What's the deal with organically grown food?

I was at one of my favorite yuppie stores that recently changed from Merchant of Vino ( importers of food and wines around the world and other stuff too.) to Whole Food Company which still carries the wines and foods from all over, but also a host of good for you stuff too.

The veggie section has a ton of signs proclaiming what is and what is not organically grown. One woman was in a snit because the sign had fallen off the carrots display and she HAD to know if it was organic.

Other than price, is there that much of a difference? I mean, who really gives a rat’s butt if chemicals were used in the production of their favorite veggie? I read that some movie stars will only eat organic stuff and attribute it to their lean bodies, which I think is 90% genetics and 10% hoo-ha.

What gives?

Everyone wants to save the world, but no one wants to help Mom with the dishes.-P.J. O’Rourke

No pesticides or herbicides, which in effect reduces yield per acre to between 1/3 and 1/2 of crops using herbicides and pesticides. This is according to another farmer who grew organic corn this year hoping to sell it to health stores or organic milk producers who must use this type of forage.

Also no commercial fertilizers. The natural alternative is the only option when fertilizing. I believe the fields used for organic crops could not have commercial fertilizer or have herbicide or pesticide for a certain time period prior to planting.

When talking organic milk (and I’m presuming beef), producers cannot use any pennicillin as well as other drugs ( there’s a list of them) at all during lactation. No commercial fertilizers for pastures or hay fields. The grains they feed the cows are limited by the same standards. The price the farmer receives can be as much as 25% higher for organic milk, but the loss of production versus the increased price per pound can actually mean a loss in overall profit. There are less fertilizer and chemical costs in this type of farming but the grains cost more and hay and pasture yields and quality will fall as well requiring larger inputs from off farm, purchased hay or additional grains. Add to that the price off organic milk is usually contracted at the beginning of the year while regular milk is priced on a month by month basis, one wrong guess as to futures pricing and you can lose a great deal of money (of course you can make some too).

All of this adds to the price at the register. Also, and I hate to mention this but…, most of these producers are on the honor system and may not totally comply with the rules. I was told by a school chum that knew one of these farms that our operation was more ‘organic’ than the farm that was selling to the organic milk company. I guess it’s like any business, there’s always a few bad apples.

Tenacious, like a coonhound tracking a poodle in heat.

Shirley, at least your Whole Foods carries wine & liquor… out here in GranolaLand it’s illegal for a grocery store to sell alcohol.

As far as oranics go, there’s a whole slew of people who think it really matters that they put chemicals on veggies. Granted, they have found cases where a certain chemical once thought to be harmless turns out to be harmful to some people. But, in general, nobody’s dying from the pesticides they put on food.

There’s also people out here who are just simply against ANY technology. Non-organic food is bad, microwaves are bad, and don’t even get started on modern medicine. For whatever reasons, some people want to find bogeymen. I tend to look at history… 200 years ago, everyone ate organic everything because there were no pesticides or chemicals. The average lifespan was also somewhere around 40 or 45. In the meantime, we’ve come up with chemicals to put on food, modern medicine, and other technological advances. Average lifespan, at least in the US, is now in the 80’s. Some chemicals may be slowly killing us, but so far the technology is winning the race.

Athena, usually the arguments I hear concerning organic foods focus not on the effect of herbicides and pesticides on humans, but on pests, and on biodiversity. The idea, as I understand it, is to reduce the incidence of ever more resistant pests upon which pesticides have no effect; and to preserve the genetic diversity among the foods being grown.

pld: More use of antibiotics has been linked to greater resistance to antibiotics by various diseases. This is a human related problem but you’re right about them promoting the biodiversity aspect of it more.

Tenacious, like a coonhound tracking a poodle in heat.

Organic farming does use pesticides.It’s a natural one Bt, which I can’t spell out, but it’s an organism.

“but it’s an organism”
Not a chemical, but a type of parasite preying on the pest?
Makes sense. I suspect a spider could be used in the same way.

That’s “Bacillus thuringiensis”, a bacterium that infects many kinds of insects. It produces a toxin that, IIRC, is supposed to be harmless to vertebrates.

The gene for the toxin is popular among the producers of “genetically-altered” crop varieties. They use a variety of techniques to insert the gene into the chromosomes of the plant, where it may cause the plant to produce the toxin itself.

Opponents suggest several (real or potential) problems, none of which have been very thoroughly investigated: direct toxicity to humans, development of resistance among the pests it’s supposed to kill, and spread of the gene to weeds by crossing with the crop plants. And I probably missed some.

Bob the Random Expert
“If we don’t have the answer, we’ll make one up.”

I read an article in the L.A. Times about two central valley farmers that were brothers. Their farms were side by side. One farmed using chemical fertilizers and pesticides etc. The other farmed organically. The organic brother’s farm was more labor intensive. The chemical brother could do most operations with a single tractor that had a sprayer attached.
According to this article, yeilds were very comparable, however the organic farmer was more profitable because of the rising price of the chemicals. The bills for the pesticides and chemical fertilizers were enormous. His prices continued to go up. Most of his bank loans were for the chemicals

In California, they come out and test your soil if you want a state certification, even chemies sprayed on adjacent property, if the wind is wrong, can cause you problems. When I lived on an organic farm the yeilds were very competetive, although that’s an area with lot’s of small farms with diverse crops. As far as people not dying from pesticides, that’s far from ruled out, not to mention the unknown, longterm effects on the biosphere, they once thought DDT was harmless enough to use on peoples skin, and they once thought thalidomide was safe to give to pregnant women,

I would think it would be easier for fruits and veggies especially if the land is of high quality. The better the land to begin with the less fertilizer it needs. Also in a farm intensive area natural fertilizers are easily available and relatively inexpensive. It would definitely be more labor intensive, pulling weeds by hand, spreading natural fertilizer is bulkier and slower than the commercial varieties etc. If you have an available cheap labor pool this would help. The farmer that we buy our corn from raised garlic this year and did very well with it from just a small amount of acreage.

As long as there is a demand for it and the consumer is willing to pay a higher price there will be profit to be made. Whether the organic trend will continue to grow is anyone’s guess. Please note however that if the economy in general takes a nosedive the demand will be less for organics.

Well said. Eventually this long bull ( or is it bear, I get them mixed up) run will end and the organic farmers (and other high brow yuppie stuff like luxury cars and the like will suddenly be without the market they are use to.

Everyone wants to save the world, but no one wants to help Mom with the dishes.-P.J. O’Rourke

There are a number of questions when it comes to “non-organic” and “organic” food production, and each of us prioritizes the related worries differently (anywhere from “what a crock; trust in science” through “I wash my food, and if the ag. workers don’t want to get poisoned they should change employers or careers” to “all change is bad, and it is logically impossible to PROVE it’s totally safe, so stop.”) I find it helpful to organize the concerns and the data into two broad categories, namely: personal (what will happen to me/my body/my children) and global (what will happen to the environmental web, the economy, the society, etc.). Of course these issues are all interrelated, are very complex, and are subject to different value structures, etc. (profit motives, rational and irrational fears, the “pure fun” of discovery, etc.), but that seems to help.

For a couple of articles on Bt, see:
Some readers may feel that a few butterfly or insect species are unimportant, and that the ag. workers should look out for themselves. Others may feel responsible for those hurt in the production of their food, or worry about pollen/pesticides/carcinogens etc. making their way to “innocents.” Some ask “If these are the known effects, what are the long-term unknown effects throughout the body/the food chain?” or “If we only found this out 3 years after this product was widely available, what are the chances in future for a far more catastrophic danger to make its way undetected through the pipeline?” Still others think, “I stand to make a lot of money if ‘those’ people get out of the way” or “This is all a plot to weaken the nation” (and that probably applies to both sides, actually). And of course,just as everyone has their own way of looking at this subject, each has hi/r own proposed management techniques.

On the personal-scale side of things, there are many chemicals deadlier than Bt to consumers, workers, or to various species (usually by design). Many of them are now illegal in the U.S., though we still manufacture them for export and use by Third World countries, and some of those crops later come back to us. I have heard it said as a given that one should be far more careful with fruit and vegetables fed to small children than one might be with one’s own food, because they can less withstand the “pesticide load” that comes now in the standard American diet. I believe most pesticide manufacturers feel that, if their products are used properly and standard precautions (washing the produce, peeling, etc.) are followed, risks are low. But yes, many people do give a “rat’s butt” about the complex “unnatural” (that is, not found otherwise in the environment) chemicals found on food or used systemically in its production. There is a tendency, perhaps, to think that once something gets into or onto the food, some of it will remain there, and that it could build up in one’s own tissues over time.

On the “global” level there are many questions. As our understandings of the various complex systems are really in their infancy, it is nearly impossible to state anything with certainty; nonetheless, new products are constantly developed and sent to market as soon as feasible (this IS a capitalist economy) while at the same time other groups fight all change, all the time, figuring “better safe than sorry.”

An example of one area of worry is that of human hormone mimics. Considering how complex a thing the human body is, the wrong influence in the wrong place at the wrong time could have very unpredictable results - anything from serious - but delayed and therefore untraceable - cancer to decreased fertility to, I suppose, increased rates of aggression or insanity. (It is easy for the imagination to run wild; the problem is, are “new” worries truly unlikely, or silly, just because no one considered them previously?)

To sum up, then, some people’s response to this unquantifiable threat system is simple: avoid as much danger as is possible as far as is possible. Organic crops offer these people a way to lower their fear and vote with their dollars. It’s not only an “image” thing. In fact, while I don’t make it a point to shop organic, those I know who do NEVER seem to do it for the status. For them, it’s the only alternative to a large, scary problem that can’t be measured. And those worries, and their management technique, are unrelated to the stock market.

And lastly, some personal observations:

  1. A late friend of mine who was a pilot and grew up on a farm here in CA once noted that every single crop-duster he knew had long since died early of some rare, horrible cancer or other. My friend died last year in his 50s of pancreatic cancer; he was never a crop-duster, so far as I know.

  2. Near here is a community (Watsonville)known for strawberries. Part of the soil preparation for planting strawberries involves the use of a dangerous and (now)controversial gas, apparently to kill molds (?). Every year, at planting time, there are exposures (some parents say poisonings) at the elementary school in that town, even though the fields are often far from the school.

  3. I spent some time in Taiwan, the people of which did not evidence much concern for “environmental” issues. It was at that time common (and I’m sure it still is) to see such things as a used chemical drum washing and repainting facility, run by a family on the ground floor of an apartment building across from a middle school, separated from vegetable fields by only a crude corrugated fence. Clearly the runoff from the hand-washing process just went into the field. Would I have avoided eating that food if I could know where it came from? YOU BET. It doesn’t surprise me at all that cancer is the #1 cause of death in Taiwan. Is OUR food safer? I hope so, but honestly, hell if I know.


If they aren’t using chemicals then don’t they use manure? I mean, come on, Id rather have a chemical fertilizer food than one bathing in manure.

BT is only effective when caterpillars are of a certain size. Once they get to a certain size BT is no longer effective. Also it is only toxic to caterpillars. That leaves out aphids, scale, whitefly, and other insects.

Also manuer should be composted (well ‘well rotted’ as the gardening people say) itself. It’s not good to go scooping up bessie the cows droppings and put them on your plants! Manuer can be cow, sheep, chicken, or horse manuer. It’s plant material that has been composted by the cow. Most people prefer it because it doesn’t burn the roots of the plants like most chemical fertilizers can. However I dont use it because it often has an unpleasant smell, and it’s too messy. Chemical fertilizers are less stinky. I also rarely use them except to give my plants a boost (even though they grow in sand, they still have hardly any pest problems).

Time was I stood where thou dost now
And view’d the dead as thou dost me
Ere long you’ll lie as low as I
And others stand and gaze at thee

Is our food safer than that, I certainly hope so. Frankly, we usually have several different inspectors on the farm several times a year and usually without notice. They have a right to poke through just about everything. Water systems have to be certified, certain requirements for septic systems etc. The milk udergoes several bacteria tests monthly and if it is outside the recognized boundaries you can expect him there even before they send you test printout. I think NY state recently (end of the summer?) put more restrictions on several chemicals used mostly by fruit farmers in the state (apples mostly IIRC).

As for people buying organic in hard economic times, they will buy less. That doesn’t mean they’ll stop eating organic, they might start gardening themselves or buy from locals they trust. Those that aren’t as hard line about eating only organic will revert to normally grown. Thus the overall demand for organic food will go down.


Most of the manure spread is done during or prior to plowing and planting of the veggies. It’s different with hay but I don’t see many people buying bales of hay at the grocery. Commercial fertilizers are the same way, they do more good in the ground than on top. “Top dressing” (spreading fertilizer on grass growth) a field of hay is quite common but done as early in the growth cycle as possible.

The sensible way to farm would be to use the minimal amount of chemical fertilizer. We don’t have enough manure for all the farming. The other chemicals are all worse, because many end up in the food. On the other hand, I once heard a lecture by Bruce Ames(of the Ames mutagen test). He said that you consume more carcinogens in a single cup of coffee than all the pesticide residues you end up consuming in a year.
A really stupid invention is coffee filters made of recycled paper.Guaranteed to give you trace amounts of dioxin.The white filters have less.
Few people look at these things rationally. A common sense mix of “natural” and “chemical” is the best.

You could have enough manure for fertilizer if you found a sure-fire way of dealing with human waste. Several towns in our area are trying to ban spreading of human waste on farm fields. This is currently done as long as you have special permits from NY Dept. of Environmental Conservation and it’s limited to agreed upon fields (away from roads, water sources, certain time of day and year restrictions etc.). The septic company gets a free place to dump and the farmer gets free fertilizer. We could never get any of our fields certified, hilly and close to water. Don’t think we’d ever want to though. I’d be very nervous about chem. cleaners and such people dump down their drains. But if you found a sure-fire way to ensure a chem. free product with little chance of disease being spread through it then processing human waste into fertilizer would be a boon industry. Instead of spending millions to treat the waste you spend millions to make fertilizer then sell it. I think that technology isn’t that far away from doing this and in the next decade or so it will become a more common practice than it is now.

My neighbor in Calif used to dump that dry human shit on his lawn & yard. Got great big veg’s. Came in a big bag about 50 lbs, real cheap. Sorry, but Im never gonna use that crap.