I became a mom in San Francisco, where city regulations require mothers to hire doulas and take eight weeks of intensive hypnobirthing classes.* So when my breastfed baby began to eat solid food, there was really only one path forward.
I insisted on feeding my baby veggies that were always organic and, of course, mashed lightly with my own fingers (Mash don’t puree! Purees are the gateway drug to helicopter parenting!).
I also remember a very lengthy interview with the butcher at my neighborhood Whole Foods to discuss where the cows were from and what they were fed. Yes, I was that mom.
At the time, it didn’t occur to me to question whether organic was indeed a better choice. I believed the foundational myths that have been instrumental to the organic industry’s success. I believed that “organic” meant more nutrition, less impact on the planet and, most importantly, ‘grown without pesticides.’
I wasn’t trying to be trendy. I came to these conclusions after reading multiple articles in mainstream newspapers and news outlets with headlines like Organic Milk Higher in Vitamins or Parents with Pesticide Fears Turn to Organic Baby Food. Given the information readily available to me, my assumptions were pretty reasonable.
Have the headlines changed since 2006? Not really. Add in an intellectually unhealthy mix of Dr. Oz, the Food Babe and Nutritarian Nancy and these organic myths have become as difficult to destroy as a superweed.
Still, in recent years, claims about organic food have found themselves subject to a higher level of scrutiny. I’ve changed my mind about organic food and I’m not alone. I’ve learned the facts: studies show equivalent nutritional benefits, organic isn’t pesticide-free and, oh yeah, Americans should really calm down about pesticides on their food anyway.
Even though our numbers are growing, skeptical consumers are a drop in the bucket compared to the growth of the organic industry. Sales of organic produce, meat and packaged foods continue to skyrocket.
More moms than ever are buying organic food, some even insisting on an exclusively organic diet for their families. The question is why?
Organic food is…?
While the organic industry is a booming one, many consumers buy organic even though they don’t actually know what it means. You might assume the problem is PhD-from-Google-University scholarship, but most moms just don’t have the time or interest to to read every study conducted on organic food.
If their Facebook friends haven’t shared it, it may as well not exist.
The Pesticide-Free Myth
Most moms — particularly new moms — are worried about exposing their kids to dangerous chemicals, toxins and pesticides. Fear drives spending, whether it’s BPA-free plastic toys, natural baby shampoo or organic produce.
Natural and organic industries target moms because they know we’d rather spend more if it brings us peace of mind, even if the risk turns out to be overhyped. When it comes to our kids, we’d always rather be safe than sorry.
The belief that organic food is pesticide-free and, therefore, safer is one of the most common reasons that moms buy organic food. The truth? Organic farmers do use pesticides, and they use them liberally.
Although most (but not all) organic-approved pesticides are natural in origin, it’s important to keep in mind that natural doesn’t always mean less toxic. And organic crops are frequently more susceptible to deadly pathogens like E coli.
On the other hand, I don’t want to start a mass panic about organic food either. Whether we’re talking about organic or conventional pesticides, moms can relax. Our food is actually pretty safe.
Organic Farmers Are Real People, Not Factory Farms!
‘Big Organic’ as an industry has done an excellent job perpetuating the myth that “organic” means it came from an idyllic old-fashioned, small family farm. Many consumers see organic as an alternative to those dreaded “factory farms” but, in reality, both organic and conventional farms are a mix of large-scale and small operations.
It’s also a myth that most conventional farms are owned by giant corporations. The vast majority of farms, whether organic or not, are family-owned. Plenty of American conventional farmers have been in the business of farming for multiple generations.
Tip: If you have questions about farming, Ask the Farmers!
Even the assumption that farms are either exclusively organic or exclusively conventional isn’t always true. Some farmers grow a mix of organic and conventional crops.
I Care About The Planet, Don’t You?
Many environmentally conscious moms want to teach their children to take care of the planet. They might recycle or plant a backyard garden, take part in a neighborhood clean up day or bike to work instead of drive.
Those same moms might also want to buy organic because they assume it’s better for the environment. Well, the truth is far more complicated. Organic farming methods do have some benefits, like reducing soil erosion, for example, that could even be used in tandem successfully with conventional methods. But for high-demand crops like corn, soy, rice or wheat, organic yields simply do not match conventional so we end up having to use more land to grow the same number of crops.
And the bias against GMO crop solutions and other beneficial technologies means that organic farms are rejecting sensible solutions based purely on ideology. Organic activist groups have successfully demonized biotech for all consumers, and that’s not going to save any of us.
I want to see an innovative and sustainable food system that includes a wide variety of agricultural approaches — small and large farms, organic methods and biotech solutions.
“Organic” Became A Status Symbol
Moms who buy exclusively organic — whether it’s produce, meat or even clothing — have been duped into chasing after a very expensive lifestyle. The organic industry has done an excellent job disguising the higher cost behind lies and clever half-truths about health and environmental benefits. Organic food then becomes a necessary expense, a kind of ethical status symbol for the environmentally conscious.
There tend to be two types of organic moms — the luxury organic moms who shop at Whole Foods and bargain shoppers who love finding a deal on organic bananas at stores like Costco.
Luxury organic moms want to feel like they’re giving their kids the very best. Bargain-loving organic moms want that too, but they also want to feel like they’re shopping smart. They pick and choose their organic choices based on lists from the Environmental Working Group, unconcerned or unaware that the EWG’s Dirty Dozen lists have been widely criticized by scientists.
I Fed My Family Organic Food For Three Months, You Won’t Believe What Happened Next!
Some moms buy organic food because it makes them feel empowered. Zen Honeycutt, founder of organic activist group Moms Across America, claims to have cured her child’s food allergies and autism with an all-organic diet. Honeycutt has built an entire career peddling highly dangerous and false claims to worried moms everywhere.
Stories of similar “cures” run rampant throughout the Moms Across America community. And any mom who disagrees with them is poisoning her children. These women are shameless.
To Zen and anyone else who is still confused: you can’t cure autism or food allergies with an organic diet.
But it’s not just activist groups like Moms Across America. Lots of articles go viral with false claims about the benefits of an organic diet.
For example, a widely shared article about a study sponsored by a Swedish organic grocery chain claimed that a family had ingested less pesticides on an organic diet as compared to one with conventional food. The only problem is that the tests only measured for conventional pesticides, not organic, without any discussion or comparison of these pesticides and their actual risk.
And that’s just one example. Moms are constantly bombarded with an unstoppable stream of junk science. It takes a great deal of time and effort to find the facts.
No More Guilt: Buy What You Like
To my fellow moms: I’m not suggesting you never buy organic food for your kids again. Some days it’s the only option available at my local grocery store and, besides, I still have a soft spot for the organic farmer at my neighborhood farmer’s market. If the tomato tastes better and it’s within your budget, go ahead and buy it.
I just want moms to understand that they don’t have to buy organic food and they shouldn’t make anyone else feel like that either. It isn’t healthier, safer or better for the environment. You can stop competing with the sanctimommy in the bio-diesel powered minivan in front of you. Buy your food because it tastes good. I know, radical idea.
How often do you buy organic food for your kids? Why?
*Not a real regulation.
Why This Mom Boycotts Organic and Will Never Shop at Whole Foods, Kavin Senapathy, Grounded Parents, December 19, 2014
Dangour, AD, et al, Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review, Am J Clin Nutr. September 2009
The Risk Monger’s Dirty Dozen — 12 highly toxic pesticides approved for use in organic farming, David Zaruk, The Risk Monger, November 12, 2015
Sales From Organic Farms Up 72 Percent, USDA Reports, Natural Agricultural Statistical Service (NASS) press release, September 17, 2015
Americans Will Pay More For Organic, But They Also Have No Idea What “Organic” Means, Sydney Brownstone, Co.Exist, November 2014
How “Scary” Sells With Fear Based Marketing, Barry Moltz, Small Business Trends, April 22, 2014
Bruce Chassy et al, Organic Marketing Report, Academics Review, pages 7-9
The Role of Organic Pesticides in California, Steve Savage, Forbes
§CFR 205.601: Synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production.
Mukherjee, A, et al, Preharvest evaluation of coliforms, Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Escherichia coli O157:H7 in organic and conventional produce grown by Minnesota farmers, J Food Prot. 2004 May;67(5):894-900.
Organic Farming Causes 200 Instances of Serious Food Poisoning, Lee Silver, Science 2.0, March 6, 2007
Are lower pesticide residues a good reason to buy organic? Probably not., Christie Wilcox, Scientific American blog, September 24, 2012
2012 Census of Agriculture, Farms, Land and Value of Sales of Organic Agricultural Products: Certified and Exempt Organic Farms
2012 Census of Agriculture, Characteristics of All Farms and Farms with Organic Sales
2012 Census of Agriculture, Highlights, Family Farms, 97 percent of U.S. farms are family owned
Blended Organic-Conventional Farming Could Feed World, Steve Baragona, Voice of America, June 29, 2012
Beyond ‘romance’ of organics: 6 ignored sustainable practices organic proponents should embrace, Steve Savage, Genetic Literacy Project, March 16, 2015
Paul Maeder et al, Soil Fertility and Biodiversity in Organic Farming, Science 31 May 2002: Vol. 296 no. 5573 pp. 1694-1697
Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Farming, Christie Wilcox, Scientific American blog, July 18, 2011
How wrong is the latest “Dirty Dozen” list?, Steve Savage, Biofortified.org, May 19, 2103
Organic food can cure autism from GMOs? More ‘quack science’ from Dr. Oz, Kavin Senapathy, Genetic Literacy Project, September 25, 2014
This experiment shows what happens to your body when everything you eat is organic, Jeff Beer, Co.Create, May 5, 2015
Bad Chart Thursday: Organic Cherry Picking, Melanie Mallon, Skepchick, May 7, 2015