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Our Food Choices and Why They Matter

Kyly Clark, Managing Editor

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I recently learned of the psychological condition named by Dr. Steven Bratman called “Orthorexia Nervosa,” which means “an unhealthy obsession with healthy food,” in a book written by journalist and PhD Peter Laufer, called “Organic: A Journalist’s Quest to Discover the Truth Behind Food Labeling.” There are times when I find myself guilty of this obsession. As an advocate for the right to know what’s in our food for the sake of sustaining our environment and the health of our people, I am dedicated to vote for better food choices with my dollar.

My interest in food is closely tied to my childhood. Being raised in the Waldorf education community, I was immersed in nature. At a young age I tended to my own garden bed and learned how to compost, and was fortunate to have female influences, both teachers and my own mother, who prepared wholesome vegetarian meals. But just recently, organics came full circle for me as a “way of life” that I cherish about my early education. The roots of the global modern organic movement come from Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and founder of the Waldorf School, who developed the first idea of biodynamic agriculture in the 1920s. A practice similar to organic, biodynamic farming means cultivating soil and crops without poisons, but with esoteric concepts like planting and harvesting based on the moon phases and planetary cycles, the spiritual processes of plant growth, and an understanding of the intimacy involved in caretaking for the land.

Agricultural practices and effects 

It is widely known today that our nation’s environment is suffering, and our physical health is declining. The Center for Science in the Public Interest states that unhealthy eating and physical inactivity are the leading causes of death in the nation, with nearly 700,000 deaths each year due to nutrition and obesity-related diseases. Two-thirds-of our population is overweight or obese, and billions of dollars are spent on diet-related diseases. Food processing was once used to prevent sickness, and now it’s gone so far as to make us sick. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3,000 people die every year due to food-related illnesses, and 48 million people get sick.

The root of the issues of global health and environmental health may in part be attributed to how we treat our soil, which is the lifeblood of all things living. It’s been proven that Agroecological methods, the science and practice of sustainable agriculture, may be the least harmful solution to feeding the world, while boosting agricultural resilience to climate change and regenerating natural resources, in comparison to conventional agriculture’s reliance on chemical inputs do just the opposite.

According to a Friends of the Earth (FOE) report, environmental damage from conventional agriculture costs the world $3 trillion annually. Scientists estimate that farmers grow enough food for 10 billion people today, yet 800 million people go hungry every day. The issue is not only about food security but food sovereignty, or the movement to combat inequality, poverty, and hunger in a democratic attempt to mitigate poverty and unequal access to land, water, and resources.

The organic difference

The definition of organic tells us a lot about conventional methods in which our food is grown, too. According to the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), organic food “must be produced without the use of conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, sewage sludge-based fertilizers, herbicides, genetic engineering (biotechnology), antibiotics, growth hormones, or irradiation.” In addition, animals raised in an organic operation must meet animal health and welfare standards, may not be fed antibiotics or growth hormones, must be fed 100 percent organic feed, and must be provided access to the outdoors. “Land must have no prohibited substances applied to it for at least three years before the harvest of an organic crop,” according to the NOSB.

The USDA claims that the average adult who does not consume organic foods is exposed to between 6 and 12 pesticides daily. The reasons I believe organic is important when buying groceries at the health food store, farmers market, or supermarket come from fact-based observations: It’s better for the local economy and the U.S at large. According to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), “hotspots,” which are clusters of organic businesses, kick start rural economies. On average, this leads to a $2,000 raise in medium household income and reduces poverty levels by 1.35 percent. There are 225 of these hotspots in counties nationwide.

In addition, organic is more sustainable, better for our health, and environmentally friendly. Organic practices put out less gas emissions and increase species biodiversity. The practices are safer with less exposure to agriculture chemicals or artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors. Organic practices mean better conditions for livestock and animals, and organic is non-GMO. For example, organic milk contains twice the levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fats compared to conventional milk. Wheat bread contains three times as much nutrient-rich whole food ingredients.

Many activists believe that consuming less meat and dairy is one of the most important changes we can make as the environmental cost of livestock production is $1.8 trillion annually according to the FOE organization.

Reconnecting with our food

There is an alarming disconnect between humans and the food we eat. In general, we have no idea what it means to sacrifice an animal to nourish ourselves, because we don’t have to. We also don’t have to live in nature anymore, so our lack of respect for both animals and the environment has been culturally accepted.

However, this is changing dramatically. And people’s skepticism about the food we grow and their support for organic foods and products is becoming more and more clear. According to the OTA, organic food products are now in more than 82 percent of U.S. households. In 2016, organic product sales reached nearly $50 billion in the U.S. and have averaged double-digit growth for the past five years. Overall organic food sales have reached 5.2 percent but organic acreage remains less than 1 percent in the U.S. and represents only 5 percent in the world.

According to a survey by the OTA, millennial parents are the leading organic purchasers in the country. This group consists of 75 million millennial parents, ages 18-to-34, and they account for more than 52 percent of organic consumers. This group is also influencing their parents, and now Generation X (born between 1965-1980) are responsible for 35 percent of organic purchases, while Baby Boomers (born between 1946-1964) only account for 14 percent. In fifteen years, nearly 80 percent of millennials will be parents, which could transform “big food.”

Millennial parents are supporting organic because it is “a key eco-conscious habit,” and consider themselves as “very knowledgeable about organic products” according to the survey. Some buy organic to avoid the health risk and environmental impact that comes from eating conventional foods, or to support local farmers, fair pay and working conditions, and better living conditions for animals. Those who do not purchase organic foods may be for reasons like cost, condition (bruised, blemished), have no trust in the labels, or may have no preference and choose the less expensive option. According to Business Nutrition Journal, in 2015 fresh fruits and vegetables were the top selling organic products accounting for 40 percent of total sales. Second to this was dairy at 15 percent. And lowest on the chart is meat, poultry, and fish.

Voting with your grocery dollars 

With a multitude of new marketing trends and advertising schemes comes an array of new labels including USDA organic, 100 percent organic, made with organic, free range, local, grass-fed, humanely raised, fair trade, the list goes on… How are we to decide? What is more important than the other? What do these claims mean? Can we trust them?

Although the decisions at the grocery store are complex, we have a system in place that aims to protect us, and choosing organic eliminates many of the detrimental issues that we see today. The truth is, we will never truly know what is in our food unless we grow it ourselves. No system is perfect. When I become stressed about food choices and obsess over labels is when I remind myself that food isn’t pure. Our soil, water, and air, is not pure.  However, there are better choices than others for our health and for the health of the environment.

The expense of food is completely necessary, so why not support our neighbors at the same time and send a message for a new environmental mindset? There must be a widespread adoption of these practices on the levels of the farmers, consumers, and policy makers in order to make change. In the meantime, do your best to read labels when you are shopping and use your dollars in your favor. There’s no harm in adopting the precautionary principle for the sake of you and your families well-being and the protection of our land. It’s time that we understand how connected we really are to nature.

Kyly Clark is managing editor of the Eagle’s Eye newspaper. 

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Our Food Choices and Why They Matter