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Should we buy organic foods?

Posted Sept. 09, 2012, at 4:58 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 10, 2012, at 9:11 a.m.

Should we care about conserving soil and water? Should we incentivize organic farming? And, to paraphrase the title of the Aug. 14 column with which I am taking issue, “should we buy organic foods?” Yes, yes and yes. But Georgia Clark-Albert, after posing these questions, comes out in a very different place.

Among the questions not asked and answered are these:

Should we allow chemical-intensive farming practices to destroy soil integrity and pollute water bodies with weed and insect killers? Should we sit by as massive applications of insecticides poison the pollinators on which food crops depend, giving rise to the ongoing bee-decimation catastrophe known as colony collapse disorder? Given the proven links between pesticides and cancer, as well as the neurological illnesses that have skyrocketed in recent years — autism, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, in particular — are there adequate protections in place to ensure that fruits and vegetables sprayed with chemicals are safe to eat, especially those that cannot be peeled to remove residues on the surface? No, no, and no, absolutely not.

Agriculture standards are inadequate in large part because of enforcement problems at the federal level. The U.S. Inspector General faulted U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal oversight authority, in 2010 for failure to test samples for conformity to organic standards; the agency also failed to take action against several food producers who mislabeled products as organic, and it was discovered that in cases where action was taken, there was no follow-up. In our state we are fortunate to have the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association to provide guidance.

Any nutritionist is expected to properly inform consumers of factors to be weighed in making healthy choices. She should know that commercial blueberries, apples and potatoes, three of Maine’s signature crops, are on the Dirty Dozen list published by the Environmental Working Group because of the high levels of pesticide residues found on them. For the same reason Clark-Albert favors organic milk — the requirement that no antibiotics or hormones (r-BGH) be fed to cows — she should eschew genetically modified foods. The “r” in front of BGH means recombinant, or genetically engineered, and crops modified to be herbicide tolerant (leading to overuse of chemical controls, none of which kills anything but weeds) and insect resistant (grown with a built-in pesticide) are anathema to safe-food advocates.

Scientists without ties to the chemical industry have argued that for many reasons GM foods are unsafe to eat, but money controls the debate, and regulators have allowed Monsanto and other seed companies to dominate the market. As a result, nearly all packaged foods on supermarket shelves contain GM ingredients — corn, soy, and sugar beets heading the list. GM corn containing a pesticide to repel borers was approved for human consumption in Maine in 2009 — a good reason to buy only corn certified to be organic.

A powerful agro-industrial complex exists to promote chemical-dependent crops as well as to discredit organic practices, and BDN’s nutrition writer is demonstrably part of that cabal. Trivializing the harm pesticides do to humans and ecosystems, suggesting that chemical residues are negligible and, in so many words, perpetuating the “substantial-equivalence” dogma (organic crops and pesticided crops are indistinguishable, say the agro-barons) all evince the warped thinking of a propagandist who cannot be trusted. Clark-Albert’s claim that “bugs … can be more harmful and deadly tha[n] pesticides ever could be” is ludicrous. Equally appalling is the ignorance in her statement that “pesticides are already out there in our soil [and no] amount of organic farming is going to remove it.”

Readers seeking reputable advice should look instead to sources like the Rodale Institute and Beyond Pesticides. They will find ample information on the subject at the annual Common Ground Fair (Sept. 21-23), this year honoring Rachel Carson, author of “Silent Spring” (1962), one of the first to sound the alarm about disrupting the balance of nature with chemical poisons. A keynote speaker at the fair is Jay Feldman, director of Beyond Pesticides, who has addressed the externalities of chemical-intensive agriculture — costs to society of toxic chemical cleanup, water treatment, medical care, etc. — in a report titled “The Real Story on the Affordability of Organic Food.” And a bountiful harvest will be on display in Unity, showing how it’s done without jeopardizing our health and safety.

Jody Spear is a resident of Harborside.

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