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Making Sense of Organic Choices

by Alexandra Zega

Some consumers are more than willing to pay higher prices for organically grown food. But are organic strawberries worth the extra dollar?

The health benefits of organic food are one of the most intensely debated issues in the food industry. By definition, organically grown foods are produced without most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge. Livestock aren’t given antibiotics and growth hormones. And organic farmers emphasize renewable resources and conservation of soil and water.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the National Organic Program, says organic is a “production philosophy” and an organic label does not imply that a product is superior. Moreover, some say there’s no need to eat organic to be healthy: Simply choose less processed food and more fruits and vegetables.

The crux of the argument often comes down to the nutritional benefits of organic foods, something that’s hard to measure. To compare the nutrient density between organically and conventionally grown grapes, for example, researchers would have to have matched pairs of fields, including using the same soil, the same irrigation system, the same level of nitrogen fertilizer and the same stage of ripeness at harvest, said Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at The Organic Center, a pro-organics research institution.

Last summer, the debate came to a head after the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a comprehensive systemic review that concluded organic and conventional food had comparable nutrient levels.

The outraged organic community criticized the study for not addressing pesticide residues, a major reason people choose organic. The study also did not address the impact of farming practices on the environment and personal health.

Maria Rodale, a third-generation advocate for organic farming, urges consumers to look beyond nutrition to the chemicals going into our soil, our food and our bodies. “What we do to our environment, we are also doing to ourselves,” said Rodale, chairwoman and CEO of Rodale Inc., which publishes health and wellness content.

Some experts also suggest consumers focus on the producers rather than the product itself. For example, Vicki Westerhoff, owner of Genesis Growers in St. Anne, Ill., uses organic procedures but calls her food “natural” and “chemical-free” because she hasn’t gone through the expensive certification process.

Here’s a closer look at some of the factors that may influence your decision whether to buy organic products.

Fruits and vegetables
Farmers using conventional practices treat crops with pesticides that protect them from mold, insects and disease but can leave residues. Organic fruits and vegetables have fewer pesticide residues and lower nitrate levels than do conventional fruits and vegetables, according to a 1996 scientific summary report by the Institute of Food Technologists.

The bottom line: Experts say pesticide residues pose only a small health risk. But fetuses and children are more vulnerable to the effects of the synthetic chemicals, which are toxic to the brain and nervous system, said Dr. Philip Landrigan, director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. The Environmental Working Group recommends buying organically grown peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, kale, lettuce, imported grapes and pears because they are the most heavily sprayed. Onions, avocado, sweet corn and pineapple have some of the lowest levels of pesticides.

As for nutrition, one French study found that, in some cases, organic plant products have more minerals such as iron and magnesium and more antioxidant polyphenols. But although mounting evidence suggests that soil rich in organic matter produces more nutritious food, “we are never going to be able to say organic is always more nutrient dense; that’s going beyond the science,” said Benbrook of The Organic Center.

Dairy and meat
Organic dairy and meat products come from animals not treated with antibiotics or genetically engineered bovine growth hormones, which are used to stop the spread of disease and to boost milk production. Past rules on “access to pasture” were vague and didn’t require that the animals actually venture into it. But a new regulation requires that animals graze for a minimum of 120 days. In addition, 30% of their dietary needs must come from the pasture.

The bottom line: The dairy cow’s diet is key. Organic milk has more vitamins, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid because the cows eat high levels of fresh grass, clover pasture and grass clover silage.

As with dairy, organic meat has higher levels of omega-3’s because of the higher forage content in their diet. It also has lower fat overall than animals fed a high-corn diet, said Benbrook. Eating organic dairy or meat also can help with another issue: The use of antibiotics on farms has contributed to an increase in antibiotic-resistant genes in bacteria.

“Pushing animals to grow really fast has a cascade of effects on the environment and the health of the animal,” said Benbrook. “We need to back off the accelerator and focus on the health of the plant, the health of the animal, as well as the nutrient composition of the food.”

Cosmetics, personal care
Chemicals in personal care products have been linked to both environmental pollution and human health concerns. Of particular concern are phthalates, which have been linked to endocrine disruption. Environmental concerns also are rising about the tiny nanoparticles now being added to cosmetics, sunscreens and other products. Notably, organic personal care products can be labeled “organic” but still contain synthetic ingredients.

The bottom line: Of the 3,000 chemicals used in high volume in personal care products, only half have been put through basic toxicity testing, according to Landrigan.

You may be paying more for “organic” products that aren’t actually organic; the USDA regulates organic personal care products only if they’re made of agricultural ingredients. Look for the USDA logo rather than the word “organic” on the label.

Processed foods
Many processed foods—pasta, candy, cookies, crackers, baby food—now come in organic versions. Products made from at least 95% organic ingredients can carry the “USDA Organic” seal if the remaining ingredients are approved for use in organic products. Products with at least 70% organic ingredients may label those on the ingredient list.

The bottom line: Processed organic food hasn’t been shown to be any more nutritious than processed conventional food. In conventionally processed products such as baby food, pesticides aren’t commonly detected because the processing steps “are quite effective in breaking down trace residues of pesticides,” said food toxicologist Carl Winter, director of the FoodSafe Program at the University of California at Davis and co-author of the Institute of Food Technologists scientific summary.

“Pesticides are rarely used on crops grown for baby foods since the ultimate appearance of the crop is less important due to the processing before the product is ultimately sold,” Winter said.

Some consumers may decide to choose organic because those products are not supposed to contain genetically modified organisms.

Cotton, coffee
Cotton and coffee are two of the most pesticide-intensive crops in the world. Pesticide residues have been detected in the cottonseed hull, a secondary crop sold as a food commodity. It’s estimated that as much as 65% of cotton production ends up in our food chain, whether directly through food or indirectly through the milk or meat of animals, according to a report by the Environmental Justice Foundation. Conventional coffee production also has contributed to the deforestation of the world’s rainforests.

The bottom line: Pesticide residues are generally removed during the processing but the chemicals can have a huge impact on the local land, biodiversity and the health of the workers involved. Though buying organic can help preserve environmental health and support farmers who use ecological methods, “it’s more important to focus on the circumstances of growers and farms versus the product itself,” said food writer Corby Kummer, the author of The Joy of Coffee.

 (c) 2010, Julie Deardorff Chicago Tribune.


Get the Most Out of Tough Times at Tax Time

by Alexandra Zega
 For thousands of people, 2009 was a pretty rough year. But now that it’s tax time, there may be some breaks available for those who lost a job, looked for one, were overwhelmed by debt or had to take a pay cut.

Some of these are one-time-only offerings. Others may apply only because your situation got so much worse, but that shouldn’t stop you from pursuing them. Here’s what to consider.

-Did you collect jobless benefits during 2009?

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 offered a bit of a tax break to jobless people for last year only. On 2009 returns, taxpayers can exclude up to $2,400 of unemployment compensation from taxable income.

Normally, all money received through unemployment compensation would be taxable, said Luis D. Garcia, a spokesman for the IRS in Detroit. Look for a Form 1099-G, Certain Government Payments, to show the total unemployment compensation paid to you in 2009.

If both a husband and a wife received unemployment compensation during 2009, each would be able to exclude up to $2,400 in benefits from taxable income, according to Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for CCH, a Wolters Kluwer business.

Report unemployment benefits that exceed the $2,400 limit—or $4,800 if both spouses were out of work and collecting—on Line 19 of the first page of the 1040.

- Did you hunt for a job during the year?

Take a close look at whether you could deduct some of the expenses involved, such as long-distance calls or unreimbursed travel. If you qualify, the deductions could apply even if you didn’t get hired.

Not everyone will get this break. You cannot, for example, deduct job-hunting expenses if you’re looking for your first job out of school or if you are looking for a job in a different line of work.

Other hurdles must be crossed, too. Bob Scharin, senior tax analyst for the Tax & Accounting business of Thomson Reuters, said you’d have to itemize deductions and see whether you have enough miscellaneous expenses to take one for job-hunting deduction. Those miscellaneous expenses would have to be greater than 2% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). (Your AGI is found on line 37 of the regular 1040 form).

If your adjusted gross income was $50,000 for 2009, then you’d need more than $1,000 in miscellaneous expenses to be able to take any miscellaneous deductions on Schedule A.

Luscombe said job-hunting expenses can include resume printing, postage, faxes, long-distance calls and unreimbursed travel, including air, taxi and rail as well as mileage and tolls, and lodging for out-of-town interview trips.

- Did you work through a credit mess and have debt forgiven?

While it’s a relief to see credit card debt or other loans forgiven, it’s a shock at tax time to learn that generally any amount of debt that is settled for less than the amount owed is subject to taxes. Your lender would send you Form 1099-C, Cancellation of Debt, to show you what to report on your tax return.

“Many people are surprised when they get the Form 1099-Cs in the mail, and the IRS indicates that many more 1099-Cs are being sent out,” Luscombe said. A taxpayer should receive a 1099-C if $600 or more of debt is forgiven by a federal agency, financial institution or credit union. Not all canceled debt will trigger taxable income. There are exceptions for such things as insolvency or bankruptcy—and foreclosure.

The Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007 allows taxpayers to generally exclude income from the discharge of debt on their principal residence or mortgage restructuring. This won’t help if your mortgage debt involved a second home or vacation home.

- Did your paycheck get smaller?

Nobody is celebrating a wage cut, fewer hours or several months without work. But if last year was particularly rough, you might qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit. You must have some income from wages or a job for 2009 and earn less than set income limits.

For example, your adjusted gross income would need to be less than $40,463 if you’re married, filing a joint return and have one child who would qualify under the credit. The maximum earned income credit is $3,043 if you have one qualifying child.

The income limit is $48,279 if married and filing a joint return and if you have three or more qualifying children. The maximum credit is $5,657 for three or more children.

- Did your income drop so much that you now qualify for some breaks that couldn’t work for you last year?

Scharin noted families that had college tuition bills in 2009 could benefit on their tax return this year from certain education credits that are not allowed once you hit certain higher-income levels.

The American Opportunity Tax Credit—formerly called the Hope Credit—offers up to $2,500 for qualified tuition and fees paid for each eligible student in the first four years of college. The American Opportunity Tax Credit cannot be used, though, if your modified adjusted gross income hits $90,000 or $180,000 on a joint return.

“Just because you weren’t eligible in the past doesn’t mean you’re not eligible now,” Scharin said. “Don’t assume because the line was blank last year you should leave it blank this year.”


(c) 2010, Susan Tompor, Detroit Free Press.

World Prepares to Turn Lights Off in Honor of Earth Hour

by Alexandra Zega


On Saturday, March 27th at 8:30 p.m. local time, the largest ever public demonstration for action on climate change will take place as lights are symbolically turned off for one hour in homes, office buildings, iconic landmarks, government buildings and retail establishments across the globe for Earth Hour.

Ninety-two countries and regions around the world have now made the pledge for Earth Hour to show the world what can be done to fight climate change. Last year 88 countries got involved in the lights out event.

With confirmation that the Tokyo Tower in Tokyo and Brandenburg Gate in Berlin will both turn off their lights for Earth Hour, all members of the G20 are now taking part in the event.

“Earth Hour is inspiring millions of people all around the world to join together and show their concern for the future of our planet,” said Leslie Aun, WWF’s (World Wildlife Fund) vice president for public relations and the managing director for Earth Hour U.S. 2010. “Here in the U.S., Earth Hour sends a message that Americans are ready to turn out the lights on pollution and climate change and make the switch to energy independence and efficiency.”

The Las Vegas Strip, Mount Rushmore, Sea World, the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge will join other iconic landmarks from around the world in switching off the lights for Earth Hour. CN Tower in Toronto, Grand Palace in Bangkok, Table Mountain in Cape Town, the London Eye, Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Taipei 101 will plunge into darkness to shed light on dangerous climate change.

Citizens of the United States will unite with individuals, businesses, civil groups and governments around the world including Athens, Bangkok, Cape Town, Delhi, Dubai, Geneva, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Manila, Moscow, Rome, Seoul, Singapore, Sydney, Tel Aviv and Toronto. Communities will come together like never before with cities such as Stockholm and Hiroshima holding their inaugural Earth Hour.

Countries participating in Earth Hour for the first time include: Brunei, Cambodia, Czech Republic, Kosovo, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mongolia, Mozambique, Nepal, Northern Mariana Islands, Oman, Panama, Paraguay, Tanzania, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Faroe Islands.

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Mortgage Rates Could Spike as Federal Reserve Program Expires

by Alexandra Zega

As the spring real estate season kicks in and the tax credit deadline for sale agreements approaches, the government is ending a program that has kept interest rates low and housing-affordability levels high for months.

On March 31, the Federal Reserve will stop buying mortgage-backed securities from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, returning control of interest rates to private investors.

For months, industry observers have predicted that once government supports are removed, interest rates will rise quickly, pushing many of the first-time buyers critical to housing’s recovery out of the market.

In late summer and fall 2009, lured by fixed 30-year mortgage rates under 5% and the first $8,000 tax credit, which expired Nov. 30, first-timers pushed sales of previously owned homes to the highest levels in at least three years, reducing record inventories and braking price declines.

That tax credit was renewed Nov. 5 and expanded to buyers who had not purchased a property in five years, although the credit for repeat buyers is $6,500. The second credit expires April 30, is unlikely to be renewed, and remains the engine moving buyers.

“Not a single one has expressed concern about interest rates,” said Cheryl Miller of Long & Foster Real Estate in Blue Bell, Pa., acknowledging that “there is, I suppose, a false sense of security regarding rates remaining low.”

As the date for the Fed pullout approaches, analysts now generally agree that an immediate rate spike is no longer the likely result. “We think there will be a significant increase in private demand for mortgage-backed securities to take the place of the Fed,” said David Berson, chief economist at PMI Group in Walnut Creek, Calif. Not enough to offset the Fed’s departure, he said, with rates possibly increasing a quarter of a percentage point, “but a significant one.” columnist Holden Lewis said rates are so low now—averaging 4.87% for a 30-year fixed this week—that an increase “is inevitable. But maybe they’ll rise gradually instead of jumping” April 1.

The Fed says it will stop buying “by” March 31 instead of “at” the end of the month, meaning that it likely has reduced its purchases and rates haven’t risen, Lewis said.

Moody’s chief economist Mark Zandi said rates will “drift” higher in summer and fall, with the half a percentage point the Fed’s action cut working its way back in—mainly because investors believe the government would return if they got too high. For that reason, Philadelphia mortgage broker Fred Glick said, rates won’t change. “If the old buyers don’t come back, the Fed will intercede again to ensure rates during a continued slowly recovering economy will not go so high as to stymie a positive direction,” Glick said. Buyers of these securities “now see that the lenders have instituted rigorous standards to ensure that the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac paper they are buying are very good loans,” he said.

On the other hand, said Holland, Pa.-based economist Joel L. Naroff, low rates are not sustainable, and “the only way to get the market to stand on its own is to get people to become realistic again about prices and rates.” Rates will likely rise, but “the level will still be historically low,” Naroff said.

When rates do rise, likely by year’s end, it won’t be because of the Fed’s action, but “natural macroeconomic forces” like a recovering economy and the high budget deficit, said Lawrence Yun, National Association of Realtors chief economist.

The possibility of renewed Fed intervention will likely prevent rate increases resulting from private investors demanding large risk spreads, said economist Brian Bethune of IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Mass. As a result, Bethune and IHS economist Patrick Newport believe, the rate will be at only 5.25% by the fourth quarter.

Many Fed officials have emphasized that “high unemployment and tame inflation warrant a continued promise to hold rates very low for a long time,” said Peter Buchsbaum, of Arlington Capital Mortgage in Horsham, Pa.

Some analysts expect the expansion to ease, “and I am sure the Fed does not want to extinguish the fragile recovery,” Buchsbaum said.

Treasury bond yields “did not move much after the Fed completed its $300 billion in purchases in November,” said Jerome Scarpello, of Leo Mortgage in Spring House, Pa., “meaning they were able to exit and not disrupt that market.” Rates will rise, he said, but not as high as the one percentage point others predict. “With unemployment high and foreclosures an issue, a significant rate increase can push home prices down,” Scarpello said, “and hamper the slight recovery we now have.”


(c) 2010, Alan J. Heavens,The Philadelphia Inquirer.

8 Steps to Prepare for April Tax Obligation

by Alexandra Zega


With the U.S. federal income tax filing deadline of April 15 now just weeks away, taking time to review your tax situation and plan for any needed action will save you time, stress and, quite possibly, money.

With the economic recession impacting so many Americans in 2009, many people will have complicated filing situations this year, says Jeff Staley, president of Freedom Tax Relief, LLC. “This is the time to prepare, review your tax obligations and evaluate your alternatives for payment if you find you may have difficulty in paying your tax bill this year.” Staley recommends taxpayers follow these steps now in order to be ready for April 15:

1. Make a plan for filing. Make plans now to ensure that you will be able to file your income tax return on time. If that is impossible, file an extension. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is more forgiving of those who follow the rules than those who skip filing. Even if you cannot pay your tax debt in full on April 15, filing the required forms will result in smaller penalties.

2. Understand tax on unemployment benefits. Unemployment income is taxable. If you received unemployment benefits during 2009, you should have received a Form 1099-G providing the total amount received. If your employer paid separate unemployment compensation, that income should be reported on your W-2 form as income. Note that the first $2,400 of government benefits received in 2009 is exempt from tax, thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

3. Prepare documentation for tax credits. Review your 2009 expenses to know whether you qualify for credits. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (e.g., stimulus package) included many tax credits, ranging from an expanded health coverage tax credit to new education benefits.

4. Maximize deductions. If you made donations to nonprofit organizations in 2009, make sure you obtain needed appraisals or valuations to list these contributions accurately in your tax forms, per IRS guidelines.

5. Contribute to your retirement plan. If you plan to contribute to a retirement plan, you can still make tax-deferred contributions for 2009 until April 2010.

6. Estimate your payment. You can estimate your tax obligation by reviewing a copy of last year’s tax form, completed with your 2010 data. If you purchase tax return software, you can use that. Or go to and download a PDF version of your form to fill out.

7. Plan for payment. If it looks like you will have a larger tax bill than you can afford to pay in full by April 15, the IRS suggests taxpayers find any means possible to pay that bill, including bank loans, cash advances on credit cards, using savings, borrowing against retirement or life insurance, or using equity in assets (such as a home) to pay. However, if you are in dire financial circumstances, exchanging one debt for another will not make things easier, and putting a home at risk is almost always a bad idea. Consult a tax and/or financial adviser before making a decision.

8. Evaluate your alternatives. If you will absolutely be unable to pay your tax bill, contact the IRS. The agency sometimes gives some leeway to taxpayers who contact them directly or pay a late bill voluntarily. The IRS might waive penalties for those who cannot pay because of a death in the family, serious illness, financial records lost in a natural disaster or another “reasonable cause.”

Another alternative is tax debt resolution. Tax resolution specialists can often negotiate directly with the IRS on behalf of consumers who owe $10,000 or more. These specialists usually are attorneys, enrolled agents or certified public accountants with special training and experience. They can navigate the maze of IRS forms and calculations, help consumers understand what the IRS wants, and help them resolve their tax debt.

“As the April tax filing deadline looms, it is time to face up to the demands of the IRS and determine a payment strategy for your tax bill,” says Staley. “In these economic times, it is good to know that help is available for those who need it.”


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