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Organic Odyssey 

The lowdown on organic produce, why you may want to buy it and where to find it in Tucson

Food trends come and go, but organic appears to be here to stay. According to the Food Marketing Institute, organic produce, dairy products and meats are the fastest-growing segment of the retail grocery industry.

Here are some questions--and their answers--you may have about organic produce.

What is organic?

Sue Carolan, front manager of Food Conspiracy, Tucson's only food co-op, says that organic is getting more difficult to define, but when applied to produce, it means the soil has been farmed without chemicals or pesticides for at least three years. The Organic Trade Association (OTA) further states that organic agriculture is a production-management system promoting and enhancing soil biodiversity and is based on practices to restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.

What are the benefits of eating organic?

Kathryn Hawkes, owner of MattsOrganics.com, a local organic produce home-delivery service, feels the benefits of eating organically far outweigh the alternative. "When you make a conscious choice to eat organically," says Hawkes, "you have a heightened sense of awareness about environmental issues, water quality and cancer-causing chemicals. We don't want better living through chemicals. The average child receives four times more exposure than an adult to at least eight widely used cancer-causing pesticides in food. Eating organically can influence your child's future health."

Other benefits include supporting local small farmers who do not benefit from government subsidies and reducing pesticide exposure to farm workers.

What produce is most contaminated?

According to the watchdog Environmental Working Group's Food News, the most contaminated fruits are peaches, strawberries, apples and nectarines, followed by pears, cherries, red raspberries and imported grapes. For vegetables, spinach, celery, potatoes and bell peppers have the most pesticides.

Produce with the least pesticides are sweet corn, avocado, cauliflower, asparagus, onions, peas, broccoli, mangoes, pineapple, kiwi, papayas and bananas. Washing fresh produce may help reduce pesticide residues, but it does not eliminate them.

Why does organic food cost more?

Organic is more labor-intensive. Conventional farming uses sewage sludge and chemical fertilizers which are both cheap to buy and transport. Organic farmers fertilize their land with compost and green manure, which are bulkier and expensive to ship. With limits on pesticides, there's more hand weeding. Manish Shaw, coordinator for three local farmers' markets, says that small farmers cannot afford the labeling expenses costing thousands of dollars. "No local farmers are getting rich from organic produce," says Shaw, "especially when they're competing with the bounty of produce coming from nearby Nogales--one of the country's largest produce portals."

What's the integrity of organic?

This upscale niche market is growing so fast that big corporations like Wal-Mart, Dole and Kraft Foods want a piece of the pie. Philippe Waterinckx, coordinator for Tucson's Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), says that he fears the organic standard will be compromised as they lobby for simpler solutions in the production and definition of organics. Oddly enough, the OTA moved to allow synthetic substances

in organic foods if no organic substitute was commercially available. Behind closed doors, without a single debate and despite an outpouring of more than 325,000 consumer letters and e-mails, the Organic Foods Production Act was amended in November 2005. How it will be implemented and who will make those decisions has yet to be determined, but it's a blow to farmers and advocates.

Where to buy organic?

Food Conspiracy is a community-owned, nonprofit natural foods market open to the public selling all organic produce and other products free of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Membership costs $120 and can be paid incrementally. Members may vote at monthly meetings and hold board positions; they also receive a 5 percent discount and may volunteer, although volunteering is not required. Unused produce is donated to Food Not Bombs. Food Conspiracy is located at 412 N. Fourth Ave., 624-4821; open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; www.foodconspiracy.org.

Matt's Organics makes weekly or bi-weekly organic produce deliveries. When setting up an account, customers choose up to five items that they like and dislike, and Hawkes tries to accommodate them with an assortment of 10 to 12 types of seasonal fruits and vegetables, starting at $33 a box. Also included is a recipe for one or more of the deliverables, plus storage tips. Depending on where you live between Oro Valley and Vail, deliveries occur Tuesdays through Thursdays. "One advantage that I have is the produce is either just picked from Willcox or arrives the next day from California," says Hawkes; www.mattsorganics.com, 790-4360.

At the 2-year-old nonprofit Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), members pick up produce every Tuesday at a central distribution point. CSA gets its produce from Crooked Sky Farms, a family of farms across Arizona that is informally organic (which means they don't use any pesticides or chemicals but cannot afford the labeling certification). CSA members are invited to the farms to develop a face-to-face relationship as a substitute for the certification. You can join by the season or be prorated in. Spring starts the beginning of March and runs through May 30 for $221; www.tucsoncsa.org; 203-6500.

Farmers' markets are held Sundays at St. Philip's Plaza, Saturdays at the Oro Valley town and Thursdays in Tubac's historic plaza. Products that come to these markets are 60 to 70 percent certified organic or organically grown, with the remainder grown on small local farms using conventional methods. St. Philip's Plaza has 36 food-related vendors selling free-range beef and eggs, along with freshly roasted coffee, teas and jams. (For more, see the Weekly's Bulletin Board listings.)

Organic produce may also be found at Aqua Vita (2801 N. Country Club Road, 293-7770), the 17th Street Market (840 E. 17th St., 792-2588) and the Toole Avenue Market (350 S. Toole Ave., 622-3911). You may also want to consider joining Tucson Organic Gardeners to learn how to do your own organic gardening. It costs only $10 a year; check out iwhome.com/nonprofits/TOG for more information.

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