In my family of origin, the environment is one of the most important voting issues around. We vote to protect the environment. We direct angry thoughts (and sometimes words) toward those who do not. We believe in Global Warming. My dad carries a small trash bag with him in his pocket when he takes walks so that he can collect any stray cans and bottles he may find, even though they are not worth a dime (or a nickel or penny, for that matter) in Idaho. He gives money to The Nature Conservancy. He considers four-wheelers a vehicle of pure evil and proudly reports anyone he sees riding one in a restricted area. We are not in favor of drilling for oil in Alaska. We are in favor of higher standards for fuel efficiency. We are happy that Dan's new employer uses biodegradable plastic products made from potatoes (and not only because my name is Potato Girl). We would love to buy a Prius.
But we humans are complex creatures, are we not? In addition to all of this love for the earth, my family also has a great love for being thrifty and finding a bargain. Take me for example. I whole-heartedly support the principles behind organic farming, and for many years I have wanted to buy organic food, but the bottom line always gets in the way. I hate "wasting" money on one thing if I could get something similar for less (apple v. more expensive apple that looks the same). It is hard to decide which is more important to me: being green, or being thrifty. When Dan was still in school I used to promise myself that as soon as he had a "real" job I'd start buying organic. Then he got his real job and I felt poorer than ever! I just haven't been able to bring myself to pay twice as much for organic as I pay for conventional.
Things changed for me in February when I read an article about non-toxic living in Cookie magazine ("Toxic Shock" by Alexandra Zissu), that included paragraphs on cleaning products, organic food, drinking water, building materials, plastics, and toys. I followed several of the links recommended in the article (try Environmental Working Group or National Resources Defense Council for starters) and did a lot more reading. I eventually found a column about eating organic on a budget. The author suggested starting with The Dirty Dozen, something I'd never heard of, and avoiding processed, packaged food. She pointed out that even buying the organic versions of some products is better than nothing, and as February draws to a close, I am about to finish my first month of organic grocery shopping.
So, have you heard of The Dirty Dozen? In the world of organic produce, this refers to the 12 fruits and vegetables that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has found to be the most contaminated by pesticide residue, even after washing (and in some cases, even after peeling). Many people recommend that if you can only afford to switch some of your foodstuffs to organic, you start with these items, listed with the worst first and the "badness" rating out of 100 in parentheses: peaches (100), apples (96), bell peppers (86), celery (85), nectarines (84), strawberries (83), cherries (75), lettuce (69), imported grapes (68), pears (65), spinach (60), potatoes (58).
I'm not ready to go from 100% conventional to 100% organic, but focusing on The Dirty Dozen has helped me to find a starting place. I've also added milk, eggs, chicken and beef to my list of organics, although I'd like to switch over from organic to grass-fed beef soon (more on that another time). The 12 fruits and vegetables that contain the lowest levels of pesticide residue will probably be the last things to go for me, listed here with the best first: onions (1), avocados (1), frozen sweet corn (2), pineapple (7), mango (9), frozen sweet peas (11), asparagus (11), kiwi (14), bananas (16), cabbage (17), broccoli (18), eggplant (19).
The environmental working group is the source of these rankings. You can see their full list of 44 fruits and vegetables here, ranked in descending order from worst to best.
Another thing to consider when you're buying produce is where it was grown and how far it has traveled to get to you. Produce grown outside of the United States (sort of like recalled toys) may have been treated with far more poisonous pesticides than those allowed in this country, so in general it is a good idea to stick with domestic fruits and vegetables. I still haven't figured out if that applies to organic produce grown abroad. If something grown in China says it is organic, can I really trust that? It seems a bit naive to trust the Chinese government these days, but that is another story too. In Michigan in the winter, locally grown produce includes things such as ice and snow and not much else, but as we get closer to summer (Summer. Is that really a seaon? I'm beginning to wonder...) there will be more and more options.
The other small change I've made this month to help the earth is this: I've purchased a three-pack of gi-normous reusable shopping bags from Costco and now take those to all of the grocery stores with me in lieu of plastic or paper. If I forget and leave the reusable bags in the car, I just tell the cashier that I don't need a bag, take my groceries in the cart out to my car, and put them in the bags there.
Well, I hope I haven't made any of you four-wheeler enthusiasts out there unduly upset. I sometimes imagine my dad meeting his demise at the hands of an ATV operator when they realize he's reporting them to the BLM. If you are of the camp that does not believe in Global Warming, you are welcome to take this post and crumple it up in your hands and throw it in the wastebasket. But if you've been thinking you might like to do something to help the earth, more power to you. Remember, a small step is a hundred times better than no step at all.