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Pesticide, organic and other dirty words

“Organic” was an early word in my now 6-year-old’s vocabulary. (She pronounced it “ga-nan-ic.” Tell me that’s not adorable.) It’s also one of the first words she learned to spell, which is why we have progressively more readable versions written on random bits of paper and newsprint. So when we go grocery shopping, Tess takes pride in pointing out the word whenever she sees it. On a recent trip she was in overdrive, chanting “organic, organic, organic” as we walked through our store’s natural-products section. Then she brought me a jar of jam, telling me she wanted it. I told her the jam had a lot of sugar in it, so we needed to look for one sweetened with fruit only. Her reply: “But it’s organic!”

Elitist preschooler?

I’ve been thinking about this as the latest news on pesticides burns up the web. In a study published this week in the journal Pediatrics, researchers from Harvard University, the University of Montreal and two Boston hospitals report that kids with high urine concentrations of organophosphates were twice as likely to have been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).    

Previous studies have linked organophosphates with behavioral problems and cognitive impairment, but those studies assessed kids with above average pesticide exposure, like the children of Latino farmworkers in California. This latest study looked at a broad group of 1,139 kids ages 8 to 15, using parent interviews and urine samples collected as part of the CDC’s ongoing National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. So it’s getting a lot of attention.

Predictably, responses have fallen into two camps: Go Organic! and Organic Schmorganic.      

This happens every time there’s news about pesticides. And I’ve decided it’s a knee-jerk reaction to the term “organic.” Because, really, why are people arguing over whether pesticides cause problems? Pesticides are designed to kill living things. Stands to reason that they might also hurt living things. Especially small living things. Like kids.     

But why the reflex reaction to “organic”? First, there are loopholes in the USDA certification that have let some Big Ag companies claim organic cred even though they’re flouting some basic principles (by, for instance, not putting dairy cows on pasture, a rule thankfully set to change next month). Then there’s the way food marketers have co-opted organic certification to greenwash dubious products. These things not only erode consumer confidence and frustrate sustainable farmers who follow organics in spirit as well as in practice. They also give naysayers a reason to knock organics as a meaningless buzzword. (Organic lollipops? Sucker!) From there it’s just a short trip to this: “organic” = “elite.” And nothing puts the buzz in buzzword like “elite.”     

Back to that scene in the grocery store. So Tess is standing there with the sugared-up organic jam, wondering what I’ve got against the “O” word. I explain that just because something is organic doesn’t mean it’s automatically good for us. We buy organic lollipops (yes, yes we do) not because they’re a health food, but because they have better ingredients than the alternative. (And they taste better!) And while it’s important to buy (or make) organic jam — which we eat more often than lollipops and which is made from berries (among the worst for pesticides) — we still need to think about how much sugar is in it. This feels like the next frontier in food education: I’ve got her understanding that organic is generally a good thing, but how do I get her to understand the nuances?     

Then there’s this other thing. The one I don’t mention. About how self-conscious mommy feels when her 6-year-old walks around exclaiming “organic!” at the top of her lungs. Because, mixed with my pride in her knowledge is my fear of being miscast as a Subaru-driving lefty who buys organic only because Alice Waters told me to. Not because there’s a steady stream of research showing pesticides are dangerous. Not because even government groups admit that pesticides almost certainly cause cancer and disproportionately affect children. No, I do it because it’s trendy. That’s what has happened to the word.     

(For the record: Subaru-driving lefty? Yes. Organic trendster? No.)  

What do you think? About organics, about pesticides, about breaking it all down for our kids? Tell me your thoughts.     

And because I needed a laugh, I watched this “Star Wars” spoof called “Grocery Store Wars,” about the battle between organic and conventional. May the farm be with you.      


With this post, I’m participating in Real Food Wednesdays, Fight Back Fridays, Food Revolution Fridays and Vegetarian Foodie Fridays. Check out the links for other posts about real food.      

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{ 16 comments… add one }

  • April Harris May 21, 2010, 4:24 am

    I really like your post – and ga-nan-ic is an adorable way to say organic! It’s so hard separating fact from fiction these days when it comes to food – just when I think I’ve got it all figured out, something else comes along to make me realise things might not be all that they seem. It is wonderful you are concerned about teaching your daughter about eating healthily – it’s one of the most important things we can do for our kids. If you keep up the way you are, she will definitely begin to understand the nuances just from what you are telling her so don’t worry :)

  • Shea M. May 21, 2010, 8:47 am

    It’s so true! The minute you say “organic” people automatically think you’re an earth-crunchy hippi (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) or a rich yuppie, because it’s “so expensive.” In all honesty, it does cost a bit more, but it’s not excessive if you do it right (i.e. keep the eyes peeled for sales, what’s in season…). And in the end, what’s more important: your health, or the number of cable channels you have?

    I just spent a week on my blog on organics, and was shocked at some of the loopholes out there for organics. At the very least, try ot buy local, it’s usually cheaper, and often organic (even if not certified).


    • Christina May 21, 2010, 9:18 am

      One of the many great things about buying local is that you can actually talk to the farmer or producer and find out firsthand how the food was grown. I know farmers who have worked very hard for organic certification and deserve the cachet it provides. But I also know farmers who aren’t certified, yet who follow sustainable and ethical practices that go beyond what’s covered by certification. We all just need to ask a lot of questions.

      With fruits and vegetables, the certified label is pretty clear-cut. But if, for instance, someone wants only grass-fed beef or truly-really-free-range chickens, organic certification will not tell them that, since the guidelines allow grain and only require “access” to the outdoors, which could mean nothing more than a door and a tiny yard that the animals never actually use. Tricky stuff, that’s for sure.

  • Ryan Platte May 21, 2010, 1:11 pm

    Humans tend to file each acquaintance in a single bucket. I think it may be easier to influence people’s perception of the bucket (“crunchy mom”) by positive example and engagement than to change which bucket we get filed in through influencing our children’s behavior.

    Tree-hugging slightly-arty homeschooling/unschooling computer-geek Orthodox Christian libertarian conspiracy theorist not-USDA-organic veggie farmer with 5 kids and another on the way

    (that was unexpectedly liberating, to go ahead and surrender all the ammo I always try to keep from people!)

  • Melodie May 21, 2010, 1:16 pm

    i hear you. A friend I haven’t talked to for a couple years called me up and asked “are you still vegetarian?” Yep. Almost 20 years now. He went on to say when he first met me about 16 years ago he thought I was just another university student trying to be hip, going through the vegetarian phase like all the other lefty, eco hipsters, but he concluded over the phone that I must be the real deal. Even though we’ve been friends all this time! So some people will just think what they think when they hear a person talk of certain things. One can’t avoid it too much. Your daughter will learn over time what is appropriate and what isn’t, just as mine will, who talks loudly in grocery stores about what is junk food and what isn’t, right next to the mom putting Fruit Loops in her cart.
    Thanks for linking this great post up with me today!

  • Scatteredmom May 24, 2010, 12:17 pm

    *snort* omg I watched the video all the way through and being a Star Wars fan, I laughed so hard through it. SO funny!

    We do our best, here. Sadly, price often dictates what I buy because groceries are so expensive; however, organic is coming down in price so I buy what I can. I also choose things that are more local (ie BC or California), rather than really far away. I also try to get some things at the local farmer’s market so they are from just down the road.

    Interesting read! And I LOVED the video!

  • Marie May 25, 2010, 9:34 am

    Great food for thought ha ha
    It does make sense to consider one thing at a time and move through that…first organic, then type of sweetener…
    My dietary changes were like that. First no meat, then organic veggies, then cutting back on dairy. I think that doing a bit at time makes it easier to learn about and easier to maintain. Thanks for the post.

  • Nipa June 1, 2010, 3:45 pm

    I think the little notebook you gave me sums it up. (The cover has an illustration of two thin, fashionable women ready to eat huge pieces of cake, with more goodies on the table between them. The caption reads “It’s ok, it’s organic”). Organic seems to have become a nice excuse for lot of things; to eat more junk, to sell more, to make a statement.

    Like you, I use it as way to weed out the really nasty stuff like HFCS and food colouring and my kids also learned to read “organic” before any other word. Lately, I haven’t had the time to do the research to figure out what to buy organic. For produce, I’ve been following the Environmental Working Group’s shoppers guide. I always buy organic milk and eggs, peanut butter, meat and poultry, canned goods and a most prepared foods… but a lot of times I just reach for the organic version of something because it’s conveniently located or because I don’t know how much the non organic version is sprayed/ modified etc.

    So I’ve been meaning to ask you for weeks now, what do you buy that’s not organic? Say you were stuck shopping at a grocery store with a limited budget?


    • Christina June 4, 2010, 11:47 am

      You’ve actually inspired me to write a follow-up post, so stay tuned. In the meantime, the short answer is that we buy almost exclusively organic anymore. There are lots of reasons for that, which I’ll get into in that post, but we’re as concerned about the environmental impact of conventional agriculture as we are about the health effects. So even if something is likely to have little pesticide residue, if there’s an organic option, we choose it.

      I understand everyone has different priorities and budgets, though, so if I had to pick only a few things to buy organic, I’d definitely make sure all my animal products were organic (and preferably local, pasture-raised and, in the case of milk, not ultra-high-temperature, or UHT, pasteurized). And I’d use the EWG’s guide to prioritize produce purchases. I’d also avoid packaged products with non-organic soy, corn and canola ingredients, since those are almost certainly genetically modified and, in the case of soy, processed using a toxic solvent called hexane.

      There’s much more to say on this (hence the inspiration for a new post), but that’s the quick version. Thanks for raising the question.

  • Beck June 4, 2010, 1:03 am

    Nice post.
    why is it that it is OK to be an elitist and get granite counter tops, leather car seats and big screen tv’s, but it is not OK to be an elitist and refuse to eat poison food? Seems odd. If you are an elitist who buys things produced by big business- that is good. If you are an elitist who refuses to buy things produced by big business, that is bad. Who do we suppose is behind that movement?
    I wouldn’t worry about being called an elitist for eating organic- unless maybe you are at the farmers market in your Jimmy Choo high heels stuffing your Gucci bag full of organic caviar.
    PS- I’m a fan of Kelly the Kitchen Kop who also participates in real food wednesdays.

    • Christina June 4, 2010, 11:32 am

      Yes, why is that? I suspect it’s because food is a necessity, whereas the others are not. So being an elitist in the Gucci sense doesn’t really make a (perceived) statement about anyone except the person carrying the bag. Choosing organic food, however, can be seen as throwing down a gauntlet: “I pay more for my food. Therefore I eat better than you. Therefore I am better than you.” Right or wrong, that’s often the perception.

  • Nipa June 4, 2010, 2:05 pm

    The comment I hear most is “I can’t afford organic food, it’s so expensive!”, yet many of them can afford to eat out every week, or drive a BMW or own a Gucci purse. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of priorities.

    • Christina June 4, 2010, 2:17 pm

      Absolutely true. This is one of my biggest pet peeves. For a lot of people, yes, eating mostly organic is cost-prohibitive. But for many people, it’s not a question of can’t — it’s a matter of won’t. The people I hear complaining about organic prices are the ones who happily pay for premium cable channels and luxury cars and other non-necessities. But they suddenly cry poor when it comes to food. And these are the same people who — if they voted with their dollars and did choose organic, sustainable food — could help prices come down for those who truly can’t afford it now.

  • Viki June 5, 2010, 4:13 pm

    Just found your blog.
    eating organic is expensive, it really is, but so is eating out.
    I have a friend who decided a few years ago to not buy anything processed or canned. Cooked her own beans from dry, put up her own food in the summer. Bought from the bulk section at whole foods…made her own reusable bags to carry the bulk foods…Only bought organic, or raised her own. (oh yeah she has 5 kids) She saved so much money in the long run!
    They didn’t eat out. They did enlarge their garden. They did put up more food. She made her own bread. It was hard. Her kids would beg for bean buritos from taco bell at first…she held firm. They got used to it. They are more healthy for sticking to it too.
    It was MUCH more work for mom.
    She learned so so much. She now makes her own tortillias. Her freezer is full and her car runs on cooking oil.

    • Christina June 7, 2010, 10:50 am

      That’s an impressive commitment. Not one we all can (or want to) make, but it does show what’s possible when we try to live by our priorities. Thanks for sharing.

  • Alexandra June 10, 2010, 10:39 pm

    Sorry to come so late to this post. Eating organic is perhaps not possible for us all, all the time. It’s expensive. It’s hard to find in some places. There is green-washing going on, true. Still, what is important is to know regular American food and many other regular American products contain toxic chemicals that are bad for people, and even worse for small children whose systems are not ready to detoxify in the same way, and to get militant about stopping the chemical industry. Please get a copy of Slow Death by Rubber Duck. Also, join the movement to overhaul the Toxic Substances Act. This is SO important. I’m going to blog about it tomorrow. You’ll find more info at Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and do watch the Moms Rising video.

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