to learn a whole new “foodshed” to source meat, milk, eggs, and produce. I feel blessed that the farmer I used to buy meat from at the main farmer’s market now lives 10 minutes from my house, so I’m able to source raw milk, grassfed beef, milk-fed, pastured pork and occasionally, chickens and eggs, all in one place. Chicken otherwise is hit and miss, but we started a membership at Costco and buy their organic birds (and chicken breasts, a huge splurge!).
- The blog has become a business, which causes two major impacts on food shopping: (1) I’m much, much busier and don’t have the time to run all over town to save a buck or two. (2) I have some discretionary funds…so I put them in the food budget and let loose quite a bit. I choose organic dry goods, because I can, now. I grab organic lettuce 90% of the time at the grocery and focus on it at market in the summer. I still can’t stomach the cost of organic peppers in the grocery store but try to freeze a ton in the summer for winter use. Canned tomatoes now come in glass jars from Tropical Traditions, organic. I never buy conventional meat – it makes me shudder – so we only eat it when we’re out or visiting someone, and I just choose not to worry. I buy organic or at least ‘better’ cheese about 50% of the time now…and sheesh, that’s a huge increase, like 3-4x as much as conventional cheese. Not for the weak of budget.
After I found out my dad had cancer, I did a lot of research to help him fight cancer with food. I collated all the information I found, the research-based and the slightly off-the-wall, into a few lists of foods to eat often, sometimes, hardly ever and hopefully never.
I printed out a list for my parents, and I’ve created a PDF for you to print, too.
Even with about 75-90% of our food eaten in the home ending up organic at this point, I still don’t tell people it’s a “must have.” Finances are a huge concern on this issue, and I haven’t forgotten what a small food budget feels like. Ours increased a breathtaking amount when I just spent whatever I wanted, more or less. Staggering. Not everyone has that luxury, and I’m grateful, but also realistic when I give advice.
“Organics Aren’t All About Just Your Family!”
People tend to jump on the “best for everyone” side of the issue when I publicly state that organics can’t be of primary importance for every eater, or even for every purchase for my own family.
The environment, air quality, runoff into the Gulf of Mexico…the dying, nutrient-starved soil in much of our farmlands, the toxic load of pesticides in our water supply, etc. etc. etc. There are plenty of reasons why every farmer should grow organically for the good of the world!
On the other hand, there is some credence to be given to the environmental arguments against buying organics: the massive transportation costs for many items coming from other countries; the supply issue, that organically grown food would not have a big enough yield to meet demand, some claim; and the “big organics” problem that results when “certified organic” pesticides are used, partly because often more needs to be applied to do the same job, and sometimes they’re harmful in their own right, but if approved, big organic farms will use them.
Nothing is easy in the world of food, is it?
What About my Health? Aren’t Organics Better for ME?
There have been some who say that eating organics not only protects you from the harmful toxins in chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers but also that organic food has more vitamins, minerals, phyto-nutrients and more and therefore has the nutritional upper hand.
There was quite an uproar in late 2012 when studies came out slamming organics both for not resulting in healthier people who eat them but also that the nutrient profiles and general safety were pretty much the same between organic and conventionally raised produce and meat.
More recently, a Slate.com article went a bit viral stating that conventional produce is just as good for kids as organic. I wrote a lengthy rebuttal to that piece already, so you can read a good deal about how I feel about chemical vs. “organic” pesticides, the 2012 studies, and the total toxin load our bodies have to bear by living in this world.
But Will Conventional Farm Chemicals Cause Cancer?
You better believe that the article I just mentioned, which I wrote in early February, was on my mind just a few weeks later as I was shopping to take food to my parents after my dad was diagnosed with bladder cancer. (Here’s what I cooked while I was there along with a list of foods to eat and avoid, and here are the top 10 fruits and veggies I recommend everyone eat more of to bolster their defenses against cancer.)
Although as I’ve explained, I don’t prioritize organics 100% for my own family, even with young children at the table, my thoughts were heavy while shopping for my dad.
I decided without much contemplation needed that while battling cancer that already exists, while undergoing the ravages chemo puts on a body, that we needed to help him reduce his total toxin load as much as possible! What he drank, ate, breathed, put on his skin…everything should be as pure and natural as possible, because at this point, why risk adding fuel to the fire? Why give his body a speck of anything else he potentially has to fight or endure?
I was compelled to choose organic everything every time there was the opportunity, no matter the cost differential.
And yes…it does kind of make me wonder about my day-to-day choices, because who knows when one of us might have cancer already inside them that is lurking unannounced…
Watch this trailer right now.
Other posts in the cancer series: