Dear EarthTalk: There's been a lot of coverage on the topic of organic foods and how they aren't actually any healthier than conventional foods. Is this true? -- Gina Thompson, Salem, Ore.
There is no doubt that organic foods are healthier -- for our bodies individually as well as for the environment -- than their conventionally produced counterparts. The question is how much healthier and does the difference warrant spending more on your grocery bill.
Conventional food is produced using synthetic chemical inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics to repel pests, boost growth and improve the yield of marketable product. It stands to reason that trace amounts of these chemicals are likely to get ingested into our bodies.
Before such chemicals became widely available, most food was produced organically. Recent awareness about the dangers of synthetic chemicals and antibiotic resistance has triggered a renewed interest in organic food. As a result organic farms constitute the fastest growing sector of the U.S. agriculture industry. Given that these farms are smaller and have more of a niche clientele, they must charge more for organic products. These costs get passed on to consumers willing to spend extra to be healthy.
But after surveying more than 200 other studies comparing organic and conventional foods and in some cases their effects on the body, Stanford medical researchers found that, while eating organic produce can lower exposure to pesticides, the amount measured from conventionally grown produce was also well within safety limits. They also found that organic foods were not particularly more nutritious than non-organic foods. The findings were published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in September.
The one area where the team found a divergence was regarding antibiotic-resistant germs in meats. While the chances of bacterial contamination are the same for organic and non-organic meats, germs in conventionally raised chicken and pork had a 33 percent higher risk of being resistant to multiple antibiotics. Many farmers and ranchers rely on antibiotics to fatten up their animals and keep them healthy until slaughter, but converting to more organic meat could help stem the oncoming tide of antibiotic resistance that threatens to make many of our medicines obsolete.
Of course, consumers may opt for organic foods despite the lack of much difference in nutritional content or chemical residues. According to the Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit medical care and research institution and a leading voice on public health and health maintenance, some people simply prefer the taste of organic food. Others like organic food because it doesn't typically contain preservatives, artificial sweeteners, coloring and flavorings. Meanwhile, others take a longer-term view and go organic for the sake of the environment, as organic agriculture reduces pollution and conserves water and soil quality.
If you're trying to be both healthy and frugal, selectively buying organic is one option. The Environmental Working Group publishes its Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce each year to let consumers know which produce have the most pesticide residues and are the most important to buy organic. EWG's 2012 "dirty dozen" non-organic foods to avoid were apples, celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, strawberries, imported nectarines, grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, blueberries and potatoes.
Dear EarthTalk: I understand that the "environmental justice" movement seeks to protect the poor and non-white communities from being unfairly targeted to host activities like sewage treatment plants, landfills and polluting factories. Have there been notable victories? -- P. Silver, Peekskill, N.Y.
The environmental justice movement was born in September 1982 when a group of poor residents of rural Warren County, N.C., laid down in front of trucks transporting waste containing toxic PCBs to a nearby landfill. Those primarily African American activists eventually lost their battle to keep toxic waste out of the area, but their actions eventually led to an executive order by President Clinton in 1996 that institutionalized the U.S. government's duty to identify and address "disproportionately high adverse health or environmental effects of its policies or programs on low-income people and people of color." It also mandated that the federal government look for ways to prevent discrimination by race, color or national origin in any federally funded programs dealing with health or the environment.
In the time since, many other low income or minority groups -- Latinos, Asians, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans and others -- have learned to raise their voices and stand up against the discriminatory locating of hazardous waste landfills and transfer stations, polluting factories and utilities, and other triggers for bad air quality and compromised waterways and soils across the U.S. and beyond.
Some of the better known environmental justice groups came to be out of specific struggles in their own local neighborhoods. Concerned Citizens of South Central LA (Los Angeles) was created to fight the now infamous LANCER incinerator in the late 1980s, and today provides leadership on environmental and other social justice issues throughout southern California. Likewise, Mothers of East LA, originally formed to stop the siting of a prison in an East Los Angeles community, has become a strong voice against incinerators and other waste processing and landfill facilities interested in moving to the area.
Elsewhere, West Harlem Environmental Action formed in 1998 to fight (unsuccessfully) the building of the North River Sewage Treatment Plant in West Harlem in New York City. Despite that defeat, the group is now a leader on environmental justice issues around New York State. And the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice began with humble activist roots but is now in high demand helping rural communities in Louisiana's "Cancer Alley" protect themselves from further degradation and harm at the hands of oil refineries and other heavy industry located there.
Several national organizations now devote significant resources to these issues. The Center for Health, Environment and Justice, which emerged out of the 1970s Love Canal controversy when the U.S. government relocated 800 families from their polluted Niagara Falls, New York neighborhood, today functions as an activist clearinghouse for related issues. The Natural Resources Defense Council has devoted significant resources to environmental justice efforts, including helping to identify cancer clusters in poor communities near heavy industry. Many Sierra Club local chapters battle environmental discrimination in their neighborhoods. And the federal government today provides millions of dollars to environmental justice projects through the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies.
Contacts: Mothers of East LA, www.mothersofeastla.com; West Harlem Environmental Action, www.weact.org; Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, www.dscej.org; NRDC, www.nrdc.org; CHEJ, www.chej.org; Sierra Club, www.sierraclub.org; EPA; www.epa.gov.
EarthTalk is by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss of E -- The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.