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When do you buy organic? When do experts?

I never know when it makes sense to shell out extra money for organic foods. It's one of the reasons I started working on the story for Marketplace this afternoon on feeding a growing world population.

For some shopping decisions, like what produce to buy if you want to avoid pesticides, there are guides. Check out the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean 15" list of fruits and vegetables with the most and least pesticides. You can download the PDF here. There's also an app.

But what really matters? The experts I talked to each had different answers to the question: "When and do you choose organics over conventionally grown food?"

Farmer and former California secretary of Agriculture AG Kawamura says the organic vs. conventional label matters a lot less to him then how recently the fruits and veggies were picked, and how good they look. He buys whatever is freshest.

Agriculture expert Mark Rosegrant from the International Food Policy Research Institute has a similar approach: "I'm sort of mixed I guess. I don't religiously buy organics, but if there are some nice looking ones there, I'll sometimes buy them."

Cookbook author and food columnist Mark Bittman says if he's got a choice he'll always buy organic, with a few exceptions: "if something is local, and it's really appealing and it's not organic, I don't care that much." But, he said he thinks we need to come up with a better definition for sustainable food, something that means more than "organic." "I want to see farm workers treated fairly, I want to see animals treated fairly, I want to see consumers treated fairly and I want to see the land treated fairly."

Finally, Pedro Sanchez, from Columbia University buys organic milk "because I don't like what they are doing to the cows." He says he doesn't like the way some dairy farmers overuse antibiotics. As far as other foods, Sanchez says, "I go with either one, and because of the price differential I go with the conventional."

We want to know what you do? Do you buy organics? When and why?

About the author

Adriene Hill is a senior multimedia reporter for the Marketplace sustainability desk, with a focus on consumer issues and the individual relationship to sustainability and the environment.
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I would like to be able to buy organic and support organic farming, but I just can't afford to. I don't have a car, I take the bus. Maybe that's my wee part in the scheeme. I also live in an apartment. I recently watched a movie where they compare the cost of healthier, organic food to what you can get for a buck. My father and I live on a very small budget and we have to make those dollars stretch. We have a local store that sells a lot of organic foods, from produce to boxed to personal hygiene. I love this store, I just can't afford to buy anything! I hear a lot of people hollerin' about organic organic organic. My home would be more organic-friendly if organic was more wallet-friendly!

I can't add to anything to what everyone else has already said other than to agree 110%.

We purchase organic food, often in bulk, through a local neighborhood food co-op, and/or from our local farmers. Some of our local farmers are not certified organic, but they do not grow using conventional methods (ie pesticides). That said, when we were in town for my son's soccer game last weekend, I noted the price of organic celery was the same as conventionally grown at Krogers. Organic food does not always cost more or not always significantly so.

I insist on purchasing organic milk (even try to buy raw milk locally when available), peanut butter, bread and other foods for our sons. We live on a small farm and grow lots of our own fruit (peaches, blueberries, apples & pears), and 'harvest' our own venison for meat.

Organically grown food CAN feed the world!

Clearly, the misinformation and pro-GM propaganda that Monsanto and other mega-agra corporations are spewing is seeping into the media and the minds of public figures who should know better. Trusted individuals who should take a deeper look into the issues before they talk.

I am surprised this program was allowed to air on such a respected network and it surely raised doubt as to what other powers are at work in "public broadcasting" - a source which I have learned to trust and want so badly to believe.

The US government - FDA, USDA, EPA and other agencies which are supposedly in place to protect our food supply and environment - have been bought by Monsanto and it's kin. I guess, it was just a matter of time before APM, NPR, and other public media cave in to their pressures.

Unbiased scientific data overwhelmingly supports organic, sustainable farming. The myths of feeding the world with GMO, patented, terminator seeds are dangerous and spread by the makers of these products not by qualified, independent researchers.

Organic foods are more expensive because the conventional food producers and government regulators want it that way...
poverty and politics are the cause of hunger not shortage of food supply.

Organic farming is being forced out of the market by overly expensive licensing and gov't imposed requirements under the guise of protection. Many smaller farms simply cannot afford the certification.

Large companies which can afford to have "organic" alternatives to their conventional products create costly marketing in order make organics more expensive.

"Natural" does not mean natural anymore but the price tag gets higher !!

Sadly, organics are now also being driven by profit and have become a marketing tool. It should be the other way around.

Pesticides, fertilizers, GMOs, and all the "untruths" cost all of us on the planet much more in health costs and long-term environmental damage.

I am extremely disappointed in the broadcasting of this program.

I buy organic as much as possible because I believe it is healthier for my family, the earth and other animals. I trust that my comments and others on this blog which strongly endorse organic over foods produced using chemical fertilizers and pesticides will impact Marketplace as it plans future programs. Public Broadcasting listeners are generally a well-informed segment of the population that will not be fooled by this kind of disingenuous pay-back to Monsanto for its funding of Marketplace.

Adriene, I'm just reposting the following from the show transcript page FYI.

...[H]ere are some thoughts from a long time certified organic producer using sustainable practices.

The industrial model being promoted for its "efficiency" sends hundreds of millions of tons of soil downstream every year. I have been making topsoil through green manure rotations and moving plant energy and nutrients via mulches from unusable ground to productive fields.

Using small scale equipment and intensive growing techniques, I can grow almost anything sustainably on almost any type of land. The idea that all the usable land has been used up only applies to the industrial model. From the principles I've learned, I could grow food (and build soil) on a parking lot if I chose to.

The entire section of the report on yields is incorrect and rests on flawed data and understanding of organic agriculture. Plenty of research literature out there indicates that organics in nitrogen-robust rotations can outstrip the best industrial yields for the same crops.

More anecdotally, in my experience the same holds true for overall cost/yield ratios. We get more out of our dirt because we feed it "real stuff," manage it intensively with smaller, DEBT-FREE equipment (instead of zillion dollar, bank-owned tractors and combines), and sell direct.

Anybody in alternative ag could have handily countered every point in what should have been a straight investigative story. The reason for the fury in [the] comments [on this] is that a journalistic standard was broken by presenting only one side - the side coinciding with the program's underwriter.

On the other hand, I read an awful lot of similarly one-sided pro-organic pieces, albeit usually presented as lifestyle/commentary whereas this posed as a fair investigation.

I live near Youngstown, OH where crime is prevalent, abandoned houses are rampant, and drug distribution is continuously rising. Not to mention the poor school systems. So you can only imagine the lack of grocery stores in the community. With that being said, the city is now taking empty lots and turning them into gardens; obviously to feed the less fortunate for free. And research shows that more and more communities are jumping on the bandwagon. Yes it is possible to feed the world organic by always using new and innovative ideas!

I am appalled and disgusted that so many people believe organic farming cannot feed the world. I work on an organic farm as part of a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture.) I can personally attest that growing organic produce does NOT require more land and more work than farming with chemicals. This is a myth that is perpetrated by corporate agriculture. As for feeding the world, we have plenty of food for everyone. The problem is distributing it equitably. It's true that organic produce currently costs more than non-organic, but I attribute this to two factors. First, corporate agriculture receives subsidies from the Federal government which are financed by taxpayers (us!) to keep produce prices down. Small family farms generally don't qualify for these subsidies, and have to charge more for their products. Secondly, organic farms are usually small operations, in contrast to corporate "farms" which can grow food more cheaply as a result of economy of scale. If everyone farmed without pesticides, however, this would quickly change, and organic produce prices would be in line with current food prices. More importantly, people need to start eating LOCALLY. Food that is grown nearby is always going to be fresher and healthier than food that is harvested too early and trucked across the country, with the hope that it will be ripe enough to eat by the time it arrives. Likewise, it makes a lot more sense to buy meat from a local farmer than to ship frozen products from hundreds of miles away. The piece that recently aired on Marketplace regarding the future of organics was obviously heavily influenced by corporate interests, such as Monsanto. The future of food is GARDENING, not biogenetics. As more food becomes tainted by corporate America's experiments on their population, it becomes increasingly harder to find packaged foods that we can be sure are healthy. So the logical alternative is to grow and raise your own food, or group together with your neighbors and buy food from a local supplier.

Totally agree! I don't know where these so-called experts are getting their information, but it is not correct. Good organic practices put ALL the trace minerals and nutrients in the soil, conventional only NPK and calcium. Conventional kills the soil microbes which break down trace minerals and make them available to the plants, and it also kills earthworms which also make healthy, viable soil to feed plants. Organically grown can have five times the nutrient levels of conventional (if properly done), and produces much more on the same amount of land. Also it does not destroy the land for future generations to the point it does not grow anything. It continally builds soil health and crops get better every year. It balances water tables as the extra organic matter sequesters water from running off and also the minerals so they don't leach into the water table.

We can only hope these misinformed, ignorant people who think conventional ag can feed the world will eat lots of these chemically grown and GMO foods. Perhaps the sooner they are weeded out of the gene pool the better off the whole world will be.

I buy organic. Both for my personal and family health but also for the health of the planet.
Even if the foods aren't part of the dirty dozen - or whatever it is - I feel that by supporting organic agriculture I am supporting a sustainable future that is free of pesticides and respects the land where agriculture is produced.

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