It can be tough deciding whether to buy organic foods at the market. Organic produce often costs more, sometimes doesn’t look as nice, and can compete with locally-produced products that might be raised organically but don’t carry the government’s certification. As part of an ongoing series “Your Choice, Your Planet,” the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Grant looks at what you’re getting when you buy the organic label:
It can be tough deciding whether to buy organic foods at the market. Organic produce often costs more, sometimes doesn’t look as nice, and can compete with locally-produced products that might be raised organically but don’t carry the government’s certification. As part of an ongoing series called “Your Choice, Your Planet,” the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Grant looks at what you’re getting when you buy the organic label:
(sound of supermarket)
Elizabeth Culotta is shopping around the natural and organic food section of the Acme Supermarket in Kent, Ohio. She’s glad there are now standardized stickers on the fruits and vegetables that say “USDA Organic” because it makes it easier to judge what’s grown without pesticides.
EC: “It matters to me, because I feel like organic produce is grown in a way that is better for the global environment. So it matters to me in a global sense. I’m not actually a person who that is worried about the health aspects of pesticides.”
JG: “If the prices were comparable, would you buy organic over conventional?”
EC: “Sure. Sure. Definitely. If you look at these organic cherry tomatoes, they look great. But they’re $3.99 a pint.”
JG: “Let’s go look at the conventional.”
EC: “Here’s some grape tomatoes. A little different. And they are… $1.49 for a pint. So that is less than half the price.”
One reason organics cost more is the price farms pay for USDA certification. It’s an involved process…
Mick Luber inspects farms for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. His group is approved by the USDA to certify farms as organic. This morning he’s visiting Larry Luschek’s farm in Ohio. Until a couple of years ago, cabbage, collards, or other produce claiming to be “organic” could be certified by any number of organizations. But, now the USDA has established guidelines everyone must follow. Luber says that actually hasn’t changed his inspections much.
(sound in fields)
Out in the fields… he sticks a metal probe in the ground and pulls out a soil sample… the soil structure looks right.
ML: “See that little white stuff there? That’s bacteria in the soil. It means the soil is alive. And you also look for earthworm activity.”
JG: “What would any of that mean for certification?”
ML: “Means soil is alive. That’s what the whole organic thing is about is alive soil. You’re not just using NPNK to produce your plants. You’re using the soil as a living organism.”
JG: “NPNK is?”
ML: “Nitrogen-potassium-phosphorous. A living soil is a living soil, it actually produces a lot of those things itself…”
In addition to the soil, Luber checks the equipment for oil leakage, the barrels used to clean produce, and everything else he can think of to bring back to an inspection committee.”
He sits at Larry Luschek’s kitchen table for more than an hour, asking where Larry buys his seeds and checking his receipts. There’s a lot of paperwork involved in getting the USDA’s organic certification.
Not everybody thinks it’s worth the hassle.
At the North Union Farmers’ Market in Cleveland, Mark Welton and his teenage daughter are selling rhubarb. Welton owns a three-acre farm…
MW: “We do everything organically with no herbicides, pesticides, lot of composting, cover cropping, crop rotation. You know, things like that.”
Welton used to certify his farm organic. But he stopped once the USDA national standards went into effect.
MW: “I just didn’t feel I needed to keep it going anymore. And it was getting expensive. It was getting expensive to stay certified. I said, I haven’t changed my practices, I’ve been doing it twenty years that way. I just felt now was the time just to say… okay, I’m done.”
Welton says people at the market know him and trust that he’s not using chemical-laden seeds or spraying things like NPNK on his fields. He says they can visit his farm if they want to check for themselves.
Farmer Bruce Cormack thinks that’s a lot more important than the USDA organic label. He wonders if huge organic farms on the west coast are really
BW: “I mean, I think the organic certification is supposed to be, as far as environment, less impact and better for everybody but when you have 800 horsepower tractors and shipping 4,000 miles it doesn’t make any sense. I don’t see how that is not impacting the environment.”
Shoppers at the farmers’ market know they’re paying more than the average price for produce. They don’t seem to mind because it’s fresh and locally grown. But not everyone has the time to get to the farmers’ market, let alone drive out to the farm to make sure it’s organic.
Back at the supermarket, Elizabeth Culotta is glad the federal government has standardized what it means to be an organic farm…
EC: “Yes. I mean I think that makes it simpler for someone like me to go into a grocery store and if I can find something that says organic, then I can probably be pretty sure that that’s probably going to meet what I want. As opposed to having to parse the label and trying to figure out from the ads who is exactly doing what.”
The USDA organic label does let people know how the food was grown and processed. It does not tell them whether it’s good for the planet. That’s something shoppers still have to figure out for themselves.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Julie Grant.