Going organic can be worth the price

I recently bought an organic pear for my 14-month-old son that cost $1.52. Yes, that’s right – one pear. With the rising cost of food, I’m sure that I’m not the only parent wondering if the higher cost of organic produce is worth the expense. So what is organic?

The term seems to have seeped into our everyday vernacular and is applied to almost everything. I even heard a designer on TV call a room design “organic” the other day. Here’s the Organic Trade Association’s definition of organic (from its Web site): “Organic production is based on a system of farming that maintains and replenishes soil fertility without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers. Organically produced foods also must be produced without the use of antibiotics, synthetic hormones, genetic engineering and other excluded practices, sewage sludge, or irradiation. Cloning animals or using their products would be considered inconsistent with organic practices. Organic foods are minimally processed without artificial ingredients, preservatives, or irradiation to maintain the integrity of the food.”

Sewage sludge? Yuck! The USDA says that “organic is about how food is produced and handled.” There is a national list of substances which are approved or prohibited for use in organic farming. A farm must have no prohibited substance applied for three years before it can have a crop certified as organic.

Do the pesticides applied to produce get into our bodies? They do, according to a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives in April 2008. In the Children’s Pesticide Exposure Study, 23 children between the ages of 3 and 11 in the greater Seattle area who usually ate conventional diets switched to organic equivalents for five consecutive days twice during the year long study. Urine samples were tested during the organic and conventional phases for metabolites (breakdown products) of organophosphorous pesticides. The results? The levels of the two most commonly detected metabolites during the conventional phase went down to undetectable or almost undetectable by the end of the organic phase. The authors of the study concluded that diet is a major source of pesticide exposure in kids.

So what does it all mean? Even the authors of the above study say that there is no definite link between dietary pesticide exposure and health problems. And the experts seem to be split. The USDA says that organic does not mean a food is safer or more nutritious.

But many think, whether proven or not, that organic is safer. One camp argues that the amount of pesticide residue in conventional produce is too low to be of concern, but the other says that the cumulative affect of ingesting small amounts of pesticides has yet to be well-studied.

The Children’s Environmental Heath Network says that children are more vulnerable to pesticide exposure because of their small size and faster metabolisms. Also, it is theorized that because of their rapid rate of development, these chemicals might be more harmful to kids than they would be to adults. By that standard, pregnant women would be better off with organic as well.

The Environmental Working Group lists the scores of 43 fruits and vegetables by their pesticide load. They call the 12 items highest in pesticide residue “the dirty dozen.” If you are concerned about pesticides in your family’s diet, substituting organic for the “dirty dozen” would reduce your exposure.

How much more expensive is organic produce? It varies, according to Dan Hulse, co-owner of an organic produce home delivery service Terra Organics.

“It depends on the crop and supply,” Hulse said. “For example, asparagus and Rainier cherries can be twice as expensive – in general, 20 to 40 percent more.”

There are ways to get organic produce for less. (That $1.52 pear? No, I didn’t shop around. I probably could have found it for less.) So first of all, check sales. Almost every week there seems to be at least one organic produce item on sale at one of the major grocery stores. Second, try alternative shopping venues like farmers markets. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is another option. You buy a “share” and get a box of produce weekly throughout the session. You usually have to drive to the farm to pick up your box, but there is a cost savings by cutting out the middle man with a side benefit of seeing exactly where your food is grown. Some home delivery services are less expensive, as well. Not all CSA and home delivery companies are organic, so check before you buy.

“One challenge for the future is to make organic more affordable and available,” said Hulse. “Some apple orchards in eastern Washington are in a three-year transition from conventional to organic. As supply increases, prices will decrease. Over time, it will close the gap between conventional and organic pricing.”

But in the meantime, one thing all experts seem to be in agreement on is that eating fresh produce is good for overall health. If you want to limit your family’s exposure to these chemicals, wash all produce well and buy organic when you can.

Tiffany Doerr Guerzon lives in Maple Valley. She can be reached at

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