Organic Foods and Frugality

tomatoA few of my friends are big believers in buying organic produce. They basically won’t buy anything at all that’s not certified USDA Organic, and they claim loudly and repeatedly that this is really the only way to go if you care about your health.

To me, it’s more a matter of personal preference than anything else. While there are some benefits to organic food, there are some serious limitations to it as well.

First of all, with regards to the question of whether organic foods are better for you, it’s pretty hard to trust most sources of information. Almost every source of information has a clear bias on the topic, from pro-organic folks listing lots of positive attributes to others claiming there are no health benefits at all. Both sides have significant scientific literature that “proves” their perspective.

What’s the actual truth? As usual, it’s probably somewhere in the middle – organic foods probably do have a small number of benefits over non-organic crops, but the claims that some make about the benefits of the foods are likely overblown. Almost always, when you have two sides shouting loudly with very different perspectives, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

What about the lack of chemicals in organics? That’s largely overrated, too. Take a look at the USDA regulations on what is considered “organic,” particularly starting on page 427, where it lists materials allowed for use in organic crop production. I’ve selected a few allowed items:

calcium hypochlorite
chlorine dioxide
soap-based algicide
calcium polysulfide
copper sulfate
lignin sulfonate

I just pulled out a few, actually, from the first few pages of the list, largely to prove the point that claims that organic foods are free of chemicals is nonsensical. Sure, most of the items on this list are perfectly benign, but are you going to study each of these chemicals to make sure your food is safe? If you aren’t, you’re in the same boat of trusting the USDA and the FDA as you would be when you buy non-organics.

In a nutshell, organic foods are likely somewhat better for you than non-organics, and are likely better for the environment as well. Is it enough of a difference to account for the difference in price? Maybe, maybe not – it depends on your values – but to believe that USDA-certified organics are strictly and clearly superior to non-organics is a substantial overstatement, especially when you consider the dollar value of the food.

Here’s the real truth: if you are really committed to foods that are produced with the environment in mind, grow them yourself or participate in a co-op that grows them to a strict standard. The vegetables in my garden are fertilized by compost I make myself, and the only things I spray on them are vinegar-based bug and critter repellents that I make myself in the kitchen. That’s food I’m glad to feed my family. When you buy food, at some point you have to trust others, regardless of whether you buy USDA-certified organic food or not. As for me, I’m perfectly happy buying the non-organics and mixing them with the food I grow myself.

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