Don't Believe the (Organic) Hype

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For many, eating right means eating organic. Cindy Burke, author of "To Buy or Not to Buy Organic," says organic doesn't always mean better.


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, while some people still worry about having enough to eat, America has developed a national obsession with eating just the right thing. I have a can I just tell you commentary. But first, it's time for the next big thing, where we try to get at what's new and happening. And as we've said, eating healthier is becoming the mantra for many Americans, and a lot of people think that means buying more organic food. But is going organic always the best decision for your health or for the environment?

Here to talk to us today is Cindy Burke. She's the author of "To Buy or Not to Buy Organic." She joins us from our member station KUOW in Seattle. Welcome.

CINDY BURKE: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Can you just start us off with some basic terms? What's the difference between organic and conventionally grown food?

BURKE: Organic food is grown in soil that is free of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and has been free of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers for at least three years. Farmers cannot use synthetically compounded sewage sludge fertilizers or any fertilizers made with sewage sludge. They also are not able to use bio-engineered or livestock feed additives.

MARTIN: So who decides what food can be labeled organic?

BURKE: The federal government right now has taken over the organic standards. They took it over in the 1980s and they have a program called the National Organics Program, and that has created the standards that the farmers now follow in order to be certified organic.

MARTIN: What made you start to question the idea that organic is always better? Now, I know you're a former chef and you're a food writer, but you know, what happened?

BURKE: I'm also a mother and I have a young child and I wanted to make healthy food choices for her and I want to make very healthy food choices for our family. So I thought that buying organics was the way to go and exclusively buying organics was the best choice. But I started to see that buying organics wasn't always such a great choice. I went to the store once and bought cauliflower and as the checker was ringing it up, it was $11 dollars for one cauliflower.

MARTIN: No way.

BURKE: And I...

MARTIN: No way.


MARTIN: Did that cauliflower go home and cook itself?

BURKE: Well, you know, I was so shocked I almost wanted to have her take it off of my bill, but I, you know, you're sort of like in the middle of doing it and - okay, I'll buy this $11 cauliflower. But it really made me start to think, gosh, is it really worth it to pay that much extra money for food and does it really make sense? And so I'm also a food journalist and I decided to really look into what the issues are around organics and non-organics and to see if it really did make sense.

MARTIN: That's a good place. That is my question, is why is organic food so much more expensive than conventionally grown food?

BURKE: There's a complicated answer to that question. Part of the reason that organic food is so expensive is that it's not eligible for the food subsidy system or the farm bill food subsidy system in our country, which supports conventional agriculture. That's one of the reasons.

Another one of the other reasons is because they - instead of using pesticides, organic farmers need to use labor, which, as we know, costs money. So instead of just spraying an herbicide or a pesticide, they have to have farm workers go out there and weed or pick the bugs off of the plants, and sometimes they have to do this maybe four or five times during the growing cycle as opposed to one or two sprays of pesticide or herbicides.

MARTIN: Let's assume that cost is not the only issue, although I don't know for whom it isn't an issue, but are there some other considerations that one wants to take into account in thinking about organic food or choosing organic food?

BURKE: There are a number of different types of food out there. There's organic, there's sustainably grown food, there's locally grown food, and there's conventionally grown food. And I buy all of those different kinds of food and I think that if you follow any one of those philosophies, that you're probably not going to get the best prices, and you're probably not going to get the freshest food either, and you certainly won't get the most variety that it is possible to get. So...

MARTIN: Well, talk me more about that. I mean is there a general rule of thumb?

BURKE: There are certain foods that tend to be the most heavily pesticide and herbicide-laden foods. And there are 12 foods that are pretty commonly known as the dirty dozen. And it's said that if you reduce your consumption of those foods, if you only eat those foods organically, that you can reduce your consumption of pesticides by 50 percent.

MARTIN: And what are the dirty dozen? Can you rattle them off?

BURKE: Well, strawberries, red and green peppers...


BURKE: ...potatoes, celery - let's see.

MARTIN: Why is that? No, that's good. That's pretty good. That's half a dozen.

BURKE: Spinach is one of them.

MARTIN: Why are they - why? They're so different.

BURKE: Well, here's the thing with plants. Spinach likes, for example, sandy soil, relatively cool nights. And if you're growing it in that kind of climate, you probably don't need a lot of pesticides or herbicides because it'll naturally grow. But if you move it to another part of the country like Texas or Louisiana or Georgia or Florida, where they grow a lot of it, it is not suited to that climate. So they have to use a lot of irrigated water, they have to use fertilizer, they have to use pesticides and herbicides in order to get it to grow. So a lot of it has to do with the large-scale, conventional food industry and the way that they grow food in a large scale.

MARTIN: We're talking about taking a second look at buying organic food. And our guest is Cindy Burke, author of "To Buy or Not to Buy Organic." Talk to me about, though, the whole question of buying locally and why it might be a better choice for health or the environment to buy locally, even if it's not organic.

BURKE: The local food movement in this country has really exploded in the last 10 years with farmers markets. And a lot of people are starting to realize that the methods that we use now in order to farm and ship food all around the country is not a sustainable way for us to continue to grow food, and that in order for us to have, say, tomatoes in our grocery stores in January, it takes a huge amount of fossil fuel and other kinds of chemical inputs to make that happen. So as people become more aware of that, I think they're becoming more interested in the idea of buying food locally so that there is not a huge transportation need for that. It's also going to be fresher food because it comes from nearby and it's probably just been picked a day or so before. And there's also a greater possibility that you can know where it came from, know the farmers, and know the farms.

MARTIN: So is that a health consideration? If one were to focus on buying locally grown food, the trade-off, of course, is variety. You're not going to get strawberries in January if you live in - well, where we live, here in D.C., so what are you getting for that? That's more of a sort of a macro-ethical question about walking softly on the earth, or what is it, a taste question? But it's not necessarily a health question.

BURKE: I think we've become very used to, in this country, being able to walk into a grocery store in any state at any time of year and find a very wide variety of produce and products. And it's really not a realistic picture. And I think that when people begin to eat locally, they start to become more in tune with what seasonality is, what is being produced in their area and what grows well in their area. And so I think that it gets people more in touch with where their food comes from. And your food's definitely going to be fresher if you buy it locally. And I think that for people who consider themselves ethical eaters, you do not have to think about how far your food traveled in a gas- powered truck or airplane to get to you because you know that that wasn't an issue.

MARTIN: And the whole question of sustainable agriculture; how do you know whether something's grown in a - am I even using the right language here?

BURKE: Right. Sustainable is what organic used to be. You could assume that it was grown on a small farm, you could assume that it was grown by a farmer that didn't use chemicals, you could assume that it was grown in a farm that valued biodiversity, that invested in its local community, and that treated its workers humanely, and also treated the creatures on the farm humanely.

MARTIN: Why would you necessarily be able to assume that?

BURKE: You could assume - have assumed that back in the 1970s and early '80s when the organics movement was new, because that was part of what organics was all about, before the government took over the standardization of organics. That changed in the 1980s when the government wanted to standardize organics. So I think that really the certified organic sticker on your apple or your cucumber is really just a substitute for knowing where your food comes from. If you know where your food comes from, if you could talk to the farmer that grows it, you don't need a certified organic sticker on your food.

MARTIN: How do you know that, you know, the farmer who you talk to at the farmers market or wherever doesn't just have great bedside manner? It doesn't necessarily mean that he or she is following all these practices, right? It just could mean that he or she is a good salesperson.

BURKE: That's possible. That's possible. But I do think that most of the farmers at my farmers market - all of them - come back every week and they keep coming back. They've been at the farmers market for years. Occasionally there are new ones, but I always talk to them. And I just don't get the feeling that they're telling me a line because I - they know I'm going to come back next week and I talk to other people at the market and I talk to other farmers at the market. And I think if other farmers thought that one of the farmers was saying their strawberries were organic but they were using pesticides, the word would start to get around.

MARTIN: When do you buy conventionally grown food?

BURKE: Well, there are certain conventionally grown foods that my research has shown do not have a lot of pesticide residue for various reasons. Because it doesn't work, typically, is the main reason. So I buy those items conventionally whenever I can find them.

MARTIN: Like what?

BURKE: Because it's less expensive - like onions, garlic, almost all the cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts. Tropical fruits tend to have low pesticide residue.

MARTIN: Were you just scarred for life by that $11 cauliflower experience?

BURKE: I'll tell you, I was happy to find out that I don't need to choose organic cauliflower and broccoli and onions. I always wondered about onions. Does it really make sense because they have such a, you know, that thick skin and they're - also have such a strong taste, I always thought, Do insects really attack onions? Well, the answer is no, they don't. Onions and garlic have their own natural pesticide built in, basically.


BURKE: Certain other items like melons, particularly watermelon, has also its own insect defense built in. It has a very thick shell that insects generally cannot penetrate. So I buy all of those things conventionally and I never worry about it at all.

MARTIN: Some people say that when you start paying attention to food and where food comes from and how food is actually grown, you don't want to eat at all. Because it just - everything has some problem. Now, this is your - this is what you do all day long. Does that ever happen to you? Do you just think, oh God, there's nothing to eat? (Unintelligible)

BURKE: No. No. I never have that problem. I'm actually very enthusiastic about shopping. I don't mind going to three or four different stores to get the choices that I think are the best choices and the best quality, best price, all that. So it doesn't affect me that way.

MARTIN: Okay, my last question, Cindy. Could you go to my house and do my grocery shopping for me?


BURKE: Sure. Wouldn't that be nice? I think if you just take my book and check out the shopping guide in the back, it's designed so that you can take it to the grocery store with you and I use it as a shopping guide. And I bet you'll save the price of the book with one shopping trip.

MARTIN: But can I just tell you, I hate going grocery shopping?

BURKE: Do you?

MARTIN: I hate going grocery shopping.

BURKE: Yeah.

MARTIN: I don't mind cooking, I don't mind cleaning up. I certainly do enjoy eating. I hate going grocery shopping.

BURKE: That's where a spouse can come in handy.

MARTIN: Good point.

Cindy Burke is the author of "To Buy or Not to Buy Organic." She joined us from member station KUOW in Seattle. Cindy, thanks so much for speaking with us.


BURKE: It was my pleasure.

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