The Ask a Science Blogger question of the week asks if organic foods are really worth the hype. I’m afraid my answer can’t fit into one blog post.
Let me start by telling you about my garden.
This year my garden has been a home to local wildlife, but during the years that I do garden, I have a semi-organic garden.
I don’t use any pesticides but I do occasionally break down and use Miracle Grow and, sometimes Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate). Overall, though I don’t see any justification for using chemicals that might be harmful to fish or other animals in my garden, so I don’t.
Even in the non-gardening summers, I have a compost bin that I use for grass and leaves plus two green cones that I use for composting food waste. These are sometimes a problem for me because they serve as intensive fruit fly breeding grounds in the summer months and my husband is no longer amused by finding pickled Drosophila floating about in glasses of wine.
So, you might think that I would make it a point to buy organic food, right?
I buy food based on how it looks, whether or not it’s ripe, and the price. If I can buy organic food that’s on sale, or I’ve been seduced into entering Whole Foods (it’s so beautiful!), fine, but I don’t make any special effort to buy organic.
First, we should define what organic food is and what it is not.
In 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, after many years of contentious debate, settled on a definition for organic foods that could be used nationally. This 554 page document, available in pdf spells out exactly which practices are consistent with the “organic” philosophy and which practices are not (1).
This document is fascinating reading and I plan to go through this document a bit more in through the coming year. Apparently, naive idea about not using pesticide is a far cry from the interesting machinations that organic farmers must go through. Some of these make sense to me, many do not.
E. coli happens
One set of rules that makes sense concerns composting. My method of composting (throw the plant material together and let it rot) is not good enough for today’s organic farmers. Page 7 spells it out. Farmers must have a carbon to nitrogen ration between 25:1 and 40:1, and maintain a temperature between 131ºF and 170 ºF for 15 days.
This makes sense. Organic farmers fertilize with manure and being a microbiologist, I know manure is largely E. coli. You must get the poop hot enough to the kill the bacteria or we repeat tragic incidents like the one with Odwalla a few years back where children were infected with E. coli O157:H7 after drinking organic apple juice.
These days, they pasteurize the juice, but it doesn’t hurt to kill as many bacteria as possible, before things get to that point.
I noticed though, that there isn’t a requirement to actually check that the bacteria were killed.
Where’s the science?
Some you might have thought that organic farming was simply a nice friendly, non-pesticide method for growing food and animals.
And that it was based on science, right?
I’m sure there’s science, this I know – because the organic web sites tell me so.
Except that I can’t figure out what it is.
Stay tuned, coming up next we have: The things that cannot be organic.
1. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service 7 CFR Part 205 RIN” 0581-AA40 National Organic Program