Buying Organic Products (on a budget!)

See our article "The Real Story on the Affordability of Organic Food" from the Fall 2011 issue of Pesticides and Youto learn about the true cost of conventional food and learn how to get access to affordable organic food.

Local and organic- finding local, organic farms--the freshest and healthiest choice
Non-certified products- what to do when a farmer claims organic practices, but is not certified
Buying and cooking on a budget- food buying clubs and bulk purchasing organic goods
Labor practices and other considerations- international and local fair trade
Non-food items- fibers

Local and organic

No doubt about it, fresh, local, organic food tastes better than anything imaginable. It is also the best way to reduce your food's impact on climate change. Read our article on local AND organic food from the Spring 2010 issue of Pesticides and You.

Local, organic produce has generally been harvested recently, not traveled far, and is grown for its taste and nutritional qualities, not its durability. Taste alone is a compelling enough reason to buy local, organic produce, but the benefits go far beyond the palette. Local, organic farms produce food without the use of toxic chemicals, thus not contributing to pesticide contamination in communities.

In recent years, the term “food miles” has come into common usage, describing how far food travels to get from farm to plate and how much energy this consumes. Local food reduces food miles by the thousands, on average, and organic agriculture requires less fossil fuel use because it does not use chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which take considerable amounts of energy to produce. See our environmental benefits page for more about how organic food helps slow climate change, and check out the Center for Food Safety's Cool Foods Campaign for the five top things you can do to reduce your food's contribution to climate change.

Local, organic farms are good for communities. There is a limited amount of good farm land, and organic farms keep land this land in production when it might otherwise be developed. This land provides wildlife habitat, food production, and preserves agricultural landscapes, all while not contributing to toxic contamination that occurs from conventional farms. Local farms keep community members connected to the place where their food is grown and in touch with the seasons.

Farmers’ markets are great places to find local organic food (though be sure to ask whether a farm is certified organic because many farms at farmers' markets are not).. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs are also good ways to get connected to local organic farms. In these programs, a member, or “shareholder” generally pays a sum before the growing season, and then receives produce regularly throughout the season. Many different models of CSAs exist, and they are a great way to support local farmers and participate in community building. There are several ways to find a CSA in your area—try looking at the Local Harvest website for a farm near you.

Purchasing directly from the farmer eliminates a middleman, often leading to more profit going directly to the farmer, and sometimes cheaper prices for the consumer. This money then stays in the local economy.

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Non-certified products

There are some farmers who are not certified organic, but who say they follow organic practices. It is important to find out why they have chosen this and whether or not they could be certified organic before making a decision about buying their products. For some, the decision not to be certified is financial (certification costs money, but there is a significant government cost-share program to help with certification expenses). For others, it is a disagreement with the standards themselves. For some farmers who market their goods locally, they may find that since their customers are established, the “stamp” of certification is unnecessary for business.

Just because a farmer is not certified organic does not mean you should automatically avoid purchasing from her. However, without certification, the claim of organic holds very little weight since it has not been verified by any third party. Talk to the farmer about why the products are not certified, and make your own decisions about whether the growing practices are ones with which you feel comfortable. Ask her about the pesticides or fertilizers she may use, her crop rotation practices, and the history of the land on which she’s growing. We have created a form that you may want to use when asking a farmer about growing practices.

Although the choice to be certified or not lies with the farmer, one important and compelling reason to be certified is to show the USDA the true prevalence of organic agriculture in order to encourage research on organic production. Organic farming research has historically been underfunded by the USDA, and in light of the fact that the 2008 Farm Bill set aside 5 million dollars for data collection for organic agriculture, it is important to make sure all organic agriculture, large and small, is counted in these assessments.

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Buying and cooking on a budget

Please read our article from the Fall 2011 issue of Pesticides and You, "The Real Story on the Affordability of Organic Food," which includes our guide on how to eat organic food on a budget as well as information on the cost of organic food versus its chemically-intensive conventional counterpart. Although organic food is often inherently more expensive because of the higher production costs (primarily labor), it is still possible to eat organic food within a budget.

Sometimes, the price of organic products is inflated at retail markets, and this inflation can largely be avoided by buying as a food co-op. For more information on food co-ops, please read Terry Shistar’s “How-To Get Access to Organic Food, Economically” from Pesticides and You. Although the prices she discusses in the article may be outdated, the information about how food co-ops and buying clubs work and save consumers money is still accurate and pertinent. Another great resource is the Cooperative Grocers' Information Network's guide on How to Start a Food Co-op.

While purchasing “prepared” 221; goods from co-ops is often possible, the real money-saving occurs when bulk goods are purchased. Processed, packaged, and prepared foods generally cost more. Whether they are certified organic or not, these products often entail a lot of packaging and may break the bank if they become a habit. Bulk grains, flour, beans, oils, and even canned goods can be divided amongst members of a co-op, reaping the benefits for all. This often reduces packaging significantly as well.

Many consumers have have found that getting fresh produce from a CSA and bulk goods from a buying club provides them with all they need, and trips to the grocery store are nearly eliminated. There is significant cost savings to feeding a family this way, and it can be done while purchasing 100% organic goods.

There are many cookbooks ooks about cooking from scratch with fresh, seasonal produce. The options are limitless.

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Labor practices and other considerations

The “Organic” label gives you verification that the producer has been certified by a USDA certifying agency. Despite this label and assurance of organic compliance, it is worth making other considerations when purchasing organic products. Both within the U.S. and outside its borders, agricultural workers are often forced to work long, strenuous days with low pay and few, if any, benefits.

Often, it is impossible sible to discern what the labor practices are on a given farm, though you can be assured the workers were not exposed toxic chemicals if the product is certified organic. There is a growing movement toward “fair trade” practices both internationally and domestically. Fair trade embodies the principals of a living wage and humane treatment. When possible, find out who grows your food, and how they are reimbursed for this vital service. Read more about fair trade and social justice in organic agriculture at the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements and the Fair Trade International Labeling Organization.

While the international  fair trade movement has been gaining momentum for quite some time, the domestic fair trade movement is currently starting to get some attention. You can read the final draft statement on these issues from the Domestic Fair Trade Working Group.. Baldemar Velasquez's article in Pesticides and You titled Oppression and Farmworker Health in a Global Economy also discusses some of the issues farmworkers face.

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Non-food items- farms grow more than food

One of the most pesticide-intensive crops in the world is cotton. Cotton is grown for food and fiber purposes. As a fiber, we all know its multitude of uses. As a food and feed crop, cottonseed oil is used for human consumption, while cottonseed husks and meal are used as animal feed. The problems of intensive cotton cultivation include heavy pesticide use leading to health problems for farmers and community members, and the potential insect resistance to Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) through the widespread use of genetically engineered Bt cotton. Change must come from consumers, who demand organic cotton for farmers’ health and environmental health, as well as their own health. Organic cotton may cost an extra premium, but as it is now, the global cost of conventional cotton is much greater.

Animal fibers such as wool are natural products that have many beneficial qualities. Like all agricultural production involving crops and livestock, farmers can choose to manage their flocks organically and to be certified organic. Animals raised organically for wool are subject to the same standards as animals raised for meat or dairy (no antibiotics, for example, or toxic pesticides to treat for insects or other pests). The land on which these animals are raised is also subject to the same rules as organic crop and animal production.

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