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Students Call for Organic Food on College Campuses

How many times have you seen a recipe for a cake that called for two cups of high-fructose corn syrup? Or been sitting at the dinner table with your parents and asked your father to pass the sodium-lactate?

Who has ever had a craving for Yellow #40 or partially hydrogenated soybean oil?

The obvious answer to these rather stupid questions is at least a partial explanation for the rise in popularity of organic foods. Organic foods are no longer for the health-crazed lunatics; they are now sought out by an ever-increasing margin of the general public, including college dormitories. Domestic sales alone have grown fantastically from $1 billion in 1990 to $12.2 billion in 2004.

In the United States, the list of ingredients on most mass-produced foods reads like the inventory of a chemical lab, crowded with incomprehensible 11-letter words with a disproportionate amount of x's and y's. And while I am far from being a health nut, I would at least like to eat something that I can pronounce. What, for example, is disodium inosinate, and why is it in my soy sauce?

There is a group on campus, the Food Systems Working Group, whose members have asked themselves that same question, and are now trying to do something about it. They have created a UC Sustainable Foods campaign and are pushing to have organic food brought to the UCLA campus and the dining halls, a concept not without precedent. At UC Santa Cruz, 10 percent of the produce in the dining halls is organic, and UC Berkeley has a new certified-organic salad bar which has proved extremely popular.

That I am trying to control how much potassium benzoate I consume is the least of the arguments as to why more organic food is a good idea. Personally, I think that just having organic produce is not enough and that all the food should be organic, but four years at UCLA has conditioned me to expect progress at a glacial pace.

To say that I much prefer organic food does not mean I live on brussel sprouts and lean-cut turkey breast. There are organic vegetables; there are also organic cupcakes and organic cheeseburgers. The difference is that with organic products, you are eating food, and with the other, you are eating food, pesticides, insecticides, hormones and laboratory chemicals.

Outside of those who still dismiss the whole concept of organic foods as some quack fraud, the only reason they cite for not going organic is the cost. Organic foods often cost more because of their labor-intensive farming methods.

But paying farmers a higher wage to go through their field and hand-weed as opposed to spraying herbicides is not out of line.

Nutritionist Dr. Joseph Mercola explains in an article on organic food that traditional farmers use insecticides to get rid of insects and disease, and control weed growth by applying synthetic herbicides. Organic farmers, on the other hand, use slower, natural ways of dealing with the same problems, such as crop rotation or introducing natural insect predators.

Mercola goes on to report that "the (Environmental Protection Agency) considers 60 percent of herbicides, 90 percent of fungicides and 30 percent of insecticides to be carcinogenic," and that these chemicals can cause neurotoxicities, disrupt the endocrine system, suppress the immune system, and disrupt reproductive functions, being linked to miscarriages.

The literature available is abundant from nutritionists and concerned government agencies like the EPA and FDA. No one wants to eat a chemical that is designed to kill plants and insects. Unfortunately, the health risks are long-term and cumulative, and therefore easy to ignore. But I've decided that for me, there is no better time than the present to start avoiding poison.

Organic food is important because it is healthier, and doubly important for the dorms because for those students with meal plans, this is all they have.

Hot plates are outlawed in the dorms. I once got in trouble for having a coffee maker. The student handbook specifically says that no cooking other than use of a microfridge unit is allowed.

If heat is a fire hazard and students are literally not permitted to cook for themselves, then they should not be forced to eat food sprayed with chitin synthesis inhibitors or injected with bovine growth hormone.

Buying groceries with a meal plan is a redundant money pit. With the money we pay this school, I can't help but feel that healthy food should be the norm and trash should be the option. There certainly must be a way to have a meal plan and eat well at the same time.

E-mail O'Bryan at jobryan@media.ucla.edu. Send general comments to viewpoint@media.ucla.edu.