Do We Need to Rethink Organic?

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For a health company, the very idea of rethinking organic seems blasphemous.

If this were still 1977, I wouldn't consider backing off from a quest for as much organic food in my family's market basket as possible.

But extremely dangerous chemicals have been outlawed. Chlordane was banned years ago. Ditto DDT. Paraquat is still around, but even its use is highly regulated.

We also have the Environmental Working Group (EWG) watching our food supply. It constantly tests the levels of pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables.

The EWG is a great example of how time has moved on for organic produce and food safety.

EWG compiles a new “Dirty Dozen” list of produce every year. These are the foods most likely to be tainted with pesticides when they reach the market. You should always buy organic (or grow your own) if the food appears on EWG's Dirty Dozen list.

For the record, the current Dirty Dozen are spinach, strawberries, nectarines, apples, peaches, pears, cherries, grapes, celery, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, and potatoes. Buy organic. Always.

On the other hand, and back to our original question, EWG also has a “clean” list each year. These are fruits and vegetables that rarely have pesticide residues. You can safely buy conventional (non-organic) produce from this list.

EWG's “Clean 15” includes avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, onions, frozen sweet peas, papayas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplant, honeydew melons, kiwi, cantaloupe, cauliflower, and broccoli. Save your money and feel free to buy conventionally grown produce from this list if you wish.

But now there's another twist on our original question—should we reconsider organic?

This one is a real gut-wrencher.  Unhappily, organic crops are not as climate-friendly.

Scientists researching the issue calculated that organic peas have a 50% greater impact on the climate than conventionally raised ones do. For some crops such as winter wheat, the organic version has as much as a 70% greater impact.

The reason for this is land use. Fields of crops raised organically have lower yields. And that means that more deforestation must take place to create larger growing areas.

The bottom line is this—yes, it is time to rethink organic. You can argue that buying some produce, like conventional broccoli, from the Clean 15 list is environmentally responsible. So is sustainable-raised or harvested seafood, and swapping out beef for chicken and pork, which have a lower carbon footprint.

At least it's good to know that Maine lobster and non-organic guacamole are righteous choices.


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