“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!”
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.