Making the Case for Organic Food: The View from Washington State
February 24, 2011
This essay is in response to: How does our food production system drive our exposure to toxic chemicals?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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