by Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.
I love shopping at my local farmers’ market. It’s like going to a party every Saturday morning where I get to visit with friends, listen to live music, and put a farmer’s face on the freshest food in town. But alas, all is not what it seems. For example, one neighbor casually commented that he thought everything at the market was organic.
Not exactly. In fact, most of the farmers at my market are NOT certified organic. They think they need to use pesticides and herbicides to easily control pests and weeds, and produce the good-looking produce consumers demand.
Not me. I’d prefer a worm hole to a neurotoxin any day. Joni Mitchell sang it best: “give me scars on my apples, I’ll take the birds and the bees.”
Personally, I seek out the certified organic farmers at my market. They proudly display an “organic” sign and certificate, which automatically assures me that their animals have not been fed genetically modified grain, and their produce has not been sprayed with nasty chemicals. When I see the organic certificate, I don’t have to guess, wonder or ask about their growing practices. I already know.
But what about the farmer who says his beef is “all-natural,” or her eggs are “free-range?” What if there’s a sign that simply says: “no spray.” Are these claims as good as organic? Is it better to buy local, whether the food is organic or not?
These are some important questions facing the growing number of farmers’ market shoppers, and they can be confusing. Let’s take a look at a few real-life examples.
“Local” logic: Locally produced food can help support the local economy. But in itself, local food is not enough to protect our environment or public health. For example, what good is local food if it’s sprayed with chemicals that harm local pollinators and poison our groundwater? I don’t want to eat local meat if the animals have been fed genetically engineered (GMO) grains, because GMO crops are engineered to be sprayed with herbicides, and the science is still out on their safety. Plus, if I buy eggs laid by local chickens fed GMO grain, I am indirectly supporting multi-national GMO seed businesses. This is why, personally, I prefer “local organic.”
“Sustainable “speak: One summer while traveling, I stumbled upon a farmers’ market where my eye caught a checkered tablecloth piled high with plump peaches. My mouth watered in anticipation. Since I didn’t see a “certified organic” sign, I asked the farmer about his growing practices. He explained that he “grows his fruit sustainably.”
Hmm. The term “sustainable,” has no legal standard definition, so I asked what he sprayed on his fruit. The farmer rattled off a list of pesticides, and suddenly the peaches lost their appeal. I thanked the farmer for his honesty, but passed on the fruit.
The notion of “Natural”: There’s a rancher at my market who sells “all-natural, grass fed, free-range beef” ... at a premium. His cattle are fed pasture plus a “high-fiber protein supplement.”
When pressed about the “supplement,” the farmer explains that the supplement is a co-product from the corn sweetener industry. That’s GMO corn. In fact, GMO corn and soy are typical ingredients in “all natural vegetarian feed.” And many ranchers feed corn by-products from the ethanol industry as well (click for more info). GMOs can be called “natural” since according to the FDA, “the term has no legal definition.”
“Free-range” eggs: A sign by one farmer’s table shows pictures of happy chickens pecking in the grass. When I inquire about feed, I learn that the birds get no GMO feed, but instead enjoy grain sorghum called “milo,” which is grown on the family farm.
“What do you spray on the milo?” I ask.
“We use a little Atrazine,” the farmer explains. “Otherwise we just can’t keep up with the weeds.”
Atrazine is a dangerous herbicide that gets into our ground water. Studies show that it disrupts our endocrine or hormone systems, and is associated with birth defects (see below for more on Atrazine studies). While I’d like to buy eggs at my local farmers’ market, this is a case where organic trumps local for me. I don’t want to take the chance that this herbicide ended up in those eggs, so I’ll stop at the supermarket to buy organic eggs, instead.
Asking the right questions
We have the right to know what we’re eating and feeding our children. But it can be uncomfortable to ask farmers a series of questions that may seem like an interrogation. That’s why I value my local organic farmers and want to reward them with my food dollars.
It’s true that the organic certification takes extra commitment on the farmer’s part. But it gives consumers the best guarantee that our food is produced without chemical fertilizers, GMOs, hormone implants, antibiotics, and synthetic pesticides. We don’t have to ask.
If your market farmer is not organic, then you’re smart to inquire:
- What kinds of pesticides/herbicides do you use? (Assume that they do)
- What do your animals eat? (If the feed is corn or soy, and not certified organic, you can bet it’s genetically modified.)
The best way for farmers and consumers to retain their ability to produce and consume high-quality, GMO-free, safe food, is to unite to support organic agriculture. Let your farmers and your elected officials know what’s important to you.
Studies on atrazine:
- Tyrone Hayes, Ph.D., interview on Food Sleuth Radio describes the threat of chemical pesticides to poison our environment and damage our health: http://kopn.org/a/fl2.html?http://kopn.org/dc/fs/08-12-10%20Food%20Sleuth.mp3
- Pesticide Action Network joint report with the Land Stewardship Project on Syngenta and Atrazine: http://www.landstewardshipproject.org/pdf/AtrazineReportJan2010.pdf
- Agrichemicals in surface water and birth defects in the United States. Winchester, PD, Huskins J., Ying, J. Acta Paediatr. 2009 Apr;98(4):664-9.Epub 2009 Jan 22. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19183116
Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D., is a registered dietitian, “investigative nutritionist,” award-winning writer and host of nationally syndicated, Food Sleuth Radio. A former Food and Society Policy Fellow, Melinda connects the dots between food, health and agriculture, and uniquely teaches critical thinking skills to promote "food system literacy" to find “food truth.” With 30 years’ experience in clinical, academic and public health nutrition, Melinda is a trusted consumer advocate, and engaging national speaker.
With her photographer husband, Melinda created “F.A.R.M.: Food, Art, Revolution, Media – A Focus on Photography to Re-vitalize Agriculture and Strengthen Democracy." The project combines compelling images with strategic storytelling to drive smart farm policy and amplify farmers’ voices. Melinda is a member of the Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Service, and Organic Farming Research Foundation Boards, as well as the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition practice group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the Association of Health Care Journalists. Her articles have appeared in ACRES USA, Natural Awakenings, Edible Communities, and the American Journal of Nursing.