September 16, 2013

Y’all have probably seen this graphic with a quote from Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms. It makes the rounds periodically, popping up on my Facebook feed from time to time.

Before I get into what bothers me so much about this, let me first say that I love Joel Salatin and support the work he’s doing at Polyface. I’m all about the local food movement.

You know what I’m not all about, though? Demonizing other people’s food choices without solid evidence. Essentially, this quote is being passed around as threat: Eat organic, or you’ll get cancer.

I’ve got a few problems with that.

First of all, there really isn’t any strong evidence that nonorganic foods in general cause cancer. Certainly, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that specific pesticides/herbicides/fertilizers, etc increase the risk of certain types of cancer, but guess what? Not all conventionally grown food will have problem substances. Some conventionally grown foods are not heavily sprayed or fertilized. Some foods are grown all hippie crunchy-like, but are not labelled as such.

Secondly, in some cases the sprays and fertilizers that can legally be used on organic foods may actually be MORE HARMFUL to your health than the conventional ones. See this fascinating Scientific American article for more details.* It’s pretty clear to me that organic foods are healthier for the environment; it’s less clear that these foods in general are always healthier than conventionally grown foods for individuals in the short-term.

Thirdly, what about the millions of people who can’t afford or don’t have access to organic foods? Do you think it’s a reasonable message to send? “Sorry you can’t afford organic food. It’s only a matter of time until you get cancer,”  (which, as far as we know, IS NOT TRUE.) The point of this message is to promote organic foods based on guilt and fear.  Personally, I try not to use guilt and fear as a way to inspire change. It doesn’t further the cause, and it only spreads negativity.

What to do?

As a nutritionist, I’d rather a family eat plenty of conventionally grown fruits and veggies, whole grains and so forth than worry about the organic issue and wind up eating fewer whole foods because of it.

In an ideal world, I’d recommend that everyone eat fresh foods grown locally using sustainable agricultural practices and few or no pesticides, added hormones, etc.

But guess what? That’s not always realistic.

Instead, let’s provide information – factual, evidence-based information – and let people make their own decisions without trying to guilt them into agreeing with us. Every family will have a different budget, different priorities, and different preferences.

Let’s respect that without threatening cancer as a consequence of making the wrong choice.


* Note about the Scientific American article: We’re NOT GETTING into the GMO debate here. In general, though, I think the first section highlights some very important points. Large-scale organic is not necessarily preferable to small-scale conventional, in my opinion. Believe me, that mass-produced organic celery from the Giant that only costs $0.50 more than the non-organic version has been sprayed with something.

About Camille Freeman, LDN, RH (she/her)

Hi there! I'm a clinical herbalist and licensed nutritionist specializing in fertility and menstrual health. I run the Monday Mentoring community of practice and also offer continuing education programs for highly-trained herbalists and nutritionists (Check out this year's Deep Dive!). I'm also a professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, where I teach physiology, pathophysiology, and mindful eating.

~ More to Explore ~

Sign up for weekly Practitioner Notes from Camille.

Tips, resources, & encouragement for herbalists & nutritionists, delivered to your inbox most Thursdays.