Sultan: Is organic food worth it? | lifestyles | –

Aisha Sultan is home and family editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
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Among the earliest advice I received when I first became pregnant was to switch to organic milk, eggs and chicken.
A friend, who speaks authoritatively when dishing parenting advice, said her pediatrician had given her this guidance. It’s the hormones, she said.
At the time, which was nearly two decades ago, making this change would add noticeably to our weekly grocery bill. But I was just as anxious as the next middle-class mom-to-be about nourishing my developing baby.
I had a nagging sense that something wasn’t quite right about our food supply. I had seen the reports about synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, bovine growth hormone, steroids and antibiotics used in commercial farming and factory-farmed meat production. The more disconnected we become from our food supply, the more ominous these techniques sound. I wasn’t raising or growing any of the food we consumed, but we needed it to live. We were dependent on those with commercial interests in food to make sure our food was safe.
I couldn’t find definitive answers on the benefits of organic food with the research available at the time. Nevertheless, it seemed safer to err on the side of caution. My husband, more attuned to the weekly grocery bill, was less sold on the idea, especially when I started expanding the list of items I preferred to purchase as organic. The Environmental Working Group publishes a list of “The Dirty Dozen,” fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residue when conventionally grown. They include thin-skinned fruit like strawberries and cherries. Organic strawberries will cost anywhere from 50% to 100% more than conventional ones. If we made all the substitutions on that “Dirty Dozen” list, that would make a significant difference in our monthly food costs. Like many others, we pick and choose our organic battles.
In the ensuing decades, the demand for organic produce has skyrocketed.
Interestingly, many leading medical information sites, such as the Mayo Clinic, Harvard Health and Web MD, still take a conservative approach to the question of whether organic food is better for you and worth the premium price. There is less pesticide residue and potentially small to moderate increases in some nutrients, but it’s unclear whether there is a discernible effect on people’s health because of this. They all agree adding more fruits and vegetables to one’s diet is a healthy option regardless of whether they are conventional or organic. A conventional, nonorganic apple is always going to be a better food choice than a candy bar.
Also across-the-board, they say that organic foods are better for the environment because of cleaner, more sustainable farming practices. So, even if the jury’s still out on the personal health benefits, we could feel virtuous about doing good by the planet.
Not so fast, says Michael Swanson, an agricultural economist with Wells Fargo. He argues that the way to minimize farming’s impact on the environment is to farm fewer acres, which creates lower water usage and a lower carbon footprint. Organic farming produces lower yields. The tradeoff is a bigger environmental footprint, he said. He also says there is little conclusive evidence that organic foods are any safer or healthier than conventional foods.
Now, there are also studies that suggest organic farms have healthier soil, use less fertilizer, herbicide and energy. They point to some notable environmental advantages over conventional systems. The biggest selling points for organic foods are the idea that they are better for you and better for the world.
“That’s a claim you should be able to validate,” Swanson said.
When it comes to food, however, many of our choices are based more on emotion than reason. That’s not how an economist prefers to make financial decisions. I asked him if he buys organic foods for his family.
“It’s hit and miss,” he said. They shop at Costco, which offers certain items only as organic. They will buy those items, but not specifically because they are organic.
“We get it when we see it as an advantageous buy,” he said.
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Aisha Sultan is home and family editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Email notifications are only sent once a day, and only if there are new matching items.

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