In case you haven’t noticed, organic foods cost customers lots of money, since, unfortunately, the government subsidizes a lot of industrial food but doesn’t provide for organic farmers. Sometimes the price difference just looks too big, and sometimes you’re not sure of the real benefits of switching. So here is a guide to the five best foods to buy organic (that means no genetically modified organisms, no chemical fertilizers, no synthetic pesticides, no antibiotics unless animals are ill, and minimal synthetic additives). This is not a definitive list; it takes ecological, social and health impacts into account to help you make those tough grocery store decisions.
1. Meat. Industrial animal farms have serious adverse environmental effects. The meat industry is supported by government-subsidized corn monocrops (i.e. with nothing else growing near it) that put family farms out of business, deplete soil quality, eliminate biodiversity, require pesticides, and make human antibiotics less effective. It is also one of the largest contributors to global warming. Non organic meat is also much higher in saturated fats, and the body cannot process industrial meat as well as organic meat. Rough!
The results? Fewer nutrients, higher obesity rates, and poorer taste. If you choose to buy only one thing organic, make it meat. When you make the switch, your meat will taste better, and you’ll reduce your saturated fat intake, increase your protein intake and make it easier for your body to digest and remove the bad stuff like cholesterol.
2. Dairy & Eggs. Similar to meat, dairy and egg production has a large negative environmental impact because it requires large monocrops to feed millions of hungry animals in an unhealthy way. This increases pesticide and antibiotic use, which is also passed on to us. Cows in factory farms even produce surprisingly enormous amounts of green house gases when they, ahem, burp and fart. Pardon me. The resulting products have less of the good stuff and more of the bad. Buying organic dairy and eggs will cause fewer health problems (see above) and contribute to the reduction of global warming. It also keeps smaller farms and creative cheese artisans in business, hopefully gives the poor cows a nicer life, and, importantly, it will usually provide you with tastier products.
3. Wheat and Potatoes. I love wheat and potatoes! Whole wheat is great for us and tastes delicious, but it’s even better when it is not genetically modified, has no pesticide residue, and maintains more nutrients! In the U.S., wheat is one of the largest monocrops, which worsens soil quality, eliminates habitats for wildlife, and encourages pests (which means pesticides!). As usual, food that is grown in more nutrient-rich soil with fewer modifications passes on more of the good stuff to us than the bad. Wheat and potatoes are so pervasive in our diets (chips, crackers, bread, cereal), that increasing demand for organics here will make a difference.
4. Corn. Corn is a tricky beast. Most of the corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified, is injected with pesticides, is grown in monocrops, and wait for this — is inedible! That’s right, most of the corn we grow goes to cows in factory farms or is turned into high fructose corn syrup, but it is not fit for human consumption. It is what allows the meat and diary industries to operate as they do. So it’s not the corn that we eat as corn that is the biggest problem, but the corn that we eat without knowing it. Again–rough!
So how do you buy organic corn, then? 1) by buying the corn that you actually eat (corn, corn chips, corn flour, etc) as organic, 2) by avoiding foods with high-fructose corn syrups, and 3) by buying organic meat and dairy from grass-fed cows! So numbers 1 and 2 help you do number 3. Thumbs up for multitasking.
5. Vegetables & Fruits. There is more of a diversity of fruit and vegetable growing methods in the US. There are a lot of smaller fruit and vegetable gardens and farms, including CSA’s and community gardens. Even when they’re not organic (e.g. if they use pesticides or chemical fertilizer), they often have more crop diversity, which benefits soil and wildlife. Many also contribute to their neighborhoods. So, although it’s best to buy organic because vegetables & fruits grown organically have significantly higher amounts of any given nutrient and don’t have residual pesticides on them, it’s also great to buy local if you can’t find organic. Nectarines, Celery, Pears, Peaches and Apples, when not organic, have the highest traces of pesticides, so try and buy those organically. A fun way to get your local, organic fruits is to go apple or berry picking on an organic farm! (It’s also a wonderful date option!)
Christine Johnson writes about Urban Green Foods for Big Girls Small Kitchen. She is a senior at NYU passionate about urban and community agriculture, sustainability and cooking delicious, responsible meals!