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Inner Peas: What does ‘organic’ really mean? A look into its social, environmental impact

(Michelle Fu/Daily Bruin)

By Kayleigh Ruller

April 23, 2019 12:52 p.m.

Late-night coffee sessions and a constantly looming sense of stress may seem synonymous with the college lifestyle – but it doesn’t have to be that way. In her series Inner Peas, Daily Bruin contributor Kayleigh Ruller will explore different ways students can easily practice various wellness tactics in their busy day-to-day lives.

“Organic” – it’s a buzzword we hear in conversations and commercials, but what does the label really entail?

Understanding what the environmental and social implications behind what organic really means can empower consumers like college students to make more informed decisions that can affect their health, environment and the production of goods.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an organic certification involves intense scrutiny and record-keeping of environmental conditions and prohibits genetic modification, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, artificial preservatives and colors. A certification also requires natural living conditions for animals treated without antibiotics or hormones.

Allison Carruth, a faculty member in the English department and the Institute for Society and Genetics, said the most prominent data surrounding the harmful effects of toxic chemicals used in food production are seen directly in farmworker communities.

“Intensive agriculture makes heavy use of pesticides and herbicides,” she said. “This pesticide exposure has multigenerational effects on metabolism and other long-range effects.”

One primary reason consumers should become cognizant of the origin of their food is that organic food can be a form of preventive health care, not just for themselves but also for the workers who cultivate and provide produce for consumers.

Many pesticides act as endocrine disruptors or chemicals that inhibit the function of the reproductive system and hormones. Ingredients that act as endocrine disruptors are in more food products than we think. The phytoestrogens in soy products may lead to infertility and breast cancers in mothers, while the dioxins in pesticides and meat may lead to immune system suppression, fertility halts, and skin disorders or conditions in farmworkers and consumers.

Luckily, workers’ activism and scientists’ research is influencing public health measures toward increasing awareness of the dangers of unsustainable, conventional produce production and increasing the accessibility of fresh food.

Carruth said our society often fails to acknowledge the importance of farmworker activism, especially Latino involvement in helping to advance regulations of pesticides and better working conditions.

During the 1960s leaders like Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and the United Farm Workers of America boycotted the production of grapes to promote fair wages and address the safety of farmworkers throughout the U.S. The leaders promoted the ban of pesticides like parathion, a highly toxic chemical that hospitalized many California farmworkers at the time.

Transitioning from conventional to organic farming practices can decrease the risk of illness by avoiding toxic accumulation. In practice, however, the transition can be daunting, expensive and traditionally unaffordable or inaccessible for low-income communities or college students.

First-year biology student Jennifer Cruz grew up in East LA, around an area that lacks access to organic food and wellness products others might deem an attainable norm.

“You go to the grocery store and mainly see aisles of chips, soda and candy, and a small aisle of fruits and vegetables,” Cruz said. “Our schools were next to liquor stores and food chains like Carl’s Jr. or McDonald’s. It’s these places that are actually in walking distance to our homes.”

Cruz’s hometown satisfies conditions for a food desert or a place that lacks immediate access to healthful, fresh fruits, vegetables and general knowledge about their importance.

The narrative of agriculture as inaccessible and unaffordable is common. Nevertheless, there are individuals and organizations, like the LA Food Policy Council, which widens the breadth of the presence of fresh food by initiating cross-sector working groups of government, education and community to launch equitable food systems and influence policy development around public access to healthy food.

Larger organizations and educational institutions that combat the pattern of food deserts play a critical role in breaking the barriers of food accessibility. This is why universities like UCLA must act as a model for increasing fresh, organic food accessibility for all students in dining halls and throughout campus.

Since its pledge to make 20% of food purchases sustainable by 2020, UCLA has made significant progress. UCLA boosted sustainability by incorporating humanely raised, cage-free eggs and locally grown seasonal produce, along with the switch to Fair Trade coffee.

“The purchasing changes made thanks to the Healthy Campus Initiative and the whole team of Dining Services has helped UCLA’s food system become really innovative,” Carruth said. “Bruin Plate is a prototype in what can be possible on all campuses.”

In addition to dining at Bruin Plate, eating locally and seasonally at farmer’s markets is another way students can save money, promote local businesses and economy, and foster a variety of nutritional benefits.

TheFarmer’s Market at UCLA is hosted three times a quarter in Bruin Plaza, bringing fresh and sustainable food to campus. In addition, theWestwood Village Farmers’ Market is held every Thursday, offering a variety of organic fruits, seasonal vegetables and other specialty items.

Although physically accessible on campus and in Westwood, the presence of farmers’ markets doesn’t solve the problem of financial accessibility given vendor prices that aren’t college-budget friendly. Reduced student pricing, that still maintains the autonomy and income of the farmers, should be considered, especially for the market on campus.

Eating locally doesn’t necessarily mean eating organically, or vice versa. While eating organically presents itself as a viable option for reducing synthetic pesticide use and providing benefits to soils, people, wildlife and plants, eating locally from a farmer’s market can provide its own benefits – possibly reducing greenhouse emissions with reduced transportation and supporting the local community and economy.

While healthy and sustainable eating can be difficult to navigate, there are helpful resources to guide consumers toward being health and environmentally conscious on a budget.

Students can start their transition to eating organically by avoiding the Dirty Dozen list, which is a list of produce much more susceptible to soaking up weed killers and pesticides, like grapes, kale and spinach. Carruth also said she suggests checking up on blogs like Civil Eats, which informs consumers about sustainable agriculture, food policy, and health conscious individual and societal changes.

Organic food shouldn’t be a privilege; it should be an accessible, affordable form so all consumers can reduce negative environmental and human health effects. Embracing food as both a tradition and expression of community with activities such as farmer’s markets can bridge the gap between urban communities and fresh food.

“My guiding principle is that food is profoundly both cultural and environmental,” Carruth said. “Having a single model for one diet or set of behaviors can discount the diversity of food culture.”

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