Organic, Local & Beyond
By Sharon Palmer, RD
Vol. 8 No. 10 P. 44
Food choices have health, as well as environmental, consequences. Understanding how the planet’s health intersects with the public’s health is an important asset in a dietitian’s repertoire. Are you ready to face the questions? The answers aren’t always easy.
A stack of plastic boxes containing rock-hard tomatoes are piled in the produce section with labels proclaiming they were organically grown in Mexico. Next to them are bins filled with ripe, locally grown tomatoes. An approaching customer pauses, eyeing each option, weighing how best to spend her food dollar. Will it be pesticide-dusted or fuel-gulping tomatoes for tonight’s salad?
This is the kind of question perplexing a growing number of consumers. According to a recent Gallup Poll, 90% of Americans recycle, 83% reduce their energy use, 83% use less water, 83% avoid environmentally harmful products, and 73% buy environmentally beneficial products.
Think this isn’t dietitian territory? Think again. As the vanguard of the food and nutrition profession, dietitians are finding these issues falling directly into their laps, regardless of whether they are prepared to face them. Dismissing environmental and health concerns related to food production as marginal is no longer a play dietitians can afford to make. Growing evidence is linking our current food system with chronic disease. “If you study food from production to the table, there is an agricultural connection between food, nutrition, and health,” said Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, the Paulette Goddard professor in the department of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, at the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Annual Conference held earlier this year in Chicago.
Environmental-meets-health food issues are marching steadily to the forefront; just look at the headlines for proof. Industry vets are getting in on the game, including Wolfgang Puck, who recently pledged to support humanely raised livestock, and Tyson Foods, Inc, which announced that all of its fresh chicken will be raised without antibiotics. The subject has made its way to the mainstream, not only through popular magazines such as Eating Well and books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and What to Eat by Marion Nestle, but also onto the silver screen with Eric Schlosser’s book-turned-movie Fast Food Nation. The more one digs into the health of our food system, the clearer it becomes that there are no easy answers. “Most of us prefer black and white answers, but there is so much gray area,” says national award-winning “Food Sleuth” columnist and Food and Society Policy Fellow Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD. And consumers aren’t the only ones confused; food and nutrition professionals are having a tough time skirting the minefield that is today’s food system, with its vast areas of controversy and debate over how the health of our environment intersects with the health of our population.
A Broken Food System
It’s hard to ignore how troubled our food system has become. People rarely cook; takeout and fast food are the norm; and the family dining table appears to be going the way of the dinosaur. An increasing reliance on convenience foods is exemplified by the growing inventory of packaged foods that fit into the growing number of cupholders in cars. Simply put, most people have lost touch with food, rarely giving a second thought to how the raspberries found their way to Chicago in January or what makes their Cheetos fluorescent orange. Just walk into your nearby grocery store and take a big whiff. Despite the thousands of products lining store shelves, can you detect the faintest smell of real food?
At the core of the problem is our centralized food system. Instead of farmers growing a diverse range of crops that may promote a healthier soil system and sustain a community, agriculture has become focused on gigantic, regional crops. Estimates indicate that 92.9 million acres of corn and 62.1 million acres of soybeans will be planted by year’s end. Is it a coincidence that the current bad boys of cheap ingredients—high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated soybean oil—come from these predominant crops?
According to David Wallinga, MD, MPA, director of the food and health program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy at Minneapolis and speaker at the Nutrition and Health: State of the Science & Clinical Applications conference held earlier this year in San Diego, today’s agriculture is large-scale, specialized, concentrated, and production-focused, contributing to the impaired health of workers, spread of pathogens, antibiotic resistance, inflammation, metabolic syndrome, obesity, poorer rural communities, concentration of ownership, reduced access to fresh produce, less resilient agriculture, unhealthy animals, reduced soil quality, contaminated groundwater, and climate change. Food production in the United States accounts for 17% of U.S fossil fuel use. Global livestock production accounts for 18% of greenhouse gasses worldwide, which does more damage than transportation does. A pretty grim picture, indeed.
The Meaning of Life Organic
Recently, I overheard a professional lamenting about the trickery of organic products since “organic really means carbon-based, and everything we eat is organic.” True. Organic means “relating or belonging to the class of chemical compounds having a carbon basis,” according to Webster’s Dictionary; thus, everything we eat is made up of carbon-based, organic material. But organic food production standards have brought new meaning to the term.
The USDA put into place national standards that food labeled organic must meet. Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and conservation of soil and water. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are not given antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without the use of most conventional pesticides, fertilizers, and synthetic ingredients; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Government-approved certifiers inspect organic farms and food companies for compliance to standards. The USDA organic seal indicates that a product is at least 95% organic. If you still have doubts about the stringency of the National Organic Program, feel free to peruse the 554-page tome that defines the standards at the USDA Web site here.
So what difference can organic products make? The list of benefits for human health and the environment is a long one. For starters, many experts are concerned about pesticide residues in humans, especially in fetuses and children. Wallinga says, “The average American is carrying around 13 pesticide residues.”
He reports that health implications associated with pesticides and children include leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, soft tissue sarcoma, brain tumors (the same tumors repeatedly found in adults), birth defects, and neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disorders. In addition, there is emerging evidence that there are hormonally active chemicals, as well as growth-promoting compounds, animal by-product contaminants, and plastic additives, in the food chain. Add to the conundrum the fact that workers and farm communities may be exposed to pesticides at even greater levels, and soil and groundwater can be contaminated. Additional research is needed to better understand the health risks from pesticides in food.
Growth-promoting inputs in livestock continue to be cause for concern. Estimates indicate that approximately two thirds of American cattle raised for slaughter are injected with hormones to make them grow faster. Dairy cows are given a genetically engineered hormone called recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) to increase milk production. Scientists fear that these hormone residues can disrupt human hormone balance, cause developmental problems, interfere with the reproductive system, and even lead to the development of breast, prostate, or colon cancer. In addition, 70% of all U.S. antibiotics are given to beef, cattle, poultry, and swine as feed additives. Such overuse of antibiotics has led to scientific consensus that antibiotic use in food animals contributes to resistance in humans. The Institute of Medicine called for substantial efforts to be made to decrease the inappropriate overuse of antimicrobials in animals and agriculture.
There may be some nutritional benefits to be gained by going organic. According to a review of 41 published studies in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, organic crops contained significantly more vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus and significantly less nitrates than conventional crops.1 The Organic Center’s second State of Science Review reports that organic farming methods have the potential to elevate average antioxidant levels, especially in fresh produce. On average, antioxidant levels were roughly 30% higher in organic food compared with conventional food grown under the same conditions.2 “I’m convinced that benefits from organic foods extend beyond nutritional composition,” says Hemmelgarn.
While there is much to like about organic food production, there are a few setbacks. The U.S. organic food industry is growing by leaps and bounds, increasing by 17% in 2005 to reach $14.6 billion in sales. Food manufacturers are beginning to realize the bright future for organics; thus, many are rushing to put organic labels on their food products. But some organic products are little more than organic “junk food,” with highly processed ingredients in their lineup. Consumers often think that because a food is organic, it must be healthy, but this is not always the case. Highly processed and packaged organic foods that are transported across the country drain resources, which is in opposition to the goals of sustainability.
Organic produce is also starting to do some serious traveling. U.S. Customs analysis indicates that the United States has a significant organic trade deficit, importing between $1 billion and $1.5 billion while exporting between $125 million and $250 million in 2002. China is looking to become a leader in the organic industry, despite the notoriety they have recently earned due to food safety issues. Country of origin labeling may help consumers understand how many miles organic products travel to the consumer. “The gold standard is local organic,” says Hemmelgarn.
“How much energy does it take to produce food, to package and transport it? You see it traveling greater distances than it ever has before,” says Angie Tagtow, MS, RD, LDN, a consultant at Environmental Nutrition Solutions. “Some organic foods take more energy to produce and transport than the energy they provide to people. This is a great example of unsustainable organic food.” The average U.S. farm uses 3 calories of fossil energy to produce 1 calorie of food energy, and in the typical feedlot, every calorie of beef protein requires approximately 35 calories of fossil energy input.
More issues over organics emerge when considering individual food company practices. Tagtow reports that not all organic dairy producers operate in the same manner, a result of the lack of specificity with the national organic standards. While some producers have been criticized for operating large facilities that limit a cow’s access to pasture and feed them an organic yet processed diet, others encourage their producers to raise their dairy cows on pastures and feed them grass and forages, which is more sustainable and offers nutritional benefits. If you compare the fatty acid profile of grass-fed livestock with grain-fed, it has lower levels of saturated fat and higher values of conjugated linoleic acid and omega-3 fatty acids. And just because a company is organic doesn’t mean that it factored into production fair labor or humane livestock practices. Nestle believes that we need to protect the organic standards and fix its loopholes.
One of the biggest concerns about organic food is the price tag, which is typically much higher than its conventional counterparts. Many argue that pure food should be available to all, not only to those who can afford it. Hemmelgarn says, “Many people don’t have the luxury to make these choices. Unfortunately, we appear to have a two-tiered system. It’s important to question policies that restrict healthful food choices among certain segments of our population.”
Loco for Local
Supporting a local food system is a big part of the sustainability equation. Buying local means that food does not travel long distances and burn up vast quantities of fossil fuels en route to consumers. On average, U.S. food travels roughly 1,300 miles from field to mouth. “There are certified organic products traveling thousands of miles compared to locally grown products,” says Tagtow. Buying local also supports a community-based, diverse agricultural system, helps protect farmland from urban sprawl, and reconnects consumers with the food supply. “Having a connection with the person growing the food is a really beneficial thing. You can ask the appropriate questions about how the fruits, vegetables, eggs, and meat are produced,” says Tagtow. Nestle sums it up when she says, “Local trumps organic.”
Local food is gaining ground. “There are a couple of exciting trends related to access and availability,” Tagtow says. “There are a lot more farmers’ markets cropping up; there is an increase in community-supported agriculture farms and organic acreage; and there is a heightened awareness and interest for the average consumer.” People known as locovores religiously pledge to eat only foods grown within a 100-mile radius, and star chefs plan “local dinners” in which all foods come from within a 150-mile radius. Such efforts may sound like a piece of cake, but try locating local sources for everyday baking staples like baking powder, cinnamon, and flour.
The local food movement has spawned debate over its definition. How local does local really need to be? Does it mean that residents in the Midwest should never enjoy wild salmon, pineapple, or olive oil? Some people are calling for community certification so people can ascertain where their food was grown. But in the end, it’s all about degrees of local. Consumers should prioritize that at least perishables come from local sources.
FoodRoutes Network, an organization that sponsors the “Buy Fresh Buy Local” campaign, suggests that if consumers pledged to spend $10 per week on local produce, it would make a significant difference. Timothy Schlitzer of FoodRoutes Network said at the IACP conference, “Local food is hard to find, and it’s not easy to define. Local should decide local. It is hard to define by mileage and sustainability. It’s not a label; it’s a movement. It can’t be replicated; it’s personal. Labels shouldn’t explain everything; people should participate in food.”
The debate about local foods makes chasing a healthy, sustainable food system become even grayer. Some critics call the organic industry “organocrats” since the standards require such a burden of paperwork that doesn’t always result in a more sustainable, healthful product. Thus, many small farms are taking matters into their own hands. Some sustainable livestock ranches purposely avoid certification because they do not want to rely on faraway, organically certified slaughtering houses, which may increase their reliance on fossil fuels. Others complain that organic certification does not adequately address issues such as grass-fed and humanely raised livestock. Small farmers selling produce at farmers’ markets may not have the resources to become certified organic, but they may uphold the same ideals. “I am finding that many farms are employing organic practices without necessarily being certified as organic,” says Tagtow.
The seeds of a new movement known as “beyond organic” are beginning to germinate, which takes organics a step further by taking issues such as sustainability and food miles more seriously. The Slow Food movement is also picking up speed. “Slow food is culturally and biologically diverse and modeled after nature. It is regional and local, sustainable and organic, flavorful, valuable, nutrititious, and pleasurable,” said Erika Lesser, executive director of Slow Food USA, at the IACP conference. Slow Food USA hopes to influence a cultural shift and realignment of values by returning pleasure to the table and building a healthy, sustainable, local community.
If consumers truly wanted to leave the slightest carbon footprint (the measure of the impact that human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced in units of carbon dioxide), they would grow their own organic produce in their gardens and eat a diet laden with minimally processed, whole foods. If we turned back time and modeled our eating behavior after our grandparents’, we would reduce food processing, packaging, and distribution. Think: loaf of homebaked bread, cheese purchased at the farmers’ market, and apples from the backyard apple tree vs. Lunchables. “Whole foods that are minimally processed require less energy to produce than highly processed, packaged foods,” says Tagtow, who notes that it takes a lot of energy to create cheap foods based on commodity crop ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soybean oil.
Hemmelgarn, who maintains a small kitchen garden in her backyard, recommends teaching youths about home gardening, cooking, and preservation so they can enjoy local foods at their peak all year long. “Start out with just one tomato plant. It’s one step closer to having access to fresh and affordable fruits and vegetables,” says Hemmelgarn.
Nestle takes it a step further, suggesting that for our food culture to improve its impact on both the environment and health, people should reduce the number of total calories they consume. After all, the food system produces twice the number of calories it needs.
Perhaps the best advice is for people to make decisions about what they eat based not only on their health but also on the health of their community and the world at large. Think about the food on the plate and ask questions. Where did it come from? How was it produced? Were the people who produced the food treated with respect? Was the soil cared for? Were antibiotics and growth hormones used in livestock? Were the animals treated humanely? Does the food taste fresh and delicious?
A Place for Dietitians in the Food System
While dietitians have traditionally focused on what’s inside of food—from vitamin and mineral levels to grams of protein and fat—perhaps it’s time for them to look at the bigger picture. Dietitians can be key advocates for positive change in the food system. Hemmelgarn hopes they will become more vocal and involved in influencing policies that will make healthful foods more accessible. “I think dietitians would benefit from more training in ways to become politically savvy. In addition to speaking up at school board and city council meetings, I recommend writing letters to the editor. They can be very powerful. They can even start out getting involved in their local day care or school,” says Hemmelgarn. Nestle urges people to support farmers’ markets, teach children to cook, and get involved at the local level by picking an issue and working on it.
According to Tagtow, past chair of he Hunger and Environmental Nutrition (HEN) Dietetic Practice Group, HEN membership has increased by 10% to 12% each year for the past four years. “It indicates there is an interest in these issues,” says Tagtow. HEN can be a helpful resource for dietitians hoping to learn more about their role in the food system, offering practical information such as HEN’s organic talking points. In addition, the American Dietetic Association (ADA) appointed a Sustainable Food Systems Task Force to help identify the role of ADA members. The task force developed a primer on sustainable food systems, “Healthy Land, Healthy People: Building a Better Understanding of Sustainable Food Systems for Food and Nutrition Professionals” available here.
Says Hemmelgarn, “It’s about the planet we leave to the future generations. The food choices we make today have the potential to protect or harm future generations.”
— Sharon Palmer, RD, is a contributing editor at Today’s Dietitian and a freelance food and nutrition writer in southern California.
1. Worthington V. Nutritional quality of organic versus conventional fruits, vegetables, and grains. J Altern Complement Med. 2001;7(2):161-173.
2. The Organic Center. Organic center report indicates organic foods have elevated levels of antioxidants. January 27, 2005. Available here.
A Deeper Look at Organic and Local Foods
Here’s a handy resource guide for additional information on the organic and local food systems:
Center for Ecoliteracy:
Environmental Working Group:
Health Care Without Harm:
Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group:
National Organic Standards Program:
Organic Trade Association:
Slow Food USA:
The Organic Center: