Tastier, Healthier, Eco-Friendlier: Organic Food is Where Good Eats are At

By Sonya Welter

Organic food is a hot commodity these days, with $14.6 billion in consumer sales in the United States in 2005. No longer confined to hippy-dippy natural foods stores, organic products can now be found in conventional, big-box grocery stores and even in Walmart. You can buy organic fruits and vegetables, meat and dairy, cereal, bread, beans, rice, and just about every other food under the sun … not to mention organic cotton t-shirts and boxer shorts (and bed sheets and bath towels and...). Unfortunately, the word “organic” has too often been thrown around in the popular media willy-nilly, being used as a synonym for green or ecologically friendly, or to describe anything that is even vaguely related to nature. This overuse has diluted the definition, and it’s easy for consumers to get confused about what organic may or may not mean … many people probably buy organic products without really knowing what they are, or why exactly they are better for you and for the environment.

In reality, the word “organic,” when applied to food products sold in the United States, Europe, Japan, and other parts of the world, is a legally binding term relating not only to the agricultural practices that produced the food, but also how the food is handled, all the way from the farm to the distributors to the grocery shelves. For food to be labeled as organic, it must meet strict guidelines set forth by an independent certifying agency, restricting the use of synthetic insecticides, herbicides and fertilizers, and in the case of animal products such as meat, dairy and eggs, disallowing the use of artificial hormones and antibiotics. Organic foods are also completely free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and are produced without using cloning or bioengineering. Organic farms emphasize soil and water conservation, preserving resources for future generations and providing a cleaner environment for the people who work the land, as well as for birds, bees, butterflies, and other wildlife. They also produce food that is often tastier and healthier than their conventional counterparts.

Organic Farming

There have been organic farms all throughout the “chemical age,” but the movement gained momentum in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, with the birth of modern environmentalism. The 1980s saw the creation of local and regional organic certification organizations, such as Quality Assurance International (QAI), Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) and California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), each of which drew up their own set of guidelines defining what it meant for food to be organic. (Many of these are still working today, and you might see their stamps or initials on certified organic packaged goods.) In 1990, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) consolidated some of these guidelines and created a national organic certification program, forming a legal definition of what food production and processing practices can be called organic. All food sold in the US as organic must follow these guidelines … even if it was grown in Mexico or New Zealand or China. The European Union, Japan, and other parts of the world have also developed their own organic food laws and regulations, and in 2006 the Canadian government published its own set of national organic standards to be phased in over the next two years.

Organic fruit, vegetable, and grain crop are grown without any synthetic insecticides, herbicides or fungicides. Some natural substances are allowed … such as pyrethrum, derived from chrysanthemum flowers, used to control insects … but these are safer and less environmentally persistent than pesticides from a laboratory. The fertilizers used in organic farming are either compost or composted manure … conventional farming often uses more synthetic chemicals, or sewer sludge.

Organic Farming Organic farms control pests in more holistic, natural ways. Crop rotation is the process of planting something different in a field each year, so that an insect or disease that attacked a crop one year won’t have the same food source the next year and will die off. Crop rotation also improves the soil, since different plants access nutrients in the soil in different ways, and planting the same thing year after year will deplete the soil of those nutrients. Strip farming and companion planting also controls pests. These methods involve pairing plants that grow well together and planting crops in thin strips or small patches within a field … rather than filling an entire field with a single crop, as is usually done in conventional farming … so that if, for instance, fungus attacks one patch of corn, it won’t be able to travel to the next patch of corn twenty feet away because there is a biological barrier. These methods are more labor-intensive and can produce somewhat smaller yields, which is why they are rarely utilized in conventional, large-scale farming operations. Organic farmers might also do things like release beneficial insects, like ladybug beetles or praying mantis that eat destructive insects like aphids, or they will apply mulch between the rows to control weeds instead of spraying herbicides. Done correctly, organic farming practices actually build topsoil faster than Mother Nature can … six inches in a little as fifty years. (It takes 3,000 years to produce six inches of topsoil if the land was left fallow.)

Animal products like meat, dairy, and eggs can also be certified organic. Organic animals are not given any artificial growth hormones or antibiotics, and are not kept in intensive, factory farm conditions. They are allowed to graze or forage outside as weather permits and are provided with clean, dry bedding and comfortable, sanitary housing, and their feed or pasture land must be certified organic. If an animal becomes ill and require treatment not approved by organic standards, the animal is removed from the herd and treated appropriately, but its meat, dairy products or eggs then cannot be sold as organic. Organic meat also cannot be irradiated, like conventional meat often is. The farms are also required to appropriately manage waste to protect and conserve water and soil.

And all organic farms, no matter what they raise, use absolutely no GMOs or other bioengineering, such as tomatoes spliced with DNA from fish to make them more cold-resistant, or clones of high milk producing cattle. These practices are being used more and more on conventional, non-organic farms, and always go unlabelled, because businesses know that very few consumers would willingly buy genetically-modified food.

Organic farming is not something one can just fall into. A farm must follow organic standards for three full years before it can be certified organic (the farm and their products may be labeled as “transitional” in the interim) and extensive records must be kept, detailing everything that happens to every product on every field or to every individual animal, from the farm to the point of sale. There is a long (sometimes 100 pages) application to fill out, and farms must be inspected by a government-approved organic certification agent. An “organic farm plan” must also be established, laying out how the farmer intends to implement organic standards, now and into the future.

Organic certification extends beyond the farm. Processing plants … even grocery stores and restaurants … can be certified organic. For example, if a box of macaroni and cheese is labeled as organic, then not only must the farms that grew the wheat and produced the cheese be certified organic, so must the mill that ground the wheat, the processing plants that made the pasta and cheese powder, and the packaging plant that put it all into boxes and bags. The rules that govern these businesses relate mainly to food handling and storage: all tools and surfaces must be properly washed and sanitized between conventional and organic products to insure that there is no cross contamination between organic and non-organic. If an organic head of lettuce touches a non-organic head of lettuce, or if it is laid on an unwashed surface that held non-organic items, or if non-organic lettuce is stored above organic lettuce where dripping could occur, the organic lettuce would be considered “contaminated” and could not be legally sold as organic. These are just a few of the regulations protecting the purity of organic foods, and they all must be taken seriously … a single violations can cost $10,000.

Making the Organic Choice

How should you go about incorporating organics into your lifestyle? How can you tell what is and is not USDA Organic Label certified organic? An easy way is to look for a seal either from a national certifying agency like the USDA or a private label like QAI. In the United States, for a product to carry a seal, it must contain at least 95% organic ingredients (certain ingredients, like salt or baking soda, which are chemically impossible to produce organically, are exempt). If a product has 70% or more organic ingredients, it may state that on the front of the package (i.e., “Made with organic oats and raisins”) but it cannot use the USDA seal. Products with less that 70% organic ingredients may name them in the ingredient listing, but cannot make any claims on the front of the package.

Fresh produce won’t always have a seal displayed with it, but it should still be labeled as organic and if it is being sold in a store that also sells conventional produce, there should be barriers in place between them. Often, big-box grocery stores will sell all their organic produce wrapped in plastic, which might seem counterintuitive to food that is supposed to be more sustainably produced, but this is because these store do not otherwise have the facilities … or do not want to take the time … to properly handle or display organic produce.

The labels on meat, dairy, and eggs can be a little trickier to decipher. The term “natural”(when applied to any food) means next to nothing … only that the product was minimally processed and contains no synthetic ingredients, like artificial colors or chemical preservatives. It has no bearing on how the food was produced, or how the animals were treated. “Free range” means that the animals had access to the outdoors, but does not regulate whether or not the animals actually take advantage of this; legally speaking, the barn door can be left open for five minutes a day and the animals can still be considered free-range. “Cage-fr” means that the animals were raised without cages, but says nothing about access to the outdoors, or how crowded the living conditions may be. “Grass-fed” or “pasture-raised” mean that the animals were allowed to graze or forage for 99% of their caloric intake over the course of their lives (not counting milk consumed before the animals were weaned). None of these labels imply anything about the use of antibiotics or hormones, although some dairy products may be labeled as coming from cows who were not administered hormones.

Because organic production is much more labor intensive … and is not subsidized by the government, likeOrganic Food conventional farms usually are … organic food is often more expensive than its conventional counterparts, and most people can’t afford to switch their entire grocery bill to organic overnight. So what’s the most important? If you choose to eat animal products, it is a good idea to buy organic whenever possible. Pesticide residue, artificial hormones, and other toxins tend to accumulate in animal flesh and in milk products, and these are passed onto the consumer. By buying these items organic, you’ll be protecting yourself and your family from exposure to these potentially harmful chemicals.

As for fruits and vegetables, a non-profit organization called Environmental Working Group has put together a list of produce items that are most and least likely to contain pesticide residue. The “dirty dozen” topping the list as the most contaminated are peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, grapes, pears, spinach and potatoes. These should be bought organic whenever possible.

Try buying one new organic item every time you go to the grocery store. The organic industry is expanding by leaps and bounds, and prices are coming down every year. In blind taste tests, organic food is found to be more flavorful, and when switching to organic after a lifetime of conventional produce, many people report that it tastes like they’re eating real food again. In addition to being free of pesticide residue, studies have shown that organic foods are also higher in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. And, of course, organic food production is much better for the environment and wildlife, and helps to preserve resources for future generations, and that alone makes it well worth the price.

For more information

Organic Consumer Association A grassroots organization advocating health, justice and sustainability in food production
Sustainable Table Educating consumers and celebrating food that is healthy, natural, and environmentally friendly
GRACE Factory Farm Project Working to eliminate factory farming and offering healthy and humane solutions
Say No to GMOs! Educating the public on the dangers of genetically modified organisms in the food supply
USDA’s National Organic Program Organic standards in the United States
Canadian Organic Growers An education and networking organization for organic farmers, gardeners and consumers
International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements An association of organic organizations worldwide
The Daily Table Blog covering local & organic food topics