I never paid much attention to organic foods before I had kids. Sure, I knew that organic foods are grown or made without pesticides or other chemicals. But they cost more than the equivalent non-organic foods at the grocery store, and I was on a budget, so I typically passed them by.

Then I had my first daughter. One day my husband was spraying for ants in the kitchen and I was suddenly overcome with panic. What if my daughter crawled near where he had sprayed, got some on her hands, and ingested it? What damage might this do to her tiny body? What if it floated imperceptibly through the air to her and she breathed in a microscopic amount? It is poison, after all. It kills one type of life form, not so very different from us. She was so small, and like any parent, I want her to grow up strong and healthy. How might that chemical affect her in the long term?

In that moment, my life was forever changed. I suddenly realized that there are so many toxins we casually accept into our lives without a thought. What are those chemicals doing to us on the inside? Ok, so you spray for ants every once in a while, you don’t think much about it, you don’t perceive any negative effects. But cancer rates are increasing. Autism rates, allergies, and ADHD cases are increasing. Maybe it’s at least partly from all of the unnatural substances that our bodies breathe in, eat, drink, and filter out every day. Scientists don’t know yet exactly what’s causing the increase in health problems. Most likely it’s a combination of things. But it stands to reason that the toxins in our homes and our city streets could play a part.

So we stopped using insecticides in the house. At first my husband thought I was nuts, but after some reflection, he agreed it’s safer to avoid the chemicals when possible, especially with a small child in the house. But there are so many other chemicals and pollutants that we’re exposed to every day: exhaust fumes from our cars, fertilizer runoff in our water, bug spray on our skin when we go outdoors. I felt overwhelmed when trying to figure out what I could do to protect myself and my family. That’s when I decided to start buying organic foods. What could be more important to keep free of chemicals than the very food we eat?

Now, I don’t buy all organic. There’s no way I could afford that. What I do is buy a few organic items when the price seems reasonable or when they’re on sale. We eat a lot of produce in my house. So I look to see what organic produce is on sale each week, and try to use that throughout the week for as many of our fruits and vegetables as possible. We also eat a lot of granola bars, so when organic granola bars go on sale, I stock up. The same with other organic products such as tea, cereal, and snack foods.

Organic meats can be extremely expensive. I inquired at my local Amish market (you could do the same at a Farmer’s market) to find out if their meats are organic. The owner said no, his meats are not certified organic, but he does everything in his power to keep his meats all-natural. He doesn’t use any hormones or antibiotics. Plus his prices are actually lower than the supermarket, and he sells higher-quality meat. So I buy our meats there whenever I can.

Here are three big reasons to buy organic:

(1) No pesticides or fertilizers. The more we can avoid eating potentially toxic chemicals, the better. Enough said.

(2) No GMO’s. GMO’s are Genetically Modified Organisms. From Wikipedia: “Genetic modification involves the mutation, insertion, or deletion of genes. Inserted genes usually come from a different species in a form of horizontal gene-transfer. In agriculture, currently marketed genetically engineered crops have traits such as resistance to pests, resistance to herbicides, increased nutritional value, or production of valuable goods such as drugs (pharming).” In one (to me, horrifying) example, I read that a type of soybean plant was genetically modified so that it did not succumb to herbicides. The farmers could plant fields of this type of soybean, douse the fields in herbicides, and the soybeans would grow while all other plants (weeds, etc.) in the field died. How awful! GMO’s infused with poison. That’s just what I want to serve my family for dinner. In another example, the plants might be modified so that the plant itself produces an insecticide. Again, this is not something that I want my kids to eat.

The larger risk with GMO’s is that the technology that created them is relatively recent, so scientists do not yet know the long term effects on humans (and other animals) of consuming these plants with modified genes. The first genetically modified plants were sold commercially starting in 1996. That’s less than 20 years of large-scale human consumption of these crops. It makes sense to me that long-term results could still be hidden, and particularly when we’re adding herbicides and insecticides into the mix, it seems risky. Additionally, even if long-term effects do begin to surface, how can they be definitively linked to GMO’s? We won’t know for sure until many more years of studies and testing have been completed. In the meantime, in my humble opinion, it makes sense to avoid these modified foods when possible. Of course, plants are not the only GMO’s. Animals used for food such as cows and pigs may be fed genetically modified plant material, and the animals themselves may be genetically modified as well. Organic certification required regular inspections that prove that foods do not contain genetically modified materials.

“The use of genetic engineering, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is prohibited in organic products. This means an organic farmer can’t plant GMO seeds, an organic cow can’t eat GMO alfalfa or corn, and an organic soup producer can’t use any GMO ingredients. To meet the USDA organic regulations, farmers and processors must show they aren’t using GMOs and that they are protecting their products from contact with prohibited substances, such as GMOs, from farm to table.”

 

(3) Your consumer dollar sends a message to the huge corporations that we won’t stand for lax attitudes about pesticides and GMO’s any longer. Consumers are a powerful force. Changes in our buying habits will shift producers’ economic decisions. As we insist on organic products, more and more producers will opt for earth-friendly methods in their farms and factories.

Organic food sales in the U.S. have increased from $13 billion in 2005 to $28.4 billion in 2012, and are expected to rise to $35 billion in 2014, according to the USDA. The organic food market is expected to grow at 14% per year from 2013-2018 (according to Food Navigator USA). It’s important to note that “Organic products have shifted from being a lifestyle choice for a small share of consumers to being consumed at least occasionally by a majority of Americans” (from the USDA website). This is promising news. Consumers are speaking with their wallets to drive change in the marketplace.

Now, the only problem … why do organic foods cost so much more than regular food? There is a strict certification process and procedural guidelines for farms producing organic foods. Here is a brief list of requirements for foods that carry the “certified organic” label:

USDA organic products have strict production and labeling requirements. Unless noted below, organic products must meet the following requirements:

This article gives a feeling for the potential difficulties associated with growing organic produce. There is a significant amount of time that farmers must spend in getting certified, and then in completing forms and keeping detailed records, in order to maintain their organic certification. Also, it’s understandably more labor intensive to find natural ways to fertilize crops and protect them from insects. So, in my mind, it makes sense that organic foods cost more than non-organic equivalents, and I’ll continue buying organic whenever I can reasonably afford to do so.

Do you buy organic? If so, what percentage of your household food purchases are organic or all-natural? Do you have a home garden in which you maintain essentially organic conditions? Please share your experiences in the comments section below.

 

Additional data sources:

USDA Organic Market Overview

Food Navigator USA

GMO info on Wikipedia