To Be, or Not to Be Organic?

Winter 2016, Living Well Magazine

by Maia Bedson

To Be, or Not to Be Organic?  An important question in this day and time (apologies to aficionados of Shakespeare).

With around 82,000 chemicals now on the market without safety testing, and hundreds of chemicals being found in babies before they are born, many people are including organic produce in their diets to counter-balance some of this.

However, confusion about this topic halts many other people from making changes. And it is understandable… it seems like every other week there are contradictory media reports: organic produce not being any different to conventional produce, then organic produce being more nutritious than conventional; foods being banned from sale due to high levels of contaminants, then opposing ‘experts’ (often paid by food manufacturers) saying the chemicals pose no risk to human health. There is even doubt in the minds of some people about whether they can trust that food labelled as organic really is organic.

Thankfully, along with many growers, scientists, researchers and advocates around the world focused on improving human health and the environment through minimising the use of chemical inputs in agriculture, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a strong, reputable voice in this area, that we can all learn from and make informed choices that will make a big difference in our lives.

So who is the Environmental Working Group? EWG is a non-profit organisation based in the USA, and for over 20 years they have been dedicated to protecting environmental and human health, through important research and education initiatives, as well as influencing government and food companies’ practices.

EWG is made up of scientists, policy experts, lawyers and communication experts and they publish their U.S. findings through reports that can be downloaded from their website ewg.org, extensive on-line databases, and mobile apps.

One of their key areas of research is focused on pesticides in fresh produce, and based on their testing and findings each year they publish two lists: The Dirty Dozen and The Clean Fifteen. These lists identify conventionally-grown produce that contains the highest levels of chemical contamination (The Dirty Dozen) as well as the produce that contains the lowest levels (The Clean Fifteen).

Pesticides, by their nature and design, are toxic and have been linked to a variety of health problems such as cancer, brain and nervous system toxicity, hormone disruption and skin, eye and lung issues. There is also growing awareness of the particular risk to children, with research findings that children are at greater risk of learning difficulties and neurological problems.

According to EWG’s calculations, we can lower our pesticide consumption by 80% by avoiding the conventionally-grown food options on The Dirty Dozen list and eating confidently the less contaminated conventionally-grown produce listed on The Clean Fifteen guide.

Something to be clear about here is that neither the EWG, nor I, are suggesting you eat less fruit and vegetables if you can’t buy organic. On the contrary, the health benefits of eating conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables mostly outweigh the problems of pesticide residue. It just makes sense, where possible, to reduce your exposure when you can and this is where the guides can be informative.

The 2016 lists provided here, were published In April this year and may help you make informed choices around consuming conventionally-grown produce.

I was glad to see that strawberries have been elevated to top of this year’s Dirty Dozen list. That is, I am glad for the greater awareness of the extensive chemical treatments (to both plants and soil) for conventional strawberry crops. In 2013 they were ranked 13, then in 2014 they were at number 2, and 2015’s report had them at number 4, though for some years I have been advising participants of our programs that my ranking for strawberries would be number 1 and to avoid them when conventionally-grown.

The EWG’s testing is undertaken in the USA on both local and imported produce, but is still relevant to Australian consumers due to the similar agricultural practices being used here.

I recommend eating organic produce where possible. Try growing some food at home – even a few pots of greens near your kitchen door will help. You may be fortunate to have a local organic store, or there may be a local organic box service in your area that delivers a mixed range of fruits and vegetables directly to you regularly.  Farmers’ Markets can also be a wonderful source of cleaner food. Although they may not be certified organic, striking up a conversation with the grower may yield valuable information about their growing practices that shows their produce is grown chemical-free.

Washing conventional fruits and vegetables will certainly reduce the ingestion of some chemicals on their surface but not the chemicals that are absorbed into the produce (as most chemicals are designed to do), and commercial vegetable washing products are not something I recommend as they can pose their own problems. A solution of water with 1% vinegar as a wash is a better choice.

In closing, let us be mindful that what we eat becomes us – literally. Our cells are regenerating all the time and we all have the choice in what we become.

So eat wisely and kindly – for yourself, the earth, our children and our children’s children.

EWG offers a variety of informative consumer guides to help with choosing healthy alternatives – from cleaning products, to good quality seafood, and personal care products. Please visit ewg.org to learn more.

Maia Bedson

Therapist, Facilitator, The Gawler Cancer Foundation & Yarra Valley Living CentreDipHol Couns, Grad DipCounsHS, Grad DipClinNut

Maia is a counsellor, meditation instructor, a practitioner of various forms of natural therapies who has worked in the area of energetic healing for over 20 years, and has worked at The Gawler Cancer Foundation since 2000. She has a Graduate Diploma in Clinical Nutrition as well as formal qualifications in plant-based nutrition, counselling and psychotherapy. Maia uses her various skills and the experience gained from her own healing to inspire and support others on their path to wholeness and has a particular interest in helping people to access their own inner wisdom.