EcoMyths: Is organic food overrated?

EcoMyths: Is organic food overrated?

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Cabbages, salad greens, radishes and broccoli are among the selection of organic produce on sale at a Whole Foods Market. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

As the mid-winter chill sets in, a tangy tasting ripe tomato with sweet fresh basil leaves can easily bring summer to mind. But often, grocery-store tomatoes don’t taste good at all times of year and fresh basil is expensive.  So how do we find and choose good produce year-round?  In this latest EcoMyths segment, Worldview’s Jerome McDonnell and I talked with sustainability expert, Environmental Studies Professor Barbara Willard, of DePaul University.  Barb knows the process of buying healthy, sustainable produce year-round can be confusing - there are so many factors we’ve been told to consider.  She helped us explore the conventional wisdom and tease apart the variables, including: local vs. imported, organically versus conventionally grown, and purchasing versus growing your own.  She simplified the process of sourcing fresh produce year-round to some key factors in your buying decision.

So why is it important to buy locally-grown foods? “Food miles” is the term used to describe the carbon generated in transporting produce to market.  But Willard reminds us that it is not just transportation miles we should consider when calculating the carbon footprint of a pepper - it is also production: was a lot of heavy equipment used to plant and harvest it? Was chemical fertilizer used? Was the product transported by truck?  Even if the produce was grown at a local farm, all these components can create a large carbon footprint.  If food miles are important to you, it is good to know the farming practices of the grower from which you buy your fruits and vegetables.  The lowest carbon footprint tends to occur with farms that do not use chemical fertilizer, minimize use of fossil fuel-powered vehicles, and travel the shortest distance to market.

Buying organic is widely understood to have environmental benefits too, but why? “Organic” simply means crops grown with natural fertilizers and pest-control methods rather than with synthetic chemicals.  The benefit of eating organic produce is that it reduces or eliminates chemicals in both the food and the environment from the source.  Only foods with the USDA seal are certified as having been raised using truly organic methods.  Also, Willard reminds us that many people think organic food tastes better, due to the lower chemical content.  The Environmental Working Group (EWG) provides a list of conventionally-grown foods to avoid due to chemical content - they believe these foods should be purchased in the organic section of the store instead.  Produce myths are explored and the EWG tips can be found on the EcoMyth Alliance’s website or on the EWG Shoppers Guide on their website.  EWG also has an iPhone app (available here) that tells you what foods are best to buy organic: “The Dirty Dozen” and also those that are safe to buy conventionally grown, “The Clean 15”.

As with organic, many people feel that eating foods when they are in season is the tastier choice. Willard encourages us to grow our own vegetables, both for the fun of it and for better tasting food.  She even gives us tips on what to grow in the winter months (kale, spinach, herbs) and how to do it (outdoors under a hoop house).

Growing spinach as a winter crop in a hoop house. (Photo by Barb Willard)

With these rules of thumb in mind: local, organic, and seasonal, I now feel inspired to go shopping! 

For more information on these topics, see EcoMyths’ latest myth article: “Is Sustainable Food Out of Reach?” on the EcoMyths Alliance website.  Other helpful resources are shown below:

-Michal Pollan Video, “Serious Sustainability

-GoTo2040 Video: “Planning for a Sustainable Local Food System

-Earth 911 Slideshow of Winter Produce, by region -

-Pick Your Own: List of crop calendars by state -