Organic Broadcaster

Accountability, environment, health among top reasons for choosing organic foods

By Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

“To be interested in food but not in food production is clearly absurd.” ~ Wendell Berry

As a Registered Dietitian, I’m frequently asked about the value of the organic label. Are organic foods really worth the higher price at the checkout? Are they more nutritious? What about safety?

I advise consumers to make a wise investment in organic food, and explain why below. I encourage farmers to share these reasons with consumers—you can email to request a copy of this article as a single-sheet handout aimed at consumers. Also, see the end of this article for ideas on how you, as farmers, can impact consumers’ food choices. But, first, here are the reasons I recommend choosing organic.

I want to believe the farmers at my local market who say their produce is “chemical free” or grown without pesticides. But I’ve been lied to. The truth is, few people enjoy interrogating farmers about their farming practices. By being certified, farmers make it easy for the consumer to purchase food with a legal set of standards, including: no genetically engineered seeds or genetically modified organisms (GMOs); no synthetic fertilizers; no sewage sludge; no irradiation; no growth hormones and no antibiotics. Most synthetic pesticides are prohibited, and only a limited number of pesticides are approved for use in organic systems.1

Our food dollars are votes for the kind of food system we want to see flourish. By purchasing organic food, we support those farmers who go through the rigors of organic certification. When farmers become certified they send a message to our government leaders who must take note of the growing numbers backed by consumer demand. If farmers aren’t certified, they’re not counted.

The topic of “food safety” often focuses on cooking and storage temperatures, or preparation methods. While it’s true that harmful bacteria in improperly handled food can lead to serious foodborne illness, so can pesticide drift and residues.2 Because pesticide residues are rarely present on organic food, it makes sense to protect our family’s health with the organic choice. Organic farming methods also benefit farm workers and their family members because they’re not exposed to toxic chemicals in the field.3

Pollinator Protection
Because organic farming systems promote biodiversity, and don’t rely on the routine use of pesticides, choosing organic food helps protect pollinators, such as bees and other insects that are critical to food production and agricultural resilience.4

Antibiotic Preservation
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antibiotic resistance ranks among the top global public health concerns.5 Resistance is due in large part to unnecessary use of these drugs in livestock to improve feed efficiency. Organic farmers help preserve and protect the effectiveness of our precious antibiotics because these drugs aren’t allowed in organic farming systems. Increasing numbers of consumers are rightfully looking for antibiotic-free meat and dairy products. The organic label gives us that guarantee.

A growing body of evidence shows that foods produced using organic methods provide higher levels of beneficial nutrients—such as: antioxidants in produce and omega-3 fatty acids in meat and dairy—and less harmful contaminants, including pesticide residues and cadmium.6

The food at the end of our forks has a tremendous impact on global climate change. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recommends organic farming practices, because they help sequester carbon, use less fossil fuel, and can help mitigate global warming.7

Soil Health
The microbes in healthy soil are intimately connected and related to the microbes in the human gut, where the bulk of our “microbiome” resides. By protecting and supporting the biodiversity of organisms in the soil, organic farmers help protect the health of our entire ecosystem, including the organisms that live in our gut. Microbial communities connect agriculture, nutrition, medicine and life on our planet.8

Water Quality
The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s report titled: “In Farm Country, tainted water is just the way it is,” raised red flags about toxic agricultural practices. Water is our most essential nutrient, and contaminated water supplies harm public health and destroy the quality of our lives. Organic farming methods help protect our shared watersheds and all who live downstream.9

Our Future
When Robert Shimek, Executive Director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project in northern Minnesota, took the stage at Beyond Pesticide’s annual Forum in Minneapolis last spring, he reminded us to ask “how are the children?” when assessing the success or failure of society.10

Today’s children are increasingly facing illnesses that have a connection to our food and farming systems. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics reports an increasing rate of children born with neuro-developmental disabilities.11 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about one in six, or about 15%, of U.S. children aged 3 through 17 years have a one or more developmental disabilities, and Sesame Street’s new character with autism confirms that we are witnessing a “new normal.”12

Children’s cancer rates are on the rise, too,13 as well as allergies,14 and birth defects15 —all of which may be due in part, to exposure to environmental toxins related to agricultural chemicals.16

Shimek explained that children living on the White Earth Reservation are regularly exposed to drift from pesticides sprayed on potatoes grown for McDonald’s restaurants by the R.D. Offutt company. Potatoes grown in his region are sprayed every five to seven days with the fungicide chlorothalonil. The impact? Children in the region suffer higher rates of autism, and 18-21 percent qualify for special education programs, compared to the Minnesota state average of 13 percent.

Dr. Phil Landrigan, dean of global health at Mt. Sinai Medical School, reports that, “Until this year, most herbicides in the Midwest were sprayed during a six-week window, but now the heavy herbicide spray season will last at least four months, placing more women and children at heightened risk.”

Mothers should not have to worry about toxins passed along to their infants during pregnancy, through breastmilk, or in community parks, schools, or their family’s food and water.

In Starbuck, Minn., registered dietitian and organic farmer Mary Jo Forbord fears neighboring sprays on non-organic commodity crops will harm her family’s health, livestock, and fruit orchard, named after her deceased son, Joraan. Her farm produces nourishing foods recommended by dietitians to reduce the risk of chronic disease. Last year she created a short film about her farm, food philosophy and life, including her husband’s exposure to chemical fertilizer drift and resulting illness, confirming the imperative to produce food sustainably—without poison.17

Growing numbers of spray drift incidents threaten organic farmers’ livelihoods, health, and consumers’ access to quality food. Yet in a recent New York Times article,18a Monsanto estimated that by 2025, it will have corn seed able to withstand five different pesticide sprays. However, make note: none are adequately tested individually for safety, let alone in combination.18b

It is imperative that we look to our food and farming systems as keys to restoring planetary and public health.

Tips for Farmers to Educate Consumers
Clearly, we have great challenges ahead of us: increasing pesticides and related drift, the poisoning of our water, loss of biodiversity and functioning antibiotics, climate change and the quality of our children’s future.

This summer, I noted that the heat index outside my air-conditioned office in Columbia, Mo. was 111 degrees. Even my heavily mulched native plants looked desperately dehydrated. Japanese beetles overtook my friend’s peach orchard several years in a row. And as I write this, Houston, Texas is dealing with the deluge from Hurricane Harvey. Storms are becoming more frequent, violent, and damaging. Weather is less predictable, and once-foreign diseases, insects, plants, and animals are crossing historical borders.

The good news is a growing number of consumers recognize the far-reaching benefits of organic food and farming. Sales continue to grow, but we need more U.S. farmers to step up to the plate and convert to organic production.19

I encourage you to use the power of your voice and community, and infiltrate the media with your stories. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Write “Letters to the Editor” and op-ed essays for local, national, or weekly newspapers. This article from Physicians for a National Health program offers tips to get you started:
    To increase relevancy and the likelihood of publication, tie your op-ed to national recognition days, such as National Farmers Market Week. Help readers understand how organic farming works on your farm, and nourishes your community sustainably. Look for research to back up your opinion and observations. The Union of Concerned Scientists’ blog is a good place to start:

  2. Create a podcast, offer to be a guest on a local radio talk show, and call in to national programs. We need to hear farmers’ voices.

  3. Offer to give a talk about organic farming at local clubs, schools and community organizations. Most consumers don’t understand what organic agriculture entails—you’re the experts who can teach us.

  4. Use social media strategically. Amplify your words with photos and video; it has never been easier. This blog post can help you create content and connect with consumers:

  5. Cross-pollinate. Attend social, professional and political events to mingle with all who care about good food and a clean environment. Invite the uninformed to your farms so they can witness and taste “good” food. It’s especially important to reach out to elected officials at local, state and national levels. Let them know the policies that help or hinder your farming operation.

Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D., a.k.a. the “Food Sleuth,” is an award-winning registered dietitian, writer, and nationally syndicated radio host based in Columbia, Mo. She has served on the MOSES board since 2009; she joined the Beyond Pesticides board in 2016. Reach Melinda at

Listen to Food Sleuth Radio Thursday evenings at 5 p.m. at See archives here.


  18. a); b)

From the September | October 2017 Issue

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