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Margaret Hartley's Greenpoint
by Margaret Hartley


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Ideas on greener living

Organic advantages, for earth, water

Last week a Stanford University study said that organic foods were only marginally more healthy than foods using pesticides and chemical fertilizers, suggesting the added cost wasn’t really worth it.

Organic produce, the report said, isn’t more nutritious than non-organic, and any pesticide residue on fruits and vegetables is within safe limits.

My reaction was not to run to the nearest Agway and purchase some permethrin to get rid of those pesky squash bugs, or some Roundup to rid the garden of weeds. My first thought was, “But what about the ground water?” I mean, those pesticides and fertilizers applied by large commercial vegetable growers have to go somewhere. Like the aquifer, or the Gulf of Mexico.

At work, we started talking about the study, and people had different reactions. “Wow, this is a real blow to the organic industry,” one person said.

“Nutrition?” another said. “What about taste?” And he began waxing poetic about some organic carrots he recently ate.

I guess I’m a little like my poetic friend. I am convinced that our own carrots, grown in fine fertile soil built up over many years with copious dressings of well composted ox poop, taste far better than any carrot I have ever purchased anywhere. And the last bag of non-organic carrots I bought I had to feed to the rabbit because they were so tasteless no one else in the family would touch them.

Does an organic carrot have more vitamins than a non-organic carrot? I don’t know, but is that the sole point of organic farming? Or is the point to grow and eat food without poisoning the earth, the water and, potentially, our bodies.

An editorial in the Los Angeles Times, reacting to the Stanford study, dismissed the idea that a similarity in nutritional value would make organic enthusiasts change their minds. “So a new study from Stanford University shows that organic produce probably isn’t any more nutritious than the conventional variety. … We’re not aware of too many people who thought otherwise — it doesn’t make a lot of sense to assume the application of pesticides would have much impact on a fruit’s vitamin content. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t safer to eat.”

The Stanford study says that pesticide levels found on market produce (on 38 percent of non-organic produce and about 7 percent of organic produce) are within the safe limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s fine, but I’d rather feed my family less pesticides — or none if possible — even if the EPA says those pesticides won’t harm them. Because time has proven some of our assumptions about the safety of pesticides wrong in the past. DDT, for instance.

The Cornucopia Institute issued its own take on the Stanford report, which was based on a rigorous study of 237 earlier studies. Cornucopia said the Stanford study failed to include research “including by the USDA, that show our conventional food supply’s nutritional content has dropped precipitously over the last 50 years.”

Cornucopia, a nonprofit that supports small-scale farming, relates that drop in nutrition to “the declining health of our farms’ soil, and healthy soil leads to healthy food. Organic farming’s core value is building soil fertility.”

I know that’s the way we garden at my house. We start with the soil, and in the 20-odd years of our home gardens, it’s gone from sandy to deep, dark, moisture-holding black gold. At least that’s how we view its value, and others who eat our vegetables seem to think they taste better than average.

Are they more nutritious? My husband is convinced they are, and says it stands to reason that healthy, balanced soil will give vegetables the vitamins and trace minerals so necessary to our health that overused, chemically treated commercial soil will not.

I don’t know what the science is behind that. One of the studies the Stanford report looked at said that organic strawberries have more vitamin C than non-organic strawberries.

Are my potatoes more healthy than the ones I can buy in a plastic bag at the store? I don’t know, but I think they taste better and I feel better feeding them to my kids, knowing they were not doused in fungicide before being bagged, a commercial technique used to prolong shelf life.

I know I can’t always feed my family organic produce because I can’t always find it and I can’t always afford it. And we can’t grow everything.

But I still try to cut down their exposure to pesticides, and the Stanford study doesn’t change my mind about that. Or about the value of the life we choose to live: producing as much of our own food as possible, constantly improving the health of our soil, and trying to limit harmful effects on both earth and water.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

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