Is Going Organic Worth the Cost?

August 6, 2014  
Filed under Sustainable Living

August 2014

Buying organic food can reduce your exposure to chemicals and toxins, but sometime buying locally grown produce and other food items is the best way to improve your health and the health of the planet.

Buying organic food can reduce your exposure to chemicals and toxins, but sometime buying locally grown produce and other food items is the best way to improve your health and the health of the planet.

By Dr. Stuart Offer
Once upon a time, organic food was available only at health food stores, marketed to “tree-hugging” consumers willing to pay extra for “natural,” environmentally friendly foods. Today, organic foods are undeniably mainstream. Not only can they be found at most every neighborhood grocery store, but even giants like Walmart are getting into the act. People who buy organic are seeking assurance that food production is gentle to the earth, and/or looking for safer, purer, more natural foods. But are organic foods really worth the added expense?
When I say “going organic,” I do not mean an all or nothing approach. As with all of my advice, I strive to focus on what will give the most “bang for the buck” in regards to convenience, cost, your comfort zone and health benefits. As with many nutritional subjects, there are far more questions and confusion than definitive answers. With most topics, I read about the prevailing research and mix in a heavy dose of common sense and voila, I find my direction. There is always a middle ground that makes the most sense to me.
Here are the compelling reasons to choose organic, even if it’s only a portion of your purchases. Organic produce often has higher levels of potentially healthy compounds. These are polyphenols, a strong antioxidant that combats many chronic diseases including cancer and Type 2 diabetes. Organics will also reduce your exposure to many toxic chemicals that have been shown to cause health issues. The impact is greater on developing children and developing fetuses, but we all can benefit from a lower dose of toxins. Many of these substances are neuro-toxins and carcinogens. Research has shown that high levels of these toxins resulted in lower IQ scores in children. Another issue is the environmental impact on the world. Reports paint a stark picture of diminishing populations of pollinators such as bees and butterflies, as well as the pollution of our waterways.
What does the term “organic” mean? Organic foods can include fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy foods, eggs and, to some extent, meats and poultry. Organic foods are defined as those foods that are grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge (human and animal waste—yuck), irradiation, genetic engineering, pesticides or drugs. Pesticides are chemical or control agents made to kill insects, weeds and fungal pests that damage crops.
Over the past few years, there have been many studies that have stated there is no benefit to organic produce vs. conventional produce. The confusion is rooted in poor research. In order to make a good comparison, you need to study produce from the same environment. A poor study would compare conventional grapes grown in New York with organic grapes grown in Florida. A good piece of research would study the grapes grown side by side with the same soil, sunlight, etc.
Here are some thoughts and recommendations: Food does not have to be organic to be safe and environmentally friendly. One good strategy is focusing on eating food grown close to where you live. Some organic foods come from multinational companies and have been trucked across the country. They may be organic, but the environmental footprint includes lots of petrochemicals used in transportation, whereas if you buy produce from your local market, it may not be organic but it is farm-fresh and less impactful on the environment. Some smaller farms may not have the organic label—which can be costly to obtain—but follow similar practices. Buying local allows you to talk to the farmers and get to know their practices.
And just because food is labeled organic doesn’t mean it is completely free of pesticides. Contamination can occur from soil and ground water containing previously used chemicals, or during transport, processing and storage.
I advise those on limited budgets to consider buying organic versions of foods on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list, or focus on organic versions of foods eaten most frequently. Eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and less processed foods remains the goal.
EWG’s Dirty Dozen for 2014 (see list of produce contained a number of different pesticide residues and showed high concentrations of pesticides relative to other produce items.
EWG’s Clean Fifteen for 2014 includes the produce least likely to hold pesticide residues, and tests found low total concentrations of pesticides. Don’t waste your money buying organic here, go for the conventional to save a little.
One thing the experts agree on — regardless of whether you choose locally grown, organic, or conventional foods, the important thing is to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. The health benefits of such a diet far outweigh any potential risks from pesticide exposure. Given what we know, the best diet advice I can give is to eat a wide variety of produce and whole grains. What do I do? I buy organic as long as it fits into my budget and does not break my piggy bank.



The Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list includes produce with the highest levels of pesticide residues. Focus on organic versions of these foods or the foods eaten most frequently.

Apples, strawberries, grapes, celery, peaches, spinach, sweet bell peppers, imported nectarines, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas and potatoes.

EWG’s Clean Fifteen for 2014 includes the produce least likely to hold pesticide residues. Relatively few pesticides were detected on these foods, and tests found low total concentrations of pesticides. The list includes:

Avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, onions, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwis, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower and sweet potatoes.


The Last Fish

March 6, 2014  
Filed under Sustainable Living


Ocean fish are the last wild creatures that people hunt on a large scale. We used to think of the ocean’s bounty as endless until recently, when we have discovered its limits. Between 1950 and 1994, ocean fishermen increased their catch 400 percent by doubling the number of boats and using more effective fishing gear, according to Seafood Watch from the Monterrey Bay Aquarium.

In 1989, the world’s catch leveled off at just over 82 million metric tons of fish per year. We have reached “peak fish” and no amount of boats will help us catch more fish. Today, only 10 percent of all large fish — both open ocean species including tuna, swordfish, marlin and large groundfish such as cod, halibut, skates and flounder — are left in the sea, according to research published in National Geographic.

“From giant blue marlin to mighty bluefin tuna, and from tropical groupers to Antarctic cod, industrial fishing has scoured the global ocean. There is no blue frontier left,” lead author Ransom Myers told National Geographic. “Since 1950, with the onset of industrialized fisheries, we have rapidly reduced the resource base to less than 10 percent — not just in some areas, not just for some stocks, but for entire communities of these large fish species from the tropics to the poles.”

“The impact we have had on ocean ecosystems has been vastly underestimated,” said co-author Boris Worm. “These are the megafauna, the big predators of the sea, and the species we most value. Their depletion not only threatens the future of these fish and the fishers that depend on them, it could also bring about a complete re-organization of ocean ecosystems, with unknown global consequences.”

Marine biologist Sylvia Earle says, “I don’t blame the fishermen for this, we, the consumers, have done this because we have a taste for fish and ‘delicacies’ such as shark-fin soup. Our demand for seafood appears to be insatiable … driven by high-end appetites. I’ve always believed that even when there is only one bluefin tuna left in the sea someone will pay a million dollars to be able to eat it.”

Some seafood can be sustainably farmed. Clams are raised in special beds on sandy shores, where their harvest does little to disturb the ecosystem. Oysters and mussels are often raised in bags or cages suspended off the seafloor, doing little damage as they’re harvested. Many farmed fish, such as salmon, are grown in net pens, like cattle in a feedlot. This is as environmentally damaging in the ocean as cattle feed lots are on land. Additionally, Mangrove forests have been cut down and replaced with temporary shrimp farms that supply shrimp to Europe, Japan and America until the water becomes polluted.


Poorer But Happier

February 27, 2014  
Filed under Sustainable Living


The National Opinion Research Council tries to quantify how happy Americans are with a yearly poll. Since 1950, the number of Americans responding that they were “very happy” has steadily declined. Between 1970 and 1994, it dropped five full points, indicating that less than a third of Americans were “very happy.” In 2006, our happiness level was at a new low in spite of a healthy economy and record amounts of consumption per capita.

1991 was a time plenty for average Americans. We owned twice as many cars, drove twice as far, used twenty-one times more plastic and traveled 25 times farther by air than did the average family in 1951, according to environmentalist Alan Durning. Our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per person has tripled since the 1950s. So did the square footage of the average house and the circumference around our waists. However, homelessness increased, alcoholism and drug abuse statistics rose and divorce rates doubled.

Surveys have found virtually the same level of happiness between the very rich individuals on the Forbes 400 and the impoverished Maasai herdsman of East Africa. In contrast, Bhutan, a small Himalayan country, recently decided to stop measuring GDP, and replaced it with a “happiness index.” Citizens of Bhutan are no longer measured by how productive they are at work, instead, they are measured by how happy they are in life.

“There is no necessary relationship between the level of possession and the level of well-being,” said Thakur S. Powdyel, a Bhutanese official to the New York Times. As a result, household incomes in Bhutan are among the poorest in the world, but life expectancy has increased by 19 years, and government funding is spent on education, health care and the environment.

In the U.S., with a recession raging, we can still communicate with people all over the world instantly, eat fresh foods from the other side of the planet and watch over 100 channels of TV anytime of the day or night. We have mountains of stuff crammed into mountain-sized houses, which hold smaller families who report they are still “not happy.” Clearly it is not money or the stuff that makes us happy. So what does?

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied dozens of human activities to see what made Americans happy. He found that volunteer work of all kinds generated “high levels of joy, exceeded only by dancing.” Why volunteer work? The most common answer is that “you make new friends” and “it gets me out of myself.” For others it was “doing something meaningful” and “building a sense of community.” In human society, relationships trumps money.

In his book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community,” Robert Putnam notes that as our incomes have climbed, our civic participation has dramatically decreased. This decrease takes the form of lower attendance in churches, civic groups and volunteer organizations, as well as reduced involvement in local government.

Putnam notes, “Each generation … since the 1950s has been less engaged in community affairs than their immediate predecessor.” People born before 1945 and after 1964 both see family, friends and co-workers as providing a sense of belonging. However, these two generations disagree that neighbors, churches, local communities and organizations prove a sense of community. The fabric of communities is woven by volunteers, and recently, it has begun to unravel.


Localization Instead of Globalization

February 13, 2014  
Filed under Sustainable Living


Recently, we have seen the effects of globalization. As local jobs are increasingly outsourced and recessions continue to loom, we should realize that it just isn’t working. Economist and author Michael Shuman notes, “About 42 percent of our economy is ‘place based’ or created through small, locally owned businesses.” This means that almost half our economy depends upon small independent businesses that make up the backbone of our hometowns.

These small businesses are what give our towns local color and local flavor. They are what differentiate us from every other exit on the highway that has the same six chain stores. Local businesses are also committed to their hometowns and support the local economy through hiring people in the area, donations to little leagues and volunteer ambulance and fire service, and paying local taxes.

The key to economic recovery is localization, reversing globalization. Shuman estimates that we could expand our national economy to be 70 percent local or more by incorporating these ten simple steps that will also save you money.

– Localize your home. The biggest expense most of us have is our mortgage. Actually, 60 percent of our annual expenses go to shelter. By renting from a local landlord or buying your own home with a mortgage from a local bank, you can localize this expense. Local banks and credit unions typically have the best rates anyway, possibly saving you money in the process.

– Drive less. According to Shuman, Americans spend one out of every five dollars on transportation. That amounts to almost $5,000 per year! Until we can start replacing imported oil with locally produced biofuels, our best bet is to drive less.

– Using mass transit, bicycling or walking is highest on the list, but not very easy for us rural folks. Use the car sparingly, buy gas from an independent gas station if you can find one and use a local repair shop you trust.

– Eat independently. Households spend about $2300 per year on restaurants; unfortunately, it’s mostly fast-food chains. This one is a simple matter of choice. It takes very little effort to find a wonderful independently owned restaurant.

– Support local arts and entertainment. Most people opt for a movie at a corporate multiplex at the mall. Enjoy homegrown talent! Visit the small repertory theater to see a real play instead of a movie. Visit an art show, buy art from local artists and buy music directly from the bands.

– Localize your health care. Get your meds from an independent pharmacy, preferably one that also uses local suppliers

– Buy locally grown food. Eating locally, meaning buying fresh vegetables, meats and dairy from local farms reduces transportation costs and vitamin loss. The closer you eat to home, the more you improve your health, your view and your local economy.

– Localize electricity. You could save thousands per year just by increasing your energy efficiency.

– Give locally! More than 6 percent of the U.S. economy is nonprofit, according to Shuman. Most of these nonprofits are in the forms of hospitals, universities and churches, but locally we also have arts organizations, environmental groups and many others.

– Buy local! In the time it has taken you to read this, Americans have collectively spent $23 million. Shuman says that $16 million of this figure could be spent in small locally owned stores. How far would $16 million go in your hometown today?


Precautionary Principle

February 6, 2014  
Filed under Sustainable Living


“When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” — Wingspread

That is the Precautionary Principle. It stems from the German word “Vorsorgeprinzip,” which literally means “fore-caring.” It is a willingness to take action in advance of scientific proof or hard evidence on the grounds that further delay would prove to be too costly to society, nature and future generations.

Sometimes if we wait for scientific certainty, it is too late, and the damage is irreversible. Think back to the link between smoking and lung cancer. In the 20-year gap between when scientists first began to suspect smoking as a cause of lung cancer and when they were finally able to link it to lung cancer scientifically, millions of healthy people developed cancer and died. Some people realized the risk and stopped smoking without waiting for doctors’ orders. These people wisely exercised the Precautionary Principle.

Another part of the Precautionary Principle is, “The proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.” That is the opposite of most of our environmental policies. Policymakers assume that ecosystems can absorb a certain amount of contamination and allow polluters free rein to pollute until scientists prove that damage is done and protective action needs to be taken.

“Instead of asking the basic risk-assessment question — ‘How much harm is allowable?’ — the precautionary approach asks, ‘How little harm is possible?’” notes Peter Montague in “The Precautionary Principle in the Real World.”

If we were to adopt the Precautionary Principle as a basis of environmental legislation in our country, it would shift the burden of proof to the shoulders of those who profit from pollution. For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District adopted the Precautionary Principle to limit pesticide use in schools, citing possible damage to children’s development. Many other school districts across the nation have followed suit. They are not waiting for scientists to establish a link between pesticide use and neurotoxins’ inhibiting brain development. They are taking preventive action now as stewards of the next generation.

Other countries have adopted the Precautionary Principle as a guideline for environmental policy. The European Union has incorporated the Precautionary Principle and is requiring all chemicals to be tested for their effects on health and the environment. It would put the burden on chemical manufacturers to demonstrate that their products are safe. And it would give government immediate authority to regulate substances that show problems.

Even major corporations are beginning to adopt the principle voluntarily in an effort to avoid harm. In 2001, Verizon Wireless sent a brochure to its U.S. cell phone customers describing the potential harm to children from radio frequencies emitted by the phones. Verizon suggested that parents adopt the Precautionary Principle and limit children’s use of cell phones.

So, how can we apply the Precautionary Principle to our own communities?

Carolyn Raffensperger, in “Environmental Vision and Action in Municipalities,” suggests that you start with a vision for your community. For example, “What would it take to make this the best place to mature?”

Then look at the threats. For example, two environmental health reports on threats to healthy aging found that asthma, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease all have environmental contributors. “Local action,” Raffensperger writes, “such as increasing the walkability of a town or guaranteeing access to nature has the enormous potential to help people live healthier lives and cut down on the costs to society and families of sick people, particularly the elderly.” Applying the Precautionary Principle to the town’s master plan would result in adding more sidewalks to encourage walkability, creating more green spaces and parks, limiting emissions of idling vehicles, and rerouting heavy trucks away from populated areas.

Raffensperger points out that many of the problems we face in our communities are interrelated. For example, the absence of sidewalks contributes to obesity and increases the use of cars, consequently increasing air pollution and the likelihood of climate change. Applying the Precautionary Principle to our decision-making process at a governmental level would address multiple problems with a common solution.

To incorporate the Precautionary Principle approach to decision-making, we need to adopt these theories, which the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has adopted:

“1. Anticipatory Action: There is a duty to take action to prevent harm. …

“2. Right to Know: The community has a right to know complete and accurate information on potential human health and environmental (threats). … The burden to supply this information lies with the proponent, not with the general public.

“3. Alternatives Assessment: An obligation exists to examine a full range of alternatives and select the alternative with the least potential impact on human health and the environment including the alternative of doing nothing.

“4. Full Cost Accounting:” We must consider all costs, including those that will be paid by future generations.

“5. Participatory Decision Process: Decisions applying the Precautionary Principle must be” democratic and engage all affected parties.


Farmers’ Day in Court

January 30, 2014  
Filed under Sustainable Living


Monsanto’s seed monopoly has grown so powerful that they control the genetics of nearly 90 percent of five major commodity crops including corn, soybeans, cotton, canola and sugar beets. This has resulted in onerous costs to farmers through high technology patent fees for seeds as well as burdensome litigation costs in defending themselves against lawsuits asserted by Monsanto, which has filed a motion to dismiss the current lawsuit.

This is ironic, considering how often Monsanto has sued farmers. From 1997 through April 2010, Monsanto filed 144 lawsuits against American farmers in at least 27 different states, for alleged infringement of its transgenic seed patents and/or breach of its license to those patents, while settling another 700 out of court for undisclosed amounts. As a result of these aggressive lawsuits, farmers live in fear of accidental cross-pollination of their fields by genetically-engineered crops. Monsanto has generated an atmosphere of fear and loathing in rural America and driven dozens of farmers into bankruptcy.

“I don’t think it’s fair that Monsanto should be able to sue my family for patent infringement because their transgenic seed trespasses onto our farm and contaminates and ruins our organic crop,” testifies farmer Bryce Stephens of Kansas-based Stephen’s Land and Cattle Co. “We have had to abandon raising corn because we are afraid Monsanto wouldn’t control their genetic pollution and then they would come after us for patent infringement. It’s not right.”

Some 200 million acres of the world’s farms grew biotech crops last year, with many of these farms located next to or nearby organic farms. Genetically-modified organisms move around in the ecosystem through pollen, wind and natural cross-fertilization. The Union of Concerned Scientists conducted two separate independent laboratory tests on non-GM seeds “representing a substantial proportion of the traditional seed supply” for corn, soy and oilseed rape. The test found that half the corn and soy, and 83 percent of the oilseed rape were contaminated with GM genes, eight years after the GM varieties were first grown on a large scale in the U.S.

The reports states that “Heedlessly allowing the contamination of traditional plant varieties with genetically engineered sequences amounts to a huge wager on our ability to understand a complicated technology that manipulates life at the most elemental level.” There could be serious health risks if drugs and industrial chemicals from the next generation of GM crops were consumed in food.

Some organic and conventional farmers are forced to stop growing certain crops in order to avoid genetic contamination and potential lawsuits. Jim Gerritsen, OSGATA President and owner of Wood Prairie Farm, in Maine states; “We are family farmers and we are in court to let the judge know that our survival as farmers depends on this lawsuit. We’re not asking Monsanto for one penny. We just want justice for our farmers and we want court protection from Monsanto.”


Alternatives to Road Salt

January 23, 2014  
Filed under Sustainable Living


Winter weather has struck hard this year, and many people and municipalities are pouring on the road salt. According to the National Research Council, we Americans dump between 8 million to 12 million tons of salt on our roads per year. Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York report the highest level of salt use, with New York weighing in at 500,000 tons per year. The New York State Department of Transportation requires a road-salt application rate of 225 lbs. per Lane-Mile for light snow and 270 lbs. per Lane-Mile for each application during rapidly accumulating snow.

When you consider that there are approximately 6,000 mi. of paved roadways near NY watersheds, you begin to see how all that road salt adds up. Some roads may get up to 300 tons of road salt per Lane-Mile each year. Recently, many scientists have begun to study the effects of so much road salt on ecosystems, water quality, public health and road quality. Here are a few things you should know before you break out that sodium chloride, the most commonly used deicer.

– Salt destroys soil structure by killing some soil bacteria. This allows more soil to erode into streams, taking the salt with it. Salt erosion contaminates drinking-water supplies to levels that exceed standards.

– Salt doesn’t evaporate or otherwise get removed once applied, so it remains a persistent risk to aquatic ecosystems and to water quality. Approximately 55 percent of road-salt runs off with snowmelt into streams, with the remaining 45 percent infiltrating through soils and into groundwater aquifers, according to a 1993 study.

– Salt slowly kills trees, especially white pines, and other roadside plants. The loss of indigenous plants and trees on roadsides allows hardier salt-tolerant species to take over.

– Salt can change water chemistry, causing minerals to leach out of the soil, and it increases the acidity of water, according to Dr. Stephen Norton, a professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Maine.

– Elk, moose and sheep eat road salt, causing “salt toxicosis” where they lose their fear of vehicles and humans, causing many fatal encounters.

– Salt cracks animal paws, making house pets particularly susceptible.

– Road salt seeping into drinking water changes its flavor, and supplies the excess dietary sodium associated with hypertension.

– Salt corrodes metals like automobile brake linings, frames and bumpers, and can cause cosmetic corrosion. To prevent this corrosion, automakers pay almost $4 billion per year.

– Salt can penetrate concrete to corrode the reinforcing rods causing damage to bridges, roads and cracked pavement.

Canada is considering classifying conventional deicers as toxic substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. California and Nevada restrict road-salt use in certain areas to reduce damage to roadside vegetation. Massachusetts is using alternative deicers to prevent contamination of drinking water. New York State is considering doing the same to protect New York City’s watershed.

There are alternatives to sodium chloride that are relatively harmless to the environment and still get the job done. Calcium magnesium acetate and potassium acetate are two chloride alternatives currently available. They are much more expensive than road salt, but if you factor in the loss of wildlife, soil erosion, water quality and corrosion, these alternatives start to look like a real bargain.