EATING BETWEEN THE LINES (Chapter 1)Greener Acres Without Changing Your Address or Your Politics
Betting the Farm on Organics
"I am a farmer's daughter," I told myself again and again as I knelt on the ground, pushing away the soil to see if the green tint had faded from the pate of new spring potatoes. My sons, then five and two years old, stood by with a sturdy bucket and garden hose to give our bounty a good wash. We tugged at the wilting green tops, expecting to uproot clusters of walnut-sized starchy gems--instead, naked stems. We were stunned to be outsmarted by a sight-impaired mole, with a keen sense of smell. It, too, had patiently waited for the precise moment of agricultural perfection, and it had stripped our potatoes clean from the tops.
With looks of fortitude on their tiny brows, mud on their knees, and shovels perched on their sunburned shoulders, the boys took in their first farming lesson and headed to the back pasture to capture the thief. Our potato experiment came as a directive from my father, a Michigan farmer. "Buy organic potatoes," he said after hearing about a neighboring potato farmer whose kidney had shriveled to an unrecognizable mass. The suspected cause was decades of exposure to potent chemicals applied to his potato crops.
This was perhaps the first fatherly advice I can recall. While nearly all dads dish out dating advice to daughters, most of his paternal advice and our conversations edged around farming and food. After years of estrangement from divorce and what I call unpredictable family weather patterns, our tie was at times as deeply rooted as dandelions or as fragile and bitter as spring radish shoots.
But from season to season, no matter the family climate, his homespun stories about his Midwest hundred-acre woods kept me fastened to a lifestyle that few ever experience in this urbanized society--the family farm. From an early age, my father learned that self-sufficiency was no farther than the backwoods. Orion was his lantern and the oak and maple his companions. As an adult, all he needed to fill the pantry for a year was a fishing pole, a garden, a hog in the pen, a dairy cow in the barn, chickens in the yard, grain in the fields, and a deer hanging in the shed.
He laughed at our potato-thieving mole and his tone let on that I finally understood, at least partially, the complexity and unpredictability of farming. Clever moles are just one of many problems potato farmers are up against. Beetles, blight, and fungus that can wipe out entire crops are common enemies, which is why this particular sector of agriculture has been so reliant on insecticides and fungicides--hence his advice to buy organic potatoes.
This was in the late 1980s, and I couldn't have told you what an organic potato really was or where to find them at the time, even though my address was in California's Central Valley, the nation's fruit, nut, and salad bowl. I had moved there from Manhattan and my prior zip codes included Washington, D.C., Hawaii, and London--all a far cry from my new rural residence. Perhaps my need to grow potatoes (along with peaches, plums, tomatoes, and cucumbers) was due to my desire to play catch-up. Conceivably, by playing in the dirt with my two boys I could make up on lost father-daughter years. Like reading through a family album of long-forgotten relatives in one afternoon, my hope was to learn about my familiar farming ancestry in one growing season; instead it's taken me more than twenty years.
In time, the navy ordered my husband to more suburban settings in Canada, Italy, and Colorado, but I didn't forget my father's advice. Still, organic vegetables were hard to find and the added expense wasn't something I could easily afford. For many years I was what the industry calls a cherry picker. If organic produce was on sale and within easy reach I bought it; otherwise there were no organic potatoes in my shopping cart.
It wasn't until years later, during my first job in journalism, that I realized my father's down-to-earth advice did indeed have merit. I was thirty-five years old and working as an unlikely intern for a media and publishing company that served the health-food industry. The industry is known for utopian ideals and very liberal views. As I was a navy wife, my politics leaned toward the center and my wardrobe didn't include a single pair of Birkenstocks.
What's more, my relatives who made their living tilling the Midwestern soil were nothing like this breed of farmers. It seemed that all the organic supporters I interviewed staked their entire being on organic farming. For them it was a passion, almost a religion. Even my sister-in-law, who had lived in Seattle for decades, packed up and started a Community Supported Agricultural (CSA) farm in Mount Vernon, Washington. She farms as many as forty different items, including fruits, vegetables, eggs, and flowers, for her customers who collect their weekly share of food directly from Riversong Farm.
Why Buy Organic Produce?
Even with my loose ties to farming and my work in food journalism, which at the time was smack dab in the middle of the organic food revolution, I still needed pragmatic, methodical, Midwestern-style answers that transcended emotions. During some particularly tight financial months, the higher price for organic food was just too costly.
Most likely you've read, as I had, that organic fruits and vegetables are not subjected to pesticides. But why then were there newspaper headlines saying that organic foods had pesticide residues from chemicals like DDT? I'd been taught in journalism school, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." I needed facts to justify a thinner wallet. Doubts, along with these questions, lingered in my mind each time I stood in the produce section:
Was organic food really grounded in strong science or was it tethered by thin threads that could easily break when the next food fad came along?
Are organically grown fruits and vegetables really better for my family?
Did I fear being judged by coworkers, many of whom were single and didn't have a family to feed?
It takes a conventional farm three years to transition to organic; that's at least how long my conversion took. What changed my mind was a report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which was backed by the very independent Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports). The list, called the dirty dozen, analyzed pesticide residue levels from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) government records. The no-nonsense list narrowed down the most common foods with the highest pesticide residues. Guess what? Potatoes were on the list. (I know, I should have listened to my dad.)
Photocopy and Clip
Finally, I had a manageable organic directory to work from. Instead of feeling guilty about not filling my cart with every organically available food and panicking that I was spending my kids' college funds, I now could use a workable list--one that fit my budget and relieved my doubts.
It's important to know that the residue levels on the dirty dozen are after these foods were washed and peeled for normal consumption. That said, I think (and hope) you can tell I'm not an alarmist. In general, the foods listed in the first two columns are higher in pesticide residues than others. However, to be fair and perfectly clear, the lists are not meant to imply the foods exceed EPA tolerable levels for male adults--it's the younger consumers who need more safeguards.
Very few foods ever exceed the EPA limits for adult males for three reasons. First, the agency must account for all pathways to exposure, such as diet, drinking water, and home use of insecticides, which means a piece of fruit is just one piece of the puzzle. It is the EPA's job to determine the health risk of each approved pesticide and set restrictions called tolerances, which is the maximum amount a particular pesticide can be in or on a food. The tolerance is not about pesticide residues; it is an estimate for one's exposure to a particular pesticide or its breakdown product.
Second, the EPA similarly looks at cumulative exposure to groups of pesticides that may cause cancer and considers all the ways we might be exposed, such as inhalation or through the skin. Third, the agency adds a 100-fold safety buffer when it applies the standards for pesticide residues.
Every year the USDA tests for pesticide residues on more than 13,000 samples, purchased at grocery stores, of fruits, vegetables, grains, milk, and drinking water (USDA Pesticide Data Program). In 2004, 76% of fresh fruit and vegetables showed detectable residues, 40% of these contained more than one pesticide, and only .2% exceeded the EPA's tolerable levels.
The EWG examines this same data and narrows it down to forty-six commonly eaten fruits and vegetables. The EWG dirty-dozen list is based on what is called pesticide load, which quantifies how many pesticides were found on a single fruit or vegetable and within the entire commodity. For instance, 92% of the apple samples contained pesticides; of those, 27% contained two pesticides, 24% contained three pesticides, and 12% contained four different pesticides. For potatoes, 79% contained pesticide residues, 52% contained one residue, and 21% contained two types of residues (this is a big improvement since my potato-farming experiment in the early 1980s).
The EWG list is significant, especially for pregnant women, infants, and children, because it raises awareness flags for foods that are commonly eaten by children and by moms-to-be during pregnancy. Ask parents of growing children and they will attest that kids eat a lot, and it's often the same foods again and again. In the 1990s reports began to emerge showing that the tolerable levels for pesticide residues may have been too lenient for kids. What was easily legal and tolerable for an adult male may pose an unnecessary risk to a child or unborn baby.
The issue was twofold: Pesticide tolerance levels had not been adequately analyzed for infants and children. Nor had sci...