EarthTalk: Questions and Answers About Our Environment

Winter 2021

Dear EarthTalk: My New Year’s resolution is to eat healthier. Which fruits and vegetables are worth spending extra money on for organic varieties? Likewise, is it worth it from the standpoint of health to also pay a premium for organic meat, cheese and eggs?                     ~ P. McAdams, via email

It is indeed difficult to figure out which foods are worth spending more money on for organic varieties. Sure, you can just buy only organic in every category, but you’d end up spending upwards of 20 percent more every time you shopped. And certain “conventional” (i.e., non-organic) foods contain lots of pesticides and chemicals while others do not. Knowing where to draw the line in the grocery aisle is increasingly difficult given the profusion of organic choices these days. But luckily if you are armed with a few facts, you can eat healthier without breaking the bank.

Tomatoes are one of the produce aisle items on Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list of fruits and vegetables that are worth spending extra on for organic varieties to spare yourself exposure to pesticide residues. Credit: Rusty Clark~100K Photos, FlickrCC.

As for produce, many conventionally grown fruits and vegetables don’t contain or pass along significant amounts of pesticides or other noxious chemicals. The non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) suggests only buying organic for their so-called “dirty dozen” list of common produce items that do tend to harbor larger amounts of chemicals: strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, peaches, pears, cherries, grapes, celery, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers and potatoes. Going for organic varieties of these fruits and vegetables is one of the most affordable ways to eat healthier because the price premium on organic produce is in many cases negligible given more consumer demand driving increased production and supply. On the flip side, EWG also produces the “Green Fifteen” list of produce that tends to be contaminant-free even when not organic: avocado, pineapple, onion, papaya, frozen sweet peas, sweet corn, eggplant, asparagus, cauliflower, cantaloupe, broccoli, mushrooms, cabbage, kiwi and honeydew melon.

As for animal products, organic varieties can only bear the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) “Organic” stamp if they are “raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100% organic feed and forage, and not administered antibiotics or hormones.” As to whether organic meat is better for your health, don’t bet on it. A 2015 Spanish study found that consumption of organic meat does not diminish—and in fact might slightly increase—the risk of getting cancer. That said, other research has shown that organic meat contains more healthy Omega-3 unsaturated fats—this results from the animals eating grass not grain. Another good reason to go organic if you eat meat is ethics: Conventionally raised livestock are subject to confinement and overcrowding while being dosed with antibiotics to prevent the spread of bacterial infection in their midst. The same calculus applies to organic versus conventional dairy products: organic milk and cheese may contain more Omega-3s but otherwise the health differences are negligible.

It certainly is a balancing act today to shop with your family’s health and your own conscience in mind while not breaking the bank. The bright side of this conundrum is that we do have so many healthier choices overall these days, and it’s easier than any time in the last 75 years to avoid chemicals in your food if that’s the way you want to roll.

CONTACTS: Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen,”; “Consumption of organic meat does not diminish the carcinogenic potential associated with the intake of persistent organic pollutants (POPs),”


Dear EarthTalk: Do wild animals have any rights under the law in the U.S. (or other countries) the way human citizens do?                           ~ John Hamilton, Raleigh, NC

Winnie the Pooh said it best: “Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.” While attention to animal rights has increased over the past few decades, animals are still largely underrepresented and unprotected under the law. Most laws that protect animals do not recognize their “sentience”—the capacity to feel and perceive, and show awareness—but rather protect them as property.

If a living thing can hear, see, touch, smell, or communicate, it is considered to be sentient. But whether that applies to all animals depends on who you ask. Aside from our pets, animals are almost exclusively considered not to be sentient in the court system or under U.S. law. In a court, an inanimate company or corporation has rights and privileges (“corporate personhood”), but a living, breathing creature does not.

In the eyes of the law, animals are treated as property. Domestic animals belong to their owners, animals in labs and agricultural industries belong to the company or institution that owns them. Wild animals belong to the state or federal institution which presides over the land they live on. When animals are harmed, it is considered ‘property damage.’ The real dilemmas in the courts arise when those with ownership over these animals are the ones hurting or abusing them. That is usually when “animal rights” are called into play.

Progress for animal rights under the law has been slow moving. In the U.S., the movement for animal rights began in 1866 when Henry Bergh founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). The New York State legislature authorized the organization to investigate cases of animal cruelty in the state and make arrests. By 1888, almost every state had joined New York and passed laws against animal cruelty.

The first federal animal rights laws in the U.S. were the “28 Hour Law” of 1873, the Lacey Act of 1900, and the Animal Welfare Act of 1966. The first two regulated animal transport and banned illegal wildlife trafficking. The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) was created to regulate the research, transport, exhibition and dealing of animals in the U.S., but farm animals in agricultural laboratories are excluded from protections under the AWA. The AWA is still considered the minimum standard for acceptability today.

Another federal law for animal rights was the Humane Slaughter Act first passed in 1958 and then amended in 1978. While chickens, turkeys and other birds feel pain as any other animal, they are excluded from protections from this law. The most recent federal law that has passed has been the PACT (Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture) Act of 2019 which makes crushing, burning, suffocating, impaling and sexually exploiting animals a federal crime.

Globally, animal protection and rights laws vary widely. European countries along with Australia and New Zealand have the strongest animal rights laws because they formally recognize non-human animal sentience. Countries with no official recognition of animal sentience or suffering are ranked lowest for their animal rights, such as Russia and a number of East African countries.

CONTACTS: Laws That Protect Animals,;
Current Animal Welfare Laws, advocacy/current-animal-welfare-laws.

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