Organic Food Going Mainstream as Demand Increases

By Cindy Hadish, Reporter

Organically grown tomatoes at the Hy Vee Food Store on Waterfront Dr. in Iowa City.

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By Adam Carros

Rippled kale and bright carrots, boxes of beets and Cipollini onions caught the attention of Robert Caskey and Randa Cherry at a Cedar Rapids Downtown Farmers Market, but the real selling point was how the vegetables were grown: organically.

“I want to eat good food that’s good for me,” said Cherry, 52, a licensed massage therapist. “GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are everywhere. You have to eat organic to stay away from that.”

Caskey, 55, sales director at OmniLingua in Cedar Rapids, added that the two prefer to buy local.

“I like to know where my food is coming from,” he said.

The Cedar Rapids couple is among a groundswell of Americans drawn to food grown without synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals or methods that some believe fuel the health scourges plaguing this country.

And they’re literally putting their money where their mouth is.

According to the Organic Consumers Association, organics have surged in popularity to become a $30 billion dollar industry in the United States, growing 10 to 20 percent annually.

The group and other advocates contend that conventionally produced foods contain pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones, genetically modified organisms, chemical additives and more that contribute to skyrocketing rates of obesity, cancer, heart disease, allergies and other illnesses, along with environmental issues that accompany conventional farming.

Not everyone agrees.

Kelly Clauss, spokeswoman for agricultural giant Monsanto, said the St. Louis-based company’s genetically modified corn and other biotech crops have been thoroughly tested and reviewed by regulatory agencies that ensure the safety of food and feed products.

The company notes on its website that no links have been shown between the increase in allergies and the introduction of genetically modified crops in the 1990s.

According to Monsanto, cancer studies or other tests are unnecessary.

“There is no need to test the safety of DNA introduced into GM crops,” the site notes. “DNA (and resulting RNA) is present in almost all foods — the only exceptions being highly refined materials like oil or sugar from which all cell material has been removed. Thus, DNA is non-toxic and the presence of DNA, in and of itself, presents no hazard.”

Millions of acres are planted with Monsanto’s genetically modified seed worldwide, including in Iowa.

Heather Lilienthal, spokeswoman for the Iowa Farm Bureau, said the group advocates choice.

“We support all farmers and all forms of production,” she said. “Organics and conventional foods are both safe.”

Linda Snetselaar, professor in the University of Iowa College of Public Health, said organic food is not necessarily healthier than conventionally grown foods.

“When you’re just thinking about nutritional quality, that doesn’t change by being organic,” she said.

Snetselaar said studies have shown, however, that locally grown foods eaten within a short time of harvest have greater nutritional value than those shipped for days from long distances.

Consumers choosing organic are generally focused on other reasons, such as wanting pesticide-free foods, she said.

The President’s Cancer Panel has advised Americans to decrease exposure to environmental chemicals that can increase risks of cancer, in part by eating foods grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics or growth hormones.

Joe Ward of Marion, treasurer of the Iowa Organic Association, said the group’s table was swamped with people looking for information at last month’s Iowa State Fair in Des Moines.

He pointed to the growth in farmers markets — 7,175 operate nationwide, up more than 1,000 over 2010 — and the new Cedar Rapids-based Iowa Valley Food Co-op, where customers can order local foods online, as others signs of interest.

“The demand is increasing,” said Ruth Comer, spokeswoman for Hy-Vee, Iowa’s largest supermarket chain. “People are much more attuned to where their produce comes from and how it gets here and how it’s produced. We have more people asking for it.”

Comer said another sign is in the growing number of stores with Hy-Vee Health Markets — sections devoted to organic products and those with natural ingredients — as well as their size.

“They’re getting bigger because more products are available and there is more demand from customers,” she said.

Scott Koepke, grocery manager at New Pioneer Food Co-op, said sales at both the Iowa City and Coralville locations continue to grow, even in the stagnant economy.

The stores feature foods free of trans fats and artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors and preservatives, and actively seek certified organically and locally grown foods.

“Demand for organic product, and sales of those products, have never done anything but increase, year after year,” Koepke said.

Acres of certified organic crops have also increased in Iowa.

According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that number increased from 69,624 acres with 454 farms in 2006, to 108,072 acres and 677 operations in 2008.

While rising, those acres are just a tiny fraction of the 30 million acres farmed in Iowa.

Fred Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames, said farmers may be hesitant to go organic because of the financial challenges.

Among those is the higher price charged for organic foods, reflecting the labor-intensive needs of growers who can’t use herbicides against weeds and must cope with insects primarily by rotating diverse crops.

Government subsidies are attached to the commodity, so farmers growing organic corn or soybeans, for example, are eligible for financial subsidies just as conventional farmers are.

Kirschenmann said, however, if an organic farmer chooses to grow vegetables, for which subsidies do not exist, they lose all subsidies for corn and soybeans, to even the playing field with vegetable-only farms.

Added costs for organic farms also include fees for application, annual inspections and certification/user fees.

Andrew and Melissa Dunham, both 32, spent three years transitioning their 80-acre Grinnell Heritage Farm to organic and keep meticulous documentation of seed purchases and other reports as required.

Their Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, has 200 members who receive weekly boxes of the 40-some crops grown on the farm in-season. Produce is also sold at farmers markets in Iowa City, Des Moines, Grinnell and Cedar Rapids, where Caskey and Cherry bought their vegetables.

Daughter, Emma, 2, munched on a bright orange carrot as she followed her parents around the farm.

“That’s one of the main reasons we do this,” Andrew Dunham said. “She can come out here and eat a pepper and I don’t have to worry that it’s dusted in Sevin.”

See the following websites for more information:

Iowa Organic Association: www.iowaorganic.org

Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture: www.leopold.iastate.edu

Organic Consumers Association: www.organicconsumers.org

Monsanto: www.monsanto.com

Grinnell Heritage Farm: www.grinnellheritagefarm.com

Iowa Valley Food Co-op: www.iowavalleyfood.com

Iowa Farm Bureau: www.iowafarmbureau.com

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