When Michelle Obama planted an organic garden at the White House this spring—and President Obama appointed organic-advocate Kathleen Merrigan as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture—organic farmers and food activists let out a collective cheer. What victories! And yet, listening to friends, coworkers, and the media over the ensuing months, it was clear to me that there is still a great deal of confusion—dare I say hesitancy?—over organics. Reports on food safety, disquieting environmental news, a rough economy—even the inspiring local-food movement sweeping the U.S.—make choices complicated.

If all of the noise leaves you a bit befuddled, you’re not alone. Every week as I navigate the aisles of the local natural foods store, I consider the effects on personal and environmental health—and the ethical implications—of the many foods my family and I love. Should I buy organic if it isn’t locally produced? Is it worth the extra cost? Seeking a clearer picture, I reached out to experts in the field. What did they think about some of the tough issues and prevailing skepticism surrounding organic? And does organic really live up to its promises? Here’s what I learned.

ORGANIC \OR-GA-NIK\

of, relating to, yielding, or involving the use of food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides. Source: By permission. From Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary2009 by Merriam-Webster, Inc. (merriam-webster.com).

The assumption: Organic is not budget-friendly. It’s “elitist.”

The reality:

While it will always be hard for most of us to justify dropping $16.99 on a jar of organic almond butter, shoppers have so many more choices than they did a decade ago, says Laura Batcha, director of marketing at the Organic Trade Association. “You can find a ‘value’ option without ever leaving organic,” says Batcha. For example, private-label products such as those in the Whole Foods 365 Organic or Safeway’s O Organics lines offer organic at a lower price than name brands. And many organic companies now offer deals through organic coupons. (Check out Delicious Living's coupon portal.) And if you’re truly strapped for cash, try honoring organic just for the “dirty dozen." See The New Dirty Dozen.

Beyond the price at the checkout stand, it’s shortsighted to ignore the hidden cost to the environment and your health that comes with conventional agriculture, says Jake Blehm, director of operations at the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit that studies organic farming techniques and the effects of organic farming in the U.S. and other countries. “When a pesticide is sprayed, it kills bugs, then it kills fish, it gets into drinking water, and it eventually affects our health,” he says. Most surface waters are now polluted and agriculture is the number one polluter, says Mark Van Horn, Director of Organic Farming at the University of California–Davis. “We’re losing a lot of pollinators [such as native bees, butterflies, moths, and beetles]. It’s possible that’s because of pesticides,” Van Horn says.

Those environmental and health costs aren’t reflected in the price of synthetic pesticides, Blehm explains, and therefore they aren’t reflected in the price of conventionally grown foods. Looked at this way, he says, organic food is actually cheaper. “When regular milk is $2.99 and organic is 35 cents more, you have to ask: What’s it worth to you, to your kids, to not be getting sublethal doses of pesticides?” says Blehm. See Pesticides and Your Health.

Still, in terms of availability and affordability (why some dub it “elitist”), organic does have growing to do. “We need to engage with urban gardeners and farmers and policy action groups to ensure that low-income neighborhoods are able to grow, buy, and sell organics,” says Bob Scowcroft, director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. “We need to work across cultures, in multiple languages, to understand each other’s needs.” This is starting to happen, he says. We’re beginning to see urban planners, food security activists, organizations devoted to hunger and obesity issues, and organic activists working together.

The assumption: “Sustainable,” “natural,” “organic” … it all means the same thing.

The reality:

Buzzwords like natural and sustainable tend to get lumped in with certifications, such as organic or cruelty-free. But natural and sustainable, as well as other terms like local, lack adequate definition and have little, if any, regulation to back them up. “USDA Organic is something you can trust because you can define it. The organic standards [set by the National Organic Program] are uniform,” says Batcha. As for local, “it can mean ‘made in the USA’ or it can mean it’s grown across the street. It’s totally subjective,” says Myra Goodman, co-founder of Earthbound Farm based in San Juan Bautista, California.

Perhaps because USDA Organic-certified products have gotten well into the mainstream in recent years (even Walmart has become a significant purveyor of organic goods), and because organic is big business (organic food and beverage sales reached $21.2 billion dollars last year, according to Nutrition Business Journal) some at the heart of the organic movement feel standards are too easily weakened by big business or that government regulations don’t go far enough to address current food-system woes, asking questions such as: Should relatively large-scale organic producers (the so-called “big box” operations) still be considered organic? What if cows aren’t let out to pasture or, worse, workers aren’t paid fairly? And can organic products imported from other countries be trusted?

“Organic deserves this kind of citizen inquiry, and we should feel good that there are whistle blowers out there,” says Scowcroft. “If someone is cutting corners, let’s shed light on that.” But he underscores that organic, unlike many others, is a regulated term. “You have a pretty clear idea of how that food was grown and what you’re eating.” See “A Brief History of Organic.”

The assumption: In terms of the environment, it’s more important to buy local than to buy organic.

The reality >>

Thanks to author Michael Pollan’s eye-opening Omnivore’s Dilemma and a host of other books about local eating, food miles are on everyone’s minds these days. And for good reason: On average, food travels 1,300 to 2,000 miles from farm to plate. But choosing local alone can’t solve our fossil-fuel and CO2 woes, say researchers. Only 11 percent of a food’s carbon footprint is tied to transport. The remainder is almost entirely associated with growing, processing, and packaging the food, which in the case of conventional agriculture includes copious amounts of fossil fuel-derived fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.

Organic farming takes those nonrenewable petroleum products out of the equation (instead it relies on cover crops and organic fertilizers to boost productivity, and nonpetroleum-based pest and weed management tools). But newly published research from the Rodale Institute points to an even bigger potential environmental benefit of organic farming: carbon sequestration.

Looking at nearly three decades of research, Jeff Moyer, farm director of the Rodale Institute and Chairman of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), and other scientists such as David Pimentel at Cornell have found that healthy, microbe-rich soil bolstered by organic farming methods has the ability to remove CO2 (the most prevalent greenhouse gas) from the air—and lots of it. “By increasing and replenishing biodiversity in the soil we can sequester carbon at a greater rate than we originally thought possible,” says Moyer. An acre of organic cropland can take approximately 7,000 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere each year. Multiply that by the 434 million acres of U.S. cropland and it becomes the equivalent of eliminating emissions from 217 million cars (nearly 88 percent of cars in the U.S. today).

How does dirt become a carbon-sequestering tool? By using cover crops, organic compost, and chemical-free pest and weed control practices, organic farming actively builds biodiversity in the soil. In fact, if you took the microscopic fungi living in a teaspoon of soil from organically managed farmland and placed them end-to-end, the resulting chain would stretch hundreds of yards, says Moyer, many times more than conventionally farmed soil, which has been bombarded with synthetic pesticides and highly concentrated nitrogen. The fungi and other living organisms abundant in organic soils naturally pull carbon from the air and store it in the soil where it is retained for decades. Scientists have found that, at worst, some Midwestern soils have gone from 20 percent carbon to between 1 and 2 percent carbon in the last 60 years alone.

The bottom line, carbon aside? “Just because a food is local doesn’t mean it wasn’t sprayed with chemicals,” says Scowcroft. “Those chemicals are local to somewhere,” he says. “There are thousands and thousands of chemicals not being used on organic farms.” (See Pesticides and Your Health for an update on some of the worst offenders.) “Chemical companies are very much in favor of the local movement because it takes the focus off of how the food is grown,” says Moyer. “We’d like people to support local farmers,” he says. “At the same time, we want those farms to be organic. Let’s have a voice in how those farms are being managed.”