To Buy Organic.jpg

When I finally moved into my own place a few years back, I pledged to buy all organic. Damn the cost! This was an investment


Book Review: To Buy or Not to Buy Organic

For those of us who have to think about how much we're paying for our food.

To Buy Organic.jpg

When I finally moved into my own place a few years back, I pledged to buy all organic. Damn the cost! This was an investment I was making in Mother Earth! Then the beyond-organic advocates started making noise about the commercialization of organics, and I got worried about whether I was doing the right thing—and so inundated by the advocates' rhetoric of purity and outrage that cynicism started gnawing away at my resolve. To make matters more confusing, the local-foods movement then exploded, and I attended a Michael Pollan lecture in which the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma stated, definitively, that we should all give preference to locally grown, conventional food over certified organic.

To buy or not buy organic? This is clearly a dilemma that most of us face, as Michael Stusser’s February feature in the Weekly illustrated. In just one month of eating only certified organic food, Stusser's family spent 58 percent more than they normally did.

My own strategy of late has been to shop the farmers markets as much as possible, and when I can’t, to rely on the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, which lists the 12 least pesticide-contaminated conventional crops and the 12 most, so you can pick selectively. The guide is posted on my refrigerator.

Now I have another resource. Local author Cindy Burke has recently released a book titled To Buy or Not to Buy Organic. Burke aims for an amiable, soccer-mom-ish tone, and the way she lays out all the issues surrounding organics—pesticide use, food miles, the pros and cons of certification, farmers markets—may strike established eco-foodies as simplistic but offers a fantastic primer for anyone whose grip on the issues is sketchy to partial.

Despite gut-churning sentences like “When a plant’s needs are met, it’s a happy plant that blossoms and grows,” the reason I’m plugging Burke’s book is that she does what Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and 5,000 other clean-food advocates don’t: She gets practical. 

Recognizing—hell, validating—that most of us can’t afford to pay premium prices for organics 100% of the time, and that many of us are primarily concerned with reducing the amount of pesticides that we and our families consume, Burke devotes the last third of her book to evaluating, crop by crop, how much buying organic matters. I didn’t know, for example, that most insects aren’t drawn to broccoli and cabbage, so conventional farmers don’t need to spray these crops frequently.

Better yet, she sums everything up with a chart of common vegetables and fruits, labeling each “buy organic,” “not organic” (no pressing need to buy organic), and “local” (choose local over organic). Those pages in my copy of the book are already mangled and annotated.

Of course there are hosts of other reasons why you’d want to pay more for organic produce from farmers you’ve befriended at the farmers market, such as supporting more ethical labor practices and strengthening local economies. (She also discusses them in the book.) But if eco-foodies—and I count myself as one, despite the cynicism—want to convince a broader audience to pay more for organic and sustainable foods, it’s high time that we started promoting a calculated risk strategy over the uncomfortable mix of gourmandism and outrage that we're currently using.

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