The Organic Food Debate | By Angela J. Bass for HealthyCal.org

Researchers at Stanford University released a report in early September saying there was “little evidence of health benefits from organic foods.” But many of the farmers and shoppers at the Chavez Farmers’ Market in Sacramento believe the study misses the point.

“The pesticides, the hormones, all that, takes into account. It’s not just, ‘Oh, this has 10 milligrams of vitamin C,’ ” said Claire Dunlap of Shared Abundance Organic Farm. “It goes deeper than that.”

Dunlap says she blames a poor, conventional diet for the health problems she faced as a teen. “It’s not just what you’re eating; it’s what’s in your food. So, the food I was eating was genetically modified,” she said. “Once I took a stand and changed so I only ate organic, I am completely at a different (level of) health.”

Except, the Stanford study says organic diets aren’t much healthier than conventional ones. Instead, they point out that even organic farmers use pesticides.

“I think one of the scariest things is that they discussed about pesticide residue,” said Dan Best, manager of the Chavez Farmers’ Market.

Best said it's a myth that organic growers don’t use pesticides. To the contrary, they use organic ones made from plants and minerals, which are safer than the synthetic pesticides used in conventional farming, according to organic growers. “The pesticide residue could have been an organic pesticide residue.”

The study found pesticide residues in “38 percent of the conventional produce tested, compared to 7 percent for organic.” It also states that pesticide levels of “all foods fell within the EPA’s allowable safety limits.”

But for Nicole Rinke, an environmental and land use attorney whose office is near the market, the choice is clear.

“I pretty much only buy organic. I think it has better flavor, so I enjoy the quality,” Rinke said. “But also, I like the health benefits that may come from not ingesting pesticides, but also in terms of the laborers and the workers and the people who actually harvest the vegetables and work in the field.”

Luis Miranda agrees. He owns Wholeness Farms in Lodi, Calif. It’s a small, certified organic farm staffed by two other farmers. For him, organic farming is also about the health of the soil.

“In organic production, there is more healthy soil than in conventional. Conventional has been fumigated to kill all kinds of living things. And in organic, we don’t do that,” he said. “It makes sense that if you have better soil, your plants will have a better and natural source of nutrients.”

In the study, the researchers encouraged people to “eat more fruits and vegetables, however they are grown.”

But catering chef Sylvie Don says she’s sticking with her organic diet until hard evidence proves it’s fruitless.

“I don’t notice much of a difference in the flavor between organic or the local farmers who don’t grow organic, but I do believe that ingesting the chemicals – I mean, it’s just got to go somewhere,” she said. “There’s not really a better explanation. If someone can give me a better explanation, I’ll step off the soapbox, but for right now, that’s my belief system.”

It’s a belief system shared by many, and it’s reflected at the cash register. A Stanford press release about the study states that, “between 1997 and 2011, organic food sales in the United States jumped from $3.5 billion to $24.5 billion.”

Still, spending a few extra bucks for organic plums is worth it for state worker Will Short, who shops at the farmers’ market during his lunch break.

“I typically like to purchase organic because I feel that it doesn’t have all the pesticides and I feel that it has a much more natural taste to it,” he said. “It is really about the environment. Anything we can do to keep things in their natural state, whether it be produce, you know, just the trees and all that, is very important.”

Dunlap implores consumers to take matters into their own hands, saying, “I think people should really do the research…and they should really understand that eating for their health is different than eating for their dollar.”

The researchers acknowledged in their report that many consumers shop for organic foods for reasons ranging from taste and sustainability, to dodging drug-resisted bacteria found in some conventionally grown items.

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