Six things to think about before you buy organic. ~ Jennifer Mo

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How awesome would it be if a tidy little green and white label could tell you that your food was grown with minimal impact on the environment and evidence-based consideration for long term human and ecological sustainability?

If certified organic had a 1:1 correlation with environmental and social responsibility, I would jump on the 100% organic bandwagon. Right now.

Unfortunately, organic is a marketing term, and a highly profitable one. The cynical part of me sees the way big corporations have gotten in on the action and wonders: if organic growing practices have a higher cost that is passed on to the consumers, why is it so profitable that huge corporations want in?

What am I actually paying for?

While I still think that more of the farmers who are paying closest attention to sustainability are organic, buying organic food doesn’t excuse us from continuing to ask questions about the impact of our food. Answers, as always, are hard to come by.

Here I want to acknowledge how hard it is to wrench food from the earth. As someone who has managed to get aphids on indoor herbs, I have tons of respect for farmers who go out there and grow food in the face of unpredictable weather and fierce competition from insects, bacteria, viruses, and small mammals. I also recognize that, however you farm, you drastically alter the ecosystem of the area you farm. There’s no way around that. When it comes to eco-friendly farming, we’re always already talking about compromises.

Anyway, I’ve come up with some questions to ask before buying organic. It’s more of a wishlist than a realistic set of questions to interrogate your local farmer with on Saturday mornings, but it’s a way to start thinking about these complex issues. Most of these also apply to conventional agriculture. What would you add?

1. How does this organic farm manage pests?

Contrary to popular thought, organic does not mean pesticide free. It usually does mean free of synthetic pesticides (some synthetic substances, like pheromones, are allowed—the National Organic Program has a list of organic-OK pesticides that all certified farmers abide by), but it doesn’t tell you how often [natural] pesticides were used, how many different ones, how much, or how safe. Natural pesticides are sometimes less efficient than synthetic equivalents, resulting in either crop loss, higher quantities of pesticides, or both. (See this study comparing environmental impact of synthetic and natural pesticides.)

Unfortunately, natural pesticides are not necessarily gentler on animals or soil. According to Professor James McWilliams of Just Food, sulfur, which is a commonly used natural fungicide that is allowed in organic agriculture, is responsible for many farm worker injuries, is toxic to fish, and contributes to topsoil pollution. Another, copper sulfate, persists indefinitely, bioaccumulates in fish, and is classified by the EPA as a type I toxin (most toxic; glyphosate, in comparison, is a type III). Read more about pesticides used in organic farming here. Like synthetic pesticides, some are relatively safe, some are very toxic, some bioaccumulate, some don’t. They need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Better answers for this question would be things like crop rotation, crop diversification, integrated pest management, and cultivating beneficial predator populations.

What gets me is this: by drawing a line between natural and synthetic, the National Organic Program creates a binary based on ideology, not safety records. There is nothing intrinsically safer about natural pesticides. I would prefer to support a farmer who used integrated pest management to control pests, using the lowest effective dose of an appropriate, well-tested chemical (synthetic or otherwise) as a last resort.

2. Does the farm till to control weeds? How often?

Tilling seems like an intrinsic part of farming, but should it? Farmers till soil to get rid of weeds, but tilling is also responsible for increased soil erosion, moisture loss, run-off, poor soil quality, and the subsequent need for more fertilizers. No-till farming has benefits in reducing labor and machinery and improving soil quality and sustainability. However, with no-till, farmers still need to control weeds. Here are your three choices: tilling, spraying conventional toxic herbicides, or using glyphosate and glyphosate tolerant GMO crops. Pick your poison.

3. How suitable is the crop for the environment in which it’s being grown?

Growing coconuts in NorCal is probably not a good use of resources. And because it’s not economically beneficial, we don’t tend to do it. But what happens when it is profitable to grow a crop that doesn’t fit the environment in which it’s grown? The most famous example is probably tomatoes. If you get tomatoes in winter, they probably come from either Florida or Mexico. Florida: tons of pesticides (soil is packed with nematodes and terrible for tomatoes). Mexico: American demand for certified organic tomatoes (and basil and peppers) is decimating local water tables. Closer to home, California’s aquifers are also under stress from both organic and conventional agriculture. Not too surprising, given that we spend six months of every year bone dry but grow food year round.

4.  How efficient is this organic farm compared to a non-organic farm growing the same variety under similar environmental conditions?

Here’s another of those pick-your-poison scenarios. Done well, organic agriculture can have less of an impact on soil health, local animal populations and waterways. But many scientists (no, Rodale is not considered a scientific organization) remain unconvinced that organic can meet the efficiency levels of conventional agriculture. Water and land are also limited resources, and the more inefficient the farm, the more pressure on local ecosystems. Read more about organic farming efficiency and ways that careful management can narrow the gap to 13percent (still considerable). Since efficiency difference varies by crop, maybe instead of the Dirty Dozen, we need an Efficient Eleven (or whatever) guide to buying organic. Then again, agricultural efficiency has driven massive population growth. Then again, dropping agricultural output to curb our population seems like it would be an unpopular and possibly inhumane idea. Ack!

5. How do nutrient levels compare in the same variety of organic and non-organic produce under similar environmental conditions?

Same thing, really. We do tend to see increased pesticide residues (well below accepted safety standards) in conventional agriculture compared to organic, though organic isn’t pesticide free, either. When it comes to nutritional content, studies and articles not produced by the organic industry tend to be inconclusive. I dunno, I kind of think that Americans should just eat more fruits and vegetables and not worry about minor nutrient differences between conventional and organic. Still, it would be interesting to see more studies and more lists of fruits and veggies in which organic does make a difference.

6. How does this farm treat farmworkers?

This piece of information is frustratingly hard to find. Unlike GMOs, I can’t hop online and get a reasonable idea of which farms/products I want to avoid for ethical reasons. And tragically, farm workers are some of the most (if not the most) disenfranchised people in the country. They are exposed to the highest levels of toxic chemicals and have little or no legal recourse even when they have children with terrible birth defects as a result of illegal chemical exposure. I would gladly pay more for organic if it guaranteed that farm laborers were paid a fair wage with adequate protection from toxins and health care.


Whew. Sustainable food is one big, messy problem with no simple or easy answers. I think I could be reading up on it for the rest of my life and still be unsure what the best thing for me to do as a consumer. Right now, I buy a mix of organic and conventional. The percentage varies on where I’m shopping, and how much more organic costs than conventional. I really should try to talk to more farmers to get answers to these questions and make more decisions based on detailed knowledge, but again, there’s that whole farmers-market-phobia thing. Damn you, introversion.

Did I flub anything? I’d especially love to hear from organic farmers. Are there any questions you would add to my list? How do you feel about buying organic?


Jennifer Mo is a concerned global citizen and a long time cat/book/tree person. You can follow her green journey at It’s Not Easy to be Green.



Editor: Seychelles Pitton

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anonymous Sep 24, 2012 1:19am

I plant cactus using sand from Perth and I mulch a little. I do plant some tomatoes and carrots and I agree with your observation about organic farming. We should be aware of the quality of the organic products that we are going to buy.

anonymous Sep 10, 2012 1:18am

[…] As for me, I’m still going to buy my organic blueberries. […]

anonymous Aug 20, 2012 9:29am

[…] Here’s a useful (and for some, shocking) chart, showing corporate ownership of organic food producers. […]

anonymous Jul 30, 2012 11:53am

[…] vegetable and fruits are bad. Organics might be bad too. Meat’s bad. Dairy’s bad. Soy’s bad. Grains—especially glutinous grains—are […]

anonymous Jul 27, 2012 3:40am

so what does the author expect people to actually DO? buy gmo and overpriced conventionally grown produce? to just buy the chilean produce instead of locally grown? i find this article to be a bit counterproductive and offer no real answers.

anonymous Jul 26, 2012 9:46pm

"Unfortunately, organic is a marketing term, and a highly profitable one."

Unfortunately, one can stop reading the article at that 3rd sentance, as the author immediately announces this to be a rant intended to arouse the latent skeptic.

"Organic" is a legal term, defensible in court, defined by dozens pages of copy, which was worked out over the span of a decade by experts in the field.

"profit" is something most of us participate in – we get paid for what we do – there might some other planet where that's not the case, but I'm not familiar with it.

So with those two ridiculous triggers cleared up, what are the real issues?

Sustainability, localness, and environmental impact are very important factors to consider in any buying decision, and it's quite true they are not specifically delineated in the Organic designation. Which is the case for any product or service we rely on in our lives, because establishing definitions for those factors is impossible beyond a case-case basis. Since they are indeed important, I suggest the author actually do the work to investigate and report, rather than frighten people into passivity with unanswered questions.

I stopped reading entire at, "There is nothing intrinsically safer about natural pesticides". Really? Then why don't you try a spoonful of any standard pesticide and let us know how that goes. Meanwhile, the pheromones you criticize are scents designed to confuse the insects so they can't reproduce; not even the insects eat them.

The Organic designation is not intended to satisfy all the values that some people may hold, but it effectively addresses some very important ones, and thus deserves support and respect, even as some of us look deeper into the ramifications of our purchasing decisions.

anonymous Jul 26, 2012 5:15pm

Great peek at this issue. There ARE more options options, than tilling, GMO, or intense herbicides. Especially if point 3 is being considered: Is the crop appropriate to its locale?
In permaculture people “chop & drop” rather than yanking or poisoning the weeds & leaving the earth bare, they are left as mineral-rich mulch that will compost down.
I took an “Edible Forest Gardening” Class taught by Eric Toenesmeier at Woodbine Ecology Center & he’s dedicated much of his life to cultivating knowledge & techniques about how to grow utilizing all kinds of great relationships- between plants, with insects, and even cultivating beneficial insects to make possible the kind of food growing we’d all like “organic” to actually be.

anonymous Jul 26, 2012 11:52am

hello, no perfect answers but organic produce that I buy tastes zoo much better than regular market stuff. I assume, hopefully correctly-that a organic farmer is using superior methods of cultivation.

anonymous Jul 26, 2012 11:31am

Good points. Why would one ever believe farming for profit would be sustainable? If every farm in the us went organic tommmorow there would still be so much competition that the word organic would become totally meaningless. Some people would gladly destroy our planet, its recources and our health in in order to be competitive in “organic” farming. Food grown from capitalism is always gonna leave a funny taste in somebody’s mouth.