The Organic Dilemma

Growing up in a family concerned not only about our own health but also the health of the planet and the surrounding wildlife, buying and growing organic food was naturally an important part of our lives. During my last two years of college, as I studied food from cultural, historical, human rights and environmental perspectives, I became deeply passionate about the importance of knowing where our food comes from and how it is grown or raised.

Barbara's ecological garden

In Northampton, Massachusetts, where I was living and studying, I began shopping at the farmers’ markets and the local foods cooperative, instead of at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. I bought solely organic produce and locally-raised meat. I also became passionate about using non-toxic personal care products with natural, organic ingredients instead of toxic and harmful synthetic materials. I began looking up all of my products in the Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetic Database, which gives a toxicity rating for different brands. I even started making some of my own skincare products, my favorite recipe being a coconut oil-based deodorant. I shared my new discoveries about the importance of checking the ingredients not only in our food but also in our shampoos, hand soaps, laundry detergents, etc. with my family and friends.

Living at home during the summer and eating mostly out of Barbara’s garden, an inspiring example of truly ecological gardening practices, I felt that I was able to live in a way that was truly aligned with my beliefs and values.

Now, as a recent college graduate, a part-time English teacher in Italy and financially independent for the first time, I have been running into new challenges. My values have remained the same but my ability to live according to those beliefs has changed. In the U.S., I thought about how the price of organic food often transformed it into a luxury only the elite could afford, but I still couldn’t understand how people could buy food they knew was laden with pesticides and meat containing antibiotics. Now, I think I truly understand for the first time the problem with organic food.

Organic fruit at a market in Bologna

So far in Mestre, Venice, I’ve only found two organic grocery stores, both with exorbitant prices and limited selections. I only go there to buy specialty ingredients I can’t find in the other supermarkets, such as peanut butter, oatmeal and quinoa. I never even stop in the small produce section, where the prices are almost triple. Luckily, the food system in Italy is much better than in the United States, with stricter controls and more regulations. At my local supermarket, although they are not organic, almost all of the fruit and vegetables come from Italy, with only tropical fruits such as mangoes, avocados and bananas coming from abroad. Almost all of the meat, fish, eggs and dairy come from within Italy, and often within the Veneto region, and are clearly labelled if they do not. The price is certainly right, too.

Non-organic vegetable stall

Every time I shop, however, I feel guilty, knowing that I am contributing to the pollution of our planet and of our own bodies. I yearn to buy organic food, but when a bulb of fennel costs 99 cents a kilo instead of almost 3 euros a kilo, as it does in the health foods store, I cannot bring myself to pay the extra. I can’t even consider the natural personal care products. I keep praying that my body can put up with the toxins for now, until I can earn enough money to be able to afford better products. I feel torn between my strong beliefs and the reality of how I can afford to live. The recent $5 Meal Challenge campaign by Slow Food USA inspires me and gives me hope that we can prepare delicious, healthy meals that are also affordable, but it certainly isn’t easy and takes quite a bit of creativity, time and planning.

I will continue to shop at the local supermarket instead of the health food store, but I will never forget my goal to eat only organic food and use natural body products. For now, however, I can only reflect on my dilemma and find small ways to make a difference where I can, with the hope that someday soon I will once again be able to live in a way that is aligned with my beliefs.

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Categories: Environment, Health, Musing

4 Comments on “The Organic Dilemma”

  1. October 27, 2011 at 9:07 am #

    Thanks for the great post. You touch upon one of the sorest spots in the organic food movement–affordability. Here in the States much of the organic food that reaches store shelves is grown by huge corporate farms, not exactly the picture of fresh, sustainably grown food. It’s a huge dilemma.

    Perhaps the farmers whose produce is available at your markets do not have their goods certified (I know that here many choose not to do so as it is an expensive process) organic but actually grow their foods ecologically. The way I grow things. It might be interesting to ask a vendor about growing practices. Do the Italian farmers use a lot of sprays? Give their animals antibiotic-laced feed? Perhaps you are safer over there than here where we are drenched with chemicals no matter what we do (furniture, paints, bedding, etc.). I hope so!

  2. October 28, 2011 at 5:43 pm #

    I wish organic food was more cheaply available too. I am going to echo what Barbara said in her comment and state how disconcerted I am with how much organic things here are grown by huge corporate farms. Is it really sustainable farming? I need to do more research but, I worry that huge organic farms are using natural pesticides that are just as bad for the environment and us as many synthetic pesticides. Just because it is natural doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful and we have to be mindful of that (especially when they have to use more of a natural one because it doesn’t have the same effect as a synthetic one).

    I think these questions of food policy are fascinating ones. Like you have noted organic products have become a luxury of people who can afford it while people who don’t make enough money are often left with unhealthy options. It is amazing to think that our decision to go to mass production of agriculture led to so much good at first (deflation of food costs made it more affordable, especially for those who needed it most) but, as the decades have gone on it has wreaked havoc on our environment and the way our society eats in general.

  3. October 31, 2011 at 5:33 am #

    Two great comments — I so agree with both of you. Organic does not necessarily mean sustainable or healthy options. Corporate farms have used the high demand for “organic” food for their own profit but not for the benefit of their customers. We must be mindful of all food claims and labels, but we must also face the reality of what is available and what we can afford to buy.

    Thank you for sharing your reflections on this deeply complex issue!


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