Many a times we flow along with the mass hysteria which is exactly like a roller-coaster ride with crests and troughs. With some TRP hungry media article there will be a sudden rush of a feeling of wellbeing for our loved ones and we run out to bring ‘ORGANIC’ produce. Then after sometime the cost and no apparent benefits bring down this feeling to the lowest point. We start buying regular supermarket stuff looking perfect spotless and shiny. This cycle will go on all our lives as buying all organic every time is not possible.
Concept of “Organic’ is quite a shaded one. With a long list of approved chemicals for use in organic farming Organic concept not at all defined. Few weeks ago an article in the Times of India announced that ‘Growing health consciousness and awareness about harmful pesticides has nearly quadrupled the size of organic foods in India in the last three years’. Feels good that we are becoming more concerned but does the growth of business reveal any useful information. It doesn’t even tell which organic produces are responsible for this. It neither tells us what are the chemicals used for application in organic farming by the organic establishments across the world.
It is more like marketing gimmick for the corporate sector and food mafias to plunder the growing organic pie. Why? Because by nature ‘organic’ has to be small / cottage scale. All operations have to be done manually. Mechanical and cultural tools are to be used to control pests. These include insect traps, careful crop selection (there are a growing number of disease-resistant varieties), and biological controls (such as predator insects and beneficial microorganisms). A true organic crop should not use any chemical for growth or protection.
Big farms cannot process like this. So whatever products sit on store shelves as ” CERTIFIED ORGANIC” does not necessarily mean they are chemical-free that the gullible upper middle class consumer assumes.
In fact, under the laws organic farmers are allowed to use a wide variety of chemical sprays and powders on their crops and these pesticides which must be derived from natural sources, not synthetically manufactured. Also, these pesticides must be applied using equipment that has not been used to apply any synthetic materials for the past three years, and the land being planted cannot have been treated with synthetic materials for that period either.
What we have done till now is to study the effects of synthetic chemicals for their ability to cause cancer (almost all of them are carcinogen) and not bothered to look at natural chemicals (such as organic pesticides), because it was assumed that they posed little risk. Studies show otherwise. Most of the organic pesticides too effect adversely.
A study compared the effectiveness of a rotenone-pyrethrin mixture versus a synthetic pesticide, imidan. Rotenone and pyrethrin are two common organic pesticides; imidan is considered a “soft” synthetic pesticide (i.e., designed to have a brief lifetime after application, and other traits that minimize unwanted effects). It was found that up to 7 applications of the rotenone- pyrethrin mixture were required to obtain the level of protection provided by 2 applications of imidan It seems unlikely that 7 applications of rotenone and pyrethrin are really better for the environment than 2 applications of imidan, especially when rotenone is extremely toxic to fish and other aquatic life. Out of 52 natural pesticides tested 27 where shown to be carcinogenic in animals.*
This is a case where everyone (consumers, farmers, researchers) made the same, dangerous mistake assuming that “natural” chemicals are automatically better and safer than synthetic materials. It’s important that we be more prudent in our acceptance of “natural” as being innocuous and harmless.
Other than protection of their crops genuine organic farmers face many other problems .Genuine organic farmers are small scale and scattered in remote areas. Because of their small volumes they can neither sell directly in metropolises, nor do big chain stores take in small volumes. The final option for the small growers is to sell to those fancy Eco stores who want a huge cut on MRP thereby making a mockery of the growers’ belief in organic, hard work and efforts. Most of the genuine organic farmers, obviously small, cannot even pay the horrendously priced annual certification fees.
Does it mean that we have to ingest chemicals or pay huge price. The answer is ‘NO’.
Options are –patronize small genuine organic farmers in your region and/or buy selectively. Not all produce are full of pesticides and some of them can be washed clean off chemicals. Following are some rules of thumb to follow and produces which you need to buy organic and which you don’t.
Universal Rules of Thumb to Avoid Chemicals in Food
-Closer to ground or just below the ground produces are laden with chemicals. Both fertilizers and pesticides. Potatoes, Spinach and other greens and herbs. Better to buy organic in this case or grow it ourselves. These are easily grown in pots in balconies.
-Fragile produces are sprayed with multiple chemicals to kill insects as well as preserve it for transporting to different regions. Look for hardy produce. Onions garlic don’t require much of pesticides.
-Thin skinned fruits and vegetables absorb most of the surface pesticides, like berries. Avoid strawberry unless you are sure it’s organic. It is known to contain huge quantities of chemicals. Avocados, Mangoes, pineapples have thick skin.
-Exotic, imported stuffs required for gourmet cooking. These produces have to travel across the world and treated chemically to keep them fresh. Apples, Figs, Oranges Sushi leaves, exotic mushrooms, non-Indian herbs.
-High cost and popular produces. Some of the fruits and vegetables have huge cost not because of the benefits they give but they have become a status symbol. People will carry apples, grapes, and pomegranates when they visit a sick person but not guavas or papayas. These are heavy profit produce and needs to be protected at any cost.
-Off season produces are stored in cold storage and sprayed with chemicals and gasses. In northern part on India we used to wait for winters to get cauliflowers, carrots, peas, now you get them all the time. Even if they are grown fresh climate will require them to be chemically treated as they will be vulnerable. Read my blog on parval in south India.
-Most of the grains like rice pulses are sprayed with chemicals to keep away the insects (Malathion for rice). Washing and soaking grains removes a lot of surface pesticides/colors and polishing stuff.
-Not a native of the land- There have been a lot of experiments with fruits and vegetables of other climates. Strawberry Broccoli, Purple cabbage are some of them. They belong to a different climate and need lot of special care as they don’t have natural defence against predators of this land. Nature has given every region a balanced range of produces and we should stick to our home produce most of the time.
-Wash fruits and vegetable either with potassium permanganate solution or use ozone wash to oxidize all the surface chemicals.
-Patronize local ‘Pheriwala’- cycle vendor carrying his home produce.
Click to see what you should buy organic.
*Ames BN, Profet M, Gold LS, Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural) Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 87(19):7777–7781. (October 1990)
Data on carcinogenicity of natural and synthetic compounds are referenced in Gold, L.S., et al. (1992) _Science_ Vol. 258, pp. 261-265.