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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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Making the Case for Organic Food: The View from Washington State

Posted on February 24, 2011

By Kathy Pryor

This essay is in response to: How does our food production system drive our exposure to toxic chemicals?

When Time magazine published their now infamous 2007 cover proclaiming “Forget Organic—Eat Local,” a collective groan went up in the food reform community. The answer to the question “local or organic?” has always been more “yes/and” than “either/or,” and in Washington State, I’m trying to get hospitals to see the local vs. organic debate as an opportunity to exceed expectations by embracing both.

“Local” food offers an opportunity to support family farms, preserve farmland, reduce the number of miles from field to plate, and maintain diverse regional food sources. However, it may not always address another host of issues: exposures to chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Purchasing Certified Organic foods is still the only way—short of growing your own—to make sure no pesticides or chemical fertilizers were used on your food.

Does that really matter? After all, the EPA was charged with reviewing the safety of all pesticides currently in use after the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act. The task was Herculean, requiring a review of almost 10,000 pesticides. Although several of the most hazardous pesticides were banned in the United States, there is reason to believe that some hazardous pesticides were wrongly approved for use.

I became involved in food work after reading a public letter that EPA scientists sent to EPA administrators in 2006, asking them to reconsider their approval of 32 organophosphate pesticides. Organophosphates were originally designed as a nerve gas during World War II, but were shifted to agricultural use after the 1972 ban on DDT. These EPA scientists worried about potential brain and nerve damage to children, infants, and fetuses, and claimed the administration had been swayed by political interests. However, organophosphate pesticides remain in use today.

Losing faith in the safety of your food supply is a terrible thing. I used to be able to walk down the produce aisle of any grocery store, making decisions based more on cost than concern for my health. No more.

A little more digging into the issue of pesticide exposure brought up more unpleasant facts. In 2006, a University of Washington researcher tested the urine of children switched to a primarily organic diet. After one week of an organic diet, several of the pesticides in their urine had disappeared. An earlier study by the same researcher found urine levels of some pesticide types five to seven times higher in children eating a conventional diet, compared with children eating a 75% organic diet. A 2005 study from the Environmental Working Group showed that pesticides in a woman’s bloodstream can be passed to a fetus while she is pregnant.

When we ingest conventionally-raised food, we ingest varying amounts of pesticides. Some of these pesticides were designed to attack the brain and nervous system. Children, infants, and fetuses are particularly vulnerable to the effects of these pesticides.

The personal reasons for choosing organic and reduced-pesticide foods are compelling. However, the public reasons are even greater. The Washington State Department of Ecology has identified chemical pesticides and fertilizers (both agricultural and household) as the second largest contaminant of Puget Sound. Farm workers on conventional (non-organic) farms face an increased risk of developing breast cancer, prostate cancer, retinal disease, and Parkinson’s disease. A farm environment is not a closed system—what happens on the farm does not stay on the farm.

As the Washington organizer of Health Care Without Harm’s Healthy Food in Health Care Initiative, I work with hospitals to get them to shift their purchasing from conventional systems—where anonymous, heavily-processed food is shipped in from far away—to a sort of hybrid model, buying as much as they can seasonally, locally, and sustainably-raised to supplement their conventional purchases.  

Overlake Medical Center in Bellevue recently opened an organic café, and features Farm-to-Table lunches every other week. They focus on buying products from local, family-owned companies, and have been instrumental in making sustainable foods—like local cage-free eggs—available to other hospitals through their primary food distributor. United General Hospital in rural Sedro-Wooley focuses on buying produce, meat, and seafood directly from local sustainable sources as a way to support their community. The largest health system in Seattle—Swedish Medical Center—will be bringing an organic farm stand to each of their Seattle campuses this summer. The University of Washington Medical Center serves organic hamburgers to patients, purchased from a small island farm a few miles from Seattle.

At Washington PSR, I plan educational events that will inspire hospital food service to action. I work directly with food service directors, chefs, and dieticians to identify sustainable farms in their region. I help hospitals identify waste reduction strategies and promotional opportunities.  I let them know they are not alone in their efforts—we have over 15 hospitals in Washington who have signed the Healthy Food in Health Care pledge, and that number is growing.

Sustainable changes don’t happen quickly, and they don’t happen without the support and encouragement of hospital staff, administration, and the community. To the farmers and ranchers who benefit from these purchases, the healthcare market can be an invaluable part of a diverse marketing plan. Hospital accounts are large and consistent—unlike schools, where purchasing slows during the height of the growing season.

I heard a story recently that I keep coming back to in my mind. A hospital chef was looking for new sources of seafood, and met a local salmon fisherman. As it happened, the fisherman was being treated for cancer at the hospital in question. The chef now buys all his salmon from this man, who comes to the hospital each week for treatment. For the chef, it is an opportunity to keep a valued member of his community in business. For the fisherman, it is a way to give back to the hospital that is quite literally saving his life.

There is no one answer to the many questions surrounding our food system. We need health care professionals to speak out when the food that should nourish may actually be doing harm. We need to demand policy that will regulate unsafe chemicals and support healthy food systems. We need to grow market demand for sustainably-raised products, and support research and advancement of sustainable farming practices. We need to have conversations about how we can best support our communities, while supporting the on-farm practices that will sustain healthy eating practices for generations yet to come.


erica said ..

i'm just getting into the organic movement, but support it wholeheartedly. thanks for the article and continued exposure. we all should keep telling the facts --

March 8, 2011
Raine Megivern said ..

I got a copy of the DVD, THE FUTURE OF FOOD, from the library, and clearly we're in trouble...there needs to be more out there for those who haven't been learning from Grandma how to raise a garden or preserve what is raised...we need basics!

February 27, 2011
Mary Ellen Knoop said ..

This is an inspiring account of what one person can do to start a chain reaction in the right direction. I've long felt that institutional food contributed to disease and was totally missing the opportunity to support health. Organic local food--hooray!

February 26, 2011
Thinking Green Ethics said ..

Yahoo for've hit the nail on the head. In addition, the local/organic movement helps to halt our post WWII trend toward central-supply, central-control. This trend is most frightening in food when we remember that the primary goal of huge corporations is to maximize profit, not to provide clean food nor attend to the morality of how we treat food animals. I address the central-supply issue in my blog:

February 26, 2011

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