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Go Organic for Health and Environment

By Cameron Woodworth

Americans are purchasing organic foods in record numbers. The organic food market has been exploding over the past decade, sustaining an astonishing 20 percent annual growth rate in that time.

So what's so great about organic food? And why has it become so popular?

For one thing, people are becoming increasingly concerned about pesticides in their food and in the environment, and the risks associated with genetically engineered and irradiated foods. For another, recent studies suggest that organic foods may be more nutritious than their non-organic counterparts.

Above and beyond health concerns, many of the nation's top chefs insist on using organic produce, because they say it tastes much better than conventionally grown fruits and vegetables.

Organic: Going back to the natural way of doing things
In the past several decades, farming has increasingly become the domain of huge agribusinesses that employ unsustainable practices such as growing one crop repeatedly on the same piece of land, or pouring huge amounts of chemicals on our food supply to fight insects, weeds and to (supposedly) stimulate growth. Since the 1940s, the nutritional value of crops grown in the United States has weakened as the quality of the soil has declined. Organic agriculture, on the other hand, nourishes the land and strengthens the soil.
Organic farmers are committed to caring for their land. They are far less likely to engage in agricultural practices that result in loss of topsoil, toxic runoff into the water supply, soil contamination and poisoning, and death of birds, critters, insects and beneficial soil organisms.

Farming was basically always organic before the 20th century, and the rise of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers didn't emerge until after chemical and biological warfare research in the World Wars. Before the industrial revolution (and the industrial agricultural revolution), farms were mainly small, family-owned enterprises, growing their crops without the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizer. But in the past half-century or so, giant agribusinesses have drastically changed the way farming is done. Commonly used non-organic farming techniques today include the use of organophosphates (pesticides EXTREMELY toxic to the human nervous system), antibiotics and growth hormones in animals, fertilizers that contain cadmium, lead, arsenic and toxic sewage sludge.

Organic agriculture means better soil, better food
Howard Lyman is a fourth-generation Montana family farmer who, 40 years ago, strayed from the organic techniques employed by his forefathers.

Today he is vegan-vegetarian and travels around the country, giving lectures about the importance of going organic and eating lower on the food chain. He is the author of Mad Cowboy: The Cattle Rancher Who Won't Eat Meat.

"I was involved in agriculture at a time when the message was 'Get bigger and better or get out.' I was educated in modern agriculture, and I can tell you from firsthand experience it is not sustainable," Lyman says. "I followed all the modern advice and turned a small organic family farm into a large corporate chemical farm, including a thousand range cows, 5,000 head of cattle in a factory feedlot, thousands of acres of crops, and as many as 30 employees. I saw the organic soil go from a living productive base to a sterile, chemical-saturated mono-cultural ground because of my so-called modern methods."

John Reganold, lead scientist on a Washington State University research team, released a study last year showing that organic apple growing techniques are more profitable and produce better tasting fruit than conventional farming methods, and has had similar experience with the quality of organic soil.

"In the last 15 years, I have been on 150-200 organic farms, and on about the same number of conventional farms. At every organic farm, the farmer has always shown me the soil," Reganold said. "They always say to me, 'Look at the earthworms and look at the structure.' They realize the soil is an important part of the system. I have never been shown the soil by a conventional farmer."
Advocates say organic agriculture-because of its absence of pesticides -is much better for our water resources than conventional agriculture. According to US Environmental Protection Agency wastewater management director Michael Cook, "[Conventional] farming is responsible for 70 percent of waterway pollution, outstripping sewage treatment plants and pollution deposited from the air."

"Organic practices prevent soil erosion, protect water quality, save energy, keep chemicals off our plates, protect the health of farmworkers, promote biodiversity, and provide food that tastes better and, studies indicate, is more nutritious," says Jody Aliesan, president of the PCC Natural Markets Farmland Fund, which preserves organic farmland in Washington State. "The average child suffers four times more exposure than an adult to cancer-causing pesticides. The food choices we make have a wide ripple effect into future generations."

EarthSave International founder John Robbins, author of Diet for a New America and The Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and the World, strongly supports organic foods: "To my eyes, the movement toward organic agriculture is one of the most promising transitions currently occurring in our society," he says. "I believe that one day people will look back upon these times with amazement that we ever sought to grow our food with poisons."

Studies Indicate organic food more nutritious
Supporters of organic food have long believed that it is more nutritious than non-organic food. Unfortunately, there have been few comprehensive studies over the years to back up that claim. However, two recent studies seem to do just that.
Virginia Worthington, Ph.D., a nutritionist with a degree from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, reviewed 41 studies from around the world comparing nutrient levels of organic and non-organic foods. Her findings, published in the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, showed that organic foods have significantly higher levels of vitamins and nutrients. She writes, "Overall, organic crops had an equal or higher nutrient content about 85 percent of the time."

Worthington found that, on average, organic crops contain more magnesium (29 percent), vitamin C (27 percent), iron (21 percent), calcium (26 percent), manganese (42 percent) and phosphorous (14 percent). Additionally, Worthington discovered that organic produce contains 372 percent more of the crucial antioxidant, selenium, which scientists believe offers cells protection from free radical damage thought to contribute to cancer.

Worthington's findings were confirmed in another study conducted by the Soil Association, a United Kingdom research group that promotes the organic movement. "On average, we found that organic crops are not only higher in vitamin C and essential minerals, but also in photo-nutrients-compounds that protect plants from pests and disease and are often beneficial in the treatment of cancer," says Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association.

Organic food: Many great ways to find it
Fifteen or 20 years ago, organic food was much more difficult to find than it is today. Just about the only place to get it was in small, hard-to-find health food stores or roadside farm stands. These days, even mainstream supermarkets such as QFC, Fred Meyer and Albertson's offer a selection of organic produce and convenience foods. Even better are natural food stores and co-ops, which can be found throughout Seattle and the Puget Sound region.

Along with extensive selections of organic fruits and vegetables, many natural food stores offer endless aisles of organic convenience foods, such as ice cream, frozen dinners and exotic world ingredients. Another way to go is farmers' markets. There are several in the Seattle area, and in towns around the region. Many of the farmers at these markets feature organically grown food and shopping at farmers' markets directly supports the local economy. Buying from farmers' markets is a great way to get fresh, delicious produce. For a comprehensive list of farmers' markets in Washington State, visit www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/states/washingt.htm.
Home delivery of fresh organic produce is also becoming popular. Two companies in the Seattle area, New Roots Organics (http://www.newrootsorganics.com) and Pioneer Organics (http://www.pioneerorganics.com) deliver boxes of organic vegetables, fruits and herbs directly to your home weekly or bi-weekly. Many times this produce is local and seasonal which makes integrating healthy food extremely convenient.

Growing rapidly in popularity is a concept called Community Supported Agriculture (or CSA). CSA's, (as the participating farms are called), bring people into much closer contact with the food they eat, and provide a steady stream of high-quality produce throughout the growing season. Both customers and farmers find many advantages in Community Supported Agriculture. By buying a share in a CSA for $200 to $500, people enjoy a bag or two of fresh-picked organic vegetables and herbs, and sometimes fruits, each week for the entire growing season. Depending on the farm, people may pick up the produce at the farm, or at a pre-arranged drop site.
"As a subscriber, you can see exactly how the land is being treated," says Martha Goodlett, who runs Cultivating Communities CSA in Seattle. "You know the people. And you're more in touch with the cycles of the seasons."

Money raised by CSA subscriptions offers crucial capital for farmers, helping them avoid taking out loans, which many small farms must do in order to buy fertilizer, seed and equipment. CSA also takes out the middleman, which means that more money goes back to local farms.

You'll find a list of CSA farms in the region online at http://www.seattletilth.org/resources/csalist2002.html. This guide, which was put together by Seattle Tilth, lists more than 60 CSAs in Western Washington.

Of course, you can also grow your own organic produce, and there are many great web sites that can help you along in your quest, such as www.organicgardening.com and www.fourseasonfarm.com. If you live in Seattle but don't have space for a garden, consider joining a P-Patch garden. P-Patch, a nonprofit organization, offers space for 4,500 gardeners in 40 Seattle neighborhoods. P-Patch gardeners agree to practice organic growing techniques. To learn more about P-Patch, visit http://www.cityofseattle.net/don/ppatch/default.htm.

Lyman, the former cattle-rancher-turned-activist, believes organic agriculture is one of the most important foundations of a sustainable future. It's something he talks about in nearly all of his speeches across the country.

"The message is always the same: if there is to be a bright future for our children and grandchildren, it will come from consumer support of producers who work in concert with nature-organically, sustainably and humanely."