Organic food — the concept seems pretty straightforward: foods produced in the tradition of our forebears, without chemical pesticides or genetic alterations. No pest-repellent soybeans or fist-sized strawberries.
And the benefits to such a diet should be equally transparent, right?
Even in our foodie-filled office, just the mention of the word “organic” is enough to start a debate of great length and intensity. I’m hesitant to even mention it for fear HR will come down on us for stealing company time (it’s all for the sake of our readers, I swear!).
However, despite our own strong opinions, it’s clear many of us don’t know the real difference between “organic” and “industrial” foods. How much organically grown material is actually in “organic” products? What pesticides, if any, are allowed? And what’s the deal with genetic modifications?
So for the sake of everyone’s health, both mental and physical, we decided to clear some of the crop-dusting smoke surrounding the organic issue.
Below, we share what we have learned to help you make the best decision for you when choosing what to eat.
What is organic?
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has dictated standards for producing, processing, and packaging organic agricultural products (that is, the food you eat and the food your food eats, if you haven’t adopted a vegetarian diet) through its organic certification program since the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 established the National Organic Program.
Since then, the organic food market has skyrocketed, reaching an estimated $28.4 billion in sales in 2012, according to the USDA — accounting for more than 4 percent of total food sales in the United States. And estimates for the future are even more optimistic.
So, how does the USDA define organic food? Let’s start from the ground up.
One of the main tenets of organic farming is sustainability: practicing techniques that maintain the health and fertility of the land to ensure equal or greater yields in the future.
To achieve this, organic farms rotate between varieties of crops, including:
- cover crops (those designed to manage soil erosion, fertility, and biodiversity)
- green manure crops (those grown then plowed under and incorporated into the soil to add nutrients and organic material)
- catch crops (quick-growing varietals grown simultaneously with or between plantings of a main crop).
To attain certification, and maintain the health of their fields, farmers must also be careful to create buffers between organic crops and nonorganic farms — or potentially hazardous infrastructure, such as sewers — to prevent cross-contamination.
If you want to make an organic farmer laugh, tell him the foundation of his work is a bunch of bull poop (get it, like manure?). But in all seriousness, natural plant and animal compost is the standard for fortifying organic cropland.
Don’t worry; the USDA specifies that these treatments shouldn’t touch the edible portions of the crops. Prewashing is still strongly recommended, of course — but you were already doing that anyway, weren’t you?
Maintaining the soil is only one aspect of protecting a crop’s health. Pests, weeds, and disease also must be controlled — and unfortunately, these are moving targets.
A common misconception is that pesticides are forbidden in organic farming, despite how important avoiding these treatments is for many people who choose organic.
Federal standards do specify that manual or mechanical methods, such as introducing a pest’s natural predator or hand weeding, should be used first. But when a problem gets out of hand, many organic farmers turn to pesticides or herbicides to protect their crops.
The USDA’s certifying guidelines approve some synthetics for this purpose, although most are biological or botanical substances derived from plants’ natural predator- and disease-fighting abilities.
The problem there? Natural and safe aren’t necessarily synonymous.
Many biological substances are poisonous to both pests and people. And just like with synthetic pesticides, there’s the potential for long-term effects from exposure to some natural compounds.
The USDA’s guidelines also specify that only organically produced seeds should be used to grow organic foods.
That one seems like a no-brainer, but there’s more to this issue than contamination from pesticides or other chemicals. Genetically modified foods also are prohibited. And just as with pesticides, this issue breeds contention.
There’s little definitive evidence that genetically modified foods pose a risk to humans’ health. Still, many American states are considering legislation requiring the labeling of genetically modified products, and several European Union nations have banned these foods outright.
The concept of genetic modification isn’t new. Humans have employed techniques for customizing their pets, plants, and foods for thousands of years. For example, have you seen a goldendoodle lately? Yeah, those didn’t just pop up in nature.
Even in a modern context, some forms of genetic modification, such as “mutagenic” techniques — where scientists use mutagens, or physical or chemical agents that change large swaths of genetic material — have met with very little scrutiny.
Our expanded knowledge of genetics has led to a new method, however, in which very specific genes are switched out or introduced. This type of subtle transference has some precedent in nature. Viruses, for example, are known to transfer their own, and even other species’, genes into humans.
Many scientists argue that the precision of this type of modification makes it safer than prior methods, and makes it easier to detect where potential problems are being produced, if they occur.
But according to others, this method may actually be more dangerous.
Opponents cite the unpredictability of genes’ behavior, and contest that a single transposition could cause a cascading reaction. The result, they say, may be huge — or even small, but impactful — changes in the plant after many generations, with potentially toxic “frankenfoods” going undetected.
Ever stumbled on an industrial farming “exposé” video online and spent a horrified half-hour watching chickens fight for food?
Of course, not all industrial farms are like that. But if you’re still concerned for our furry and feathered friends, you’ll be happy to hear that organic certification standards apply to livestock operations, as well. And the differences between organic and industrial farming in this market are even greater than those for the fruits and veggies.
As you may have suspected, the use of growth hormones and other synthetic drugs are prohibited — even in the animals’ food — although the USDA’s standards do allow for the treatment of illnesses and injuries with approved medications.
And these criteria govern the animals’ lifestyle, as well.
Livestock such as cows, sheep, and goats must have ample time outdoors to graze, for example, and all animals must be provided with adequate shelter and the use of feedlots and yards to promote exercise.
The amount of time the animals may be confined is also restricted, and covers pretty much every situation from 4-H field trips to inclement weather.
No word yet on whether cuddling is prohibited.
According to USDA guidelines, to become certified, organic farmers must first produce an organic system plan describing the processes and substances to be used during the certification period.
Certifying agents also will request a history of the substances applied to the land during the 3 years prior to certification, ensuring you’re not consuming any residual materials you may not expect.
Inspectors will then evaluate the land annually, ensuring the organic system plan is being followed. If the use of prohibited materials is suspected, inspectors may also test for residue in the farm’s water, soil, seeds, and plant tissue, or in samples of the products being sold.
Of course, there are some exceptions to these rules. For example, production or handling operations that earn less than $5,000 annually are exempt from many of the restrictions imposed on larger operations.
But even in these instances, the spirit of the certification standards stays the same, and most of the rules regarding synthetic exposure and sustainability must still be followed for an organic operation to maintain their USDA-certified status.
If you’ve walked into any grocery store lately — or have looked at the packaging of pretty much any product from shampoo to salt — you’ve seen several variations on the term “organic” advertised.
Some foods boast being 100 percent organic and carry the USDA-certified seal. Others use only the word with little explanation. Even more are marketed with the vague promise of having been “made with organic ingredients.”
The phrasing may not seem distinct, but each represents a very different amount of organic material in your food.
According to USDA guidelines, food labeled as “100% organic” (measured by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) should be just that: made with no less than 100 percent certified organically produced materials. This applies to both raw and processed products. This means even packaged foods, like that organic applesauce you just can’t live without, were processed using only approved materials.
Products labeled simply “organic” also contain a large majority of certified organically produced materials: no less than 95 percent. The remaining 5 percent must consist of approved products, both synthetic and natural, including such substances as citric or tartaric acid and xanthan gum. (For a full list of approved materials, check out the Legal Information Institute of the Cornell University Law School’s handy overview.)
Those claiming to be “made with organic ingredients” are required to consist of no less than 70 percent organic material, and must specify on the packaging which specific ingredients are certified.
If it contains less than 70 percent organic material, however, the product cannot, according to USDA guidelines, be advertised as organic, although individual ingredients may be labeled that way in the nutrition information.
The real message behind all this? You better prepare to spend a little more time reading on your next grocery trip.
So what does this mean for you?
With the amount of contradicting information out there, it’s hard to know what to expect with both organic and nonorganic foods, and we likely won’t have concrete, widely accepted answers for a while.
But there’s one area where the experts seem to agree: If you’re concerned about where your food comes from, get to know your local farmers and sellers. Ask questions about how their animals are raised, what types of pest-control procedures they use, and what their annual crop yield is.
Although they may not have the time and resources to pursue USDA organic certification, many farmers and sellers are proudly committed to sustainable farming, and will show off their good work by giving interested consumers a tour.
Or, if you’re not in an area that has fresh produce available year round — I’m looking at you, Midwest folks — take care to look for the USDA seal indicating that your edibles are certifiable (in the good way). That way, you can research the processes that may have been used and make an educated choice.
Now that you know what goes into your organic food, learn more about what goes into your all-natural biodynamic wine.