By Randi Hawley

Everyone’s talking about it. It’s one of those water-cooler discussions. “Do you buy organic fruits and vegetables?” It’s been going on for a while now, but how many of us actually know why it’s such a big deal?

Just what does “organic” mean when it comes to produce crops in our food supply? It means that organic produce crops are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Today we’ll focus on the use of pesticides, genetic engineering of crops, and finally, access to organic produce.

Assessing pesticide residue levels in various produce crops is of greatest importance to the health and wellness of children and other high-risk groups. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children have “unique susceptibilities to (pesticide residues’) potential toxicity”, and the organization cites research that links pesticide exposure in early life with “pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems”. Members of the academy are urged to encourage parents to consult reliable resources that provide information on the relative pesticide content of various fruits and vegetables.

One key resource is the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Shopping Guide to Pesticides in Produce. EWG publishes an annual guide based on their research with the purpose of helping people to eat healthy and reduce their exposure to pesticides in produce. Each year, thousands of crop samples are analyzed and then 48 different fruits and vegetables are ranked according to the levels of pesticide residue they contain. EWG has made it easy for consumers to shop with their list in mind by creating two lists, “The Dirty Dozen” and “The Clean Fifteen”. “The Dirty Dozen” lists those crops that have the highest levels of pesticide residue. Some of the produce listed includes apples, grapes, spinach, celery, and potatoes. On the other spectrum is “The Clean Fifteen”, listing produce that has the least trace of pesticide residue, including avocados, pineapples, cabbage, and kiwi. “Armed with EWG’s Shopper’s Guide, millions of people have opted for those conventionally-raised fruits and vegetables that tend to test low for pesticide residues. When they want foods whose conventional versions test high for pesticides, they can go for organic.”

It is important to remember that EWG’s lists only address produce in terms of levels of pesticide residue, not whether the crop is genetically engineered (GE) or a genetically modified organism (GMO). This can become confusing because of current talk about GMO food and whether it’s something to be avoided or not. Keep in mind that just because an item may be on the “Clean Fifteen”, it does not mean that it’s safe to eat in terms of being genetically modified or not. Buying organic ensures both: that the item is not genetically modified and that it hasn’t been grown using pesticides.

One argument against buying organic fruits and vegetables is that these items are often more expensive than non-organic items. Many people don’t feel they can afford to spend more on groceries for their family than they already do, or don’t see the benefit of doing so. Have you ever heard someone state in frustration, “Healthy food is so expensive!”? One way to look at that is that we pay for health one way or another – up front for a healthy food supply, or later in life with a diminished life span and/or high health care costs.

Paying more for healthier food may be more meaningful if a person can understand why organic produce is more expensive to buy. Consider these facts:

• Organic farmers don’t receive federal subsidies like conventional farmers do. Therefore, the price of organic food reflects the true cost of growing.
• The price of conventional food does not reflect the cost of environmental cleanups that we pay for through our tax dollars.
• Organic farming is more labor and management intensive.
• Organic farms are usually smaller than conventional farms and so do not benefit from the economies of scale that larger growers get.
• Organic farms face many hidden costs to becoming certified as “organic”.

It is no wonder that many organic farmers feel like they have to fight all along the way through the food system to provide us with a safer food supply.

Finally, let’s look at our access to certified organic produce in Canada, and in particular, in Edmonton. If you have decided that you’d like to purchase some organic produce, is the food available? Armed with “The Dirty Dozen” list, I do my best to buy those items organically when I do my weekly shopping. Unfortunately, I’ve come across a great obstacle: limited access to organic choices for the produce items that are considered to be the most dangerous if I consume them in non-organic varieties.

I think it would be fair to say that all of the large grocery stores in Edmonton do offer some organic items in their produce area. But only some items, and often they are not the ones that are listed on “The Dirty Dozen”. I sometimes see items that are on “The Clean Fifteen” in the organic section, and more often, items that are somewhere in the middle of the two lists. That is great for those that choose to eat as much as they can from organic selections. Yet, I can’t help but wish the focus was on the crops that pose the greatest risk regarding pesticide levels. The biggest frustration I face is that even though I choose to travel to more than one store in my weekly search, and often up to four stores per week, just to buy organic produce from “The Dirty Dozen” list, there are often items that I can’t find anywhere. Stores within the same chain have different offerings, which means that while I can find organic cucumbers at one store, I may have to go to another location within the same franchise to get organic kale. And then another store to get organic cherry tomatoes. Last weekend, with this article in mind, I made a point of counting how many different organic produce items I could purchase at one of the larger stores: only 5 (green onions, carrots, pre-packaged baby spinach, cauliflower, and cucumbers).

Thankfully, there are some smaller stores that offer a wide variety of organic produce, but they are not within what I consider to be a fair distance from my home, and I choose to limit my trips to those stores for that reason. So while the items are available, I still consider them inaccessible for my own situation. Naturally, prices can be somewhat higher at these specialized stores; I’m sure this is due to many reasonable factors not limited to lesser volume discounts from suppliers. For some consumers, prices can further limit access. In my case, I let my budget help me decide how much I’m willing to spend each week. If I can afford it, I travel and spend what is required to get what I want for the week. Other weeks, I choose to skip eating some items, in the hopes that I might be able to get them next week. The bright side of this method is that I’m forced to find something to take the unavailable item’s place, and therefore end up eating a more varied selection of produce, which I consider a nutritional benefit.

Personally, I have two bottom lines regarding organic produce: It makes sense to me to limit my exposure to chemicals when I can, and following the guidance of EWG’s “The Dirty Dozen” is the minimum I should do when it comes to shopping for fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, I feel that major improvements need to be made in our Canadian food system so that healthy food is more accessible to the general population. We deserve the right to better access to organic produce, in each and every large grocery store, with a focus on EWG’s “The Dirty Dozen” list for the current year as a minimum standard of offering.