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Does "organic" really mean what you think it does?

I'm sure we have all done similar experiments when we were kids. You put a potato in a glass of water and wait for it to sprout. The experiment is a great way to show how potatoes are grown as they don't grow from seeds. A glass container is usually used with toothpicks to support the potato at the mouth of the container so it is only partially submerged. This way the student can see the emerging root structure as well as the vines that sprout at the top.

This child's first potato failed to sprout either leaves or roots after a month in the water. She repeated the process with a second potato and had the same results. Undeterred, she asked the produce manager at the grocery store what was wrong with her potatoes. The manger told the child that potatoes often have a product called “Bud Nip” applied to them to prevent sprouting, and she should consider an organic potato for her experiment.

She chose an organic potato from the grocery store and had some success with it sprouting but was still not completely happy with the results. She went to a local farmer's market and chose an organic potato from their selection and had resounding success in the growing of this final potato.

Her conclusion? Choose organic if you don't want to eat creepy chemicals. I'd have to agree with her. I'm also concerned about the failure of the first organic potato to grow as heartily as the first. Are there varying degrees of “organic” or was it simply a matter of potato type? Maybe I'll see if any of my kids are willing to experiment with a few different organic potatoes to see what the results are.

What is Bud Nip
Commercial names for the chemical chlorpropham are “Bud Nip” and “Taterpex”. According to Wikipedia it is a chemical used to regulate growth and as a sprout suppressant for a variety of grass weeds, alfalfa, certain beans, carrots, berries, garlic, onions, spinach, tomatoes, and more. The purpose of using it on potatoes is to prolong their life after harvesting as once they begin to sprout “eyes”, their quality declines quickly. The chemical is approved by the USDA and the EPA for use on human food, although recommendations have been made to revoke it's usage on soybeans.

A 1996 EPA Fact Sheet stated that one component of the chemical is “structurally similar” to a known carcinogen, but the low doses received via the food supply aren't enough to warrant it potent enough to harm humans – although the chemical itself has not been studied individually; the results are based on the similar metabolite, not the one that is actually found in chlorpropham. Yum.

Furthermore, some of the lab animals that the chemical was tested on had babies that suffered birth defects when given high amounts of the chemical, along with changes in thyroid function, “increased incident of rudimentary 14th rib” (um, what?!), increased post-implantation embryo loss (miscarriage), among other problems. The EPA also has some pretty strict guidelines for protective gear that handlers of the chemical and handlers of large volumes of stored potatoes must wear.

My Takeaway

Personally, I'm creeped out. I try not to get all Eco-Outraged by this stuff because we all know it's out there and we all know we're eating this stuff. It's just a matter of being able filter through the sensationalism and make good choices for your family. This experiment did not convince me to buy more organic products, instead it only made my suspicion greater that organic products are a sham most of the time – the first organic potato barely grew and other experimenters on the web had organic potatoes that would not grow at all!

I think I'll make planting that vegetable garden a priority this spring. What are your thoughts?

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