The authenticity of imported organic produce has come into question, but if it’s nutrition you’re after, buy from local farms.

Share story

On Nutrition

What does it mean to buy organic if your organic food might not be organic after all?

Last month, a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) revealed its failure to make sure that imported organic foods actually meet USDA organic standards. Part of this was a failure to check documents and do audits, but perhaps most horrifyingly, even when imported crops do actually meet organic standards, there’s a decent chance they’ll end up being fumigated upon arrival with pesticides not allowed under USDA organic regulations.

The import of sham organics has been a particular problem with “organic” corn and soy, which are much in demand as feed for organically raised livestock. In order for milk and meat to be sold as organic, the animals can eat only organic feed, and most feed corn and soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified, which doesn’t qualify as organic.

Sadly, the situation with organic imports hurts not just consumers, who are paying a premium price for what may be a conventional product, but also our own organic farmers. True organic food generally costs more because it costs more to produce. A glut of faux-organic food on the market could drive down prices, impacting U.S. farmers while eroding shopper confidence.

That’s a big deal, since we love our organic food. A recent Organic Trade Association report found that 82 percent of American homes stock organic food and that organic food sales hit the $40 billion mark in 2016. Recent research from Denmark found that buying organic quickly becomes a habit. Once you buy your first organic food — and organic milk is often that gateway food — you’re likely to continue, growing your organic shopping list over time.

Why do we buy organic? According to consumer research, we go for organic because we want to avoid a lot of things on or in our food, including pesticides, chemicals, genetic modification, antibiotics and hormones. We buy organic not just because we believe organic foods are safer for us, but also because we believe organic foods are more nutritious and healthful.

Can we say conclusively that organic produce is more nutritious? No. While there’s some evidence that organic fruits and vegetables contain more phytonutrients (compounds in plants that have antioxidant and other health benefits), many factors affect levels of vitamins and minerals, including variety, soil condition, weather, climate, when a produce was harvested, how far it traveled to the store, how long it sat in the store, how long it sits in your fridge and how you prepare it.

If nutrition is a driving factor, follow these three guidelines:

• Focus on eating enough fruits and vegetables, whether conventional or organic — many people don’t.

• Buy from local farms — whether organic, conventional or transitional — to shorten the distance from farm to fork. Farmers markets are a wonderful way to get to know your farmer.

• Eat what you buy promptly, to minimize both nutrient loss and food waste, or rely more on frozen vegetables if you tend to let the fresh stuff go limp in your fridge.

If avoidance of nonorganic pesticides is your priority — whether out of concern for yourself, your family, farmworkers or the environment — eating seasonally from produce grown in the U.S. and reducing reliance on imported produce may give you peace of mind. Do keep in mind that many organic farms do use approved, more natural pesticides, while some conventional farmers may use pesticides sparingly. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.