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CBS47 Special Report: Organic Food

Organic foods are sold as a healthier and better option, but are they really?
Organic foods are in just about every grocery store these days. Demand for them is up and many are grown here in the Central Valley.

How do you know if organic foods are truly organic? Are they healthier than non-organic foods? And are they worth the price compared to the conventional choices?

CBS47's Steve McCarron looks at the differences between organic and conventional foods and which one may be the right choice for your family.

Steve visited Peterson Family Farms, seven acres of nectarines off Highway 99 near Kingsburg. You can hear the crickets in the field surrounded by colorful wildflowers in bloom.

Ten years ago, Vernon Peterson converted his long-time family farm from conventional to organic, a move he calls a huge professional challenge. “These flowers aren't just flowers. They're home to beneficial insects. As organic farmers, we've got to be proactive in everything that we do,” said Peterson.

Peterson says about 85% of what he eats is organic.

According to the Organic Trade Association, organic food and beverage sales skyrocketed from one billion dollars back in 1990 to nearly 27 billion two years ago.

The demand is driven by consumers like Daniela Marsh of Fresno, a self-proclaimed vegan, who says she just feels healthier after eating organically grown fruits and vegetables. “Just trying to find the healthiest way to live without all the chemicals and toxins that are surrounded everywhere,” said Marsh.

That mentality has fueled years of research about whether organically grown foods are actually better for you. The results are mixed. Some studies show organically grown fruits and vegetables have a higher nutritional value than conventionally grown produce while others have found no differences at all.

Out near Parlier, about 175 organic varieties, mostly stone fruit, are grown on Ted and Fran Loewen's family farm. After being picked, their crops are sorted and put into boxes and shipped off to farmers markets, restaurants, and stores. Many of their customers are in the Bay Area. “The approach that we have taken is not that conventional is somehow poisonous or something like that, it's not. I mean… but there are issues that are there that we would prefer not to be apart of. We prefer to be more cautious,” said Ted Loewen.

Marilyn Dolan with the non-profit organization "Alliance for Food and Farming" understands the concerns some consumers have about pesticide residue on their fruits and vegetables. She points out the U.S. has strict food safety standards and every pesticide used must meet certain guidelines. A toxicologist even helped the group put together a cell phone app and website program called the "Pesticide Calculator." It shows you how many servings you could eat each day without any adverse effects. “The issue really is the amount of pesticide that is left on the product and it is so, so low, that it really virtually is not a problem, even if you ate 123 servings of celery,” said Dolan.

Advisors at Fresno State say they've seen an increase in the number of students signing up for the university's organic farming program. Dr. Sajeemas Pasakdee, known as Dr. Mint, said, “As an education institute, we want to provide hands-on experience to our students.”

With increasing consumer demand and more farmers choosing to grow a portion or all of their crops organically, the costs for organic food have started to come down.

Jim Belcher, who co-owns Kristina's Natural Ranch Market at First and Barstow in Fresno, says his business has more than doubled in the past two years. “I think when a store can buy locally; they can compete with the conventional prices. I know we do. I'm told our prices are a lot cheaper than Save Mart on some of, or a lot of this stuff,” said Belcher.

Organic foods may be a staple in Peterson's diet, but he's first to admit they're not for everyone. “The supply will grow with the demand and if the American consumer wanted 100% organic, it could all be organic within about 5 years from now,” said Peterson.

It comes down to personal choice.

Karen Ross with the California Department of Food & Agriculture said, “You, as the person who's doing the shopping for yourself and your family, is that it matches with your value system and the way that you want to feed your family.”

Click on the related links for more information about organic food and local growers of organic foods.
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