Organic Farming, Organic Products, Organic Food: Demystifying Organic
If you’re reading this, chances are pretty good you’re already interested in living a greener lifestyle. You’ve probably learned by now that there’s quite a bit of environmentally-friendly or “natural” products out there and seemingly more on the market every day. You may also realize that it is your choices as a consumer that will help determine not only what products are produced for sale but also how they are made. You can use your power as a “green consumer” to dictate environmentally-friendly products.
But first you have to make sense of all the jargon out there! Even those of us who consider ourselves to be eco-savvy can get confused by all the marketing twists. “Organic”, “eco-friendly”, “environmentally-friendly”, “natural” and “all-natural” are just a few of the commonly used terms we see on products every day.
The term “organic” is really the only one of the bunch that can be verified. But what does it really mean? How do you know if the products you’re buying are truly “organic” and are organic products really better for you or the environment?
Certification and Labeling
First off, if you’re looking for truly, certified Organic products you need to look for the USDA Organic label. That’s the green and white circle label that reads “USDA Organic”. That label means the product has been inspected and verified as organic by the US Department of Agriculture – the inspection and labeling authority on organic products.
The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) and the National Organic Program (NOP) assure consumers that the organic agricultural products they purchase are produced, processed, and certified to consistent national organic standards. The labeling requirements apply to raw, fresh and processed products. Agricultural products that are sold, labeled, or represented as organic must be produced and processed in accordance with the NOP standards. These products are then certified by independent USDA-accredited agents.
There are three different organic labels out there. Products labeled “100 Percent Organic” must contain ONLY organically produced ingredients and processing aids. Products labeled “Organic” must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients. And products labeled “Made with Organic Ingredients” must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients. The remaining percentages of ingredients don’t get off so easily; they must consist of substances from an approved national list. In addition, products bearing these labels cannot be produced using excluded methods, sewage sludge or ionizing radiation.
Processed products that contain less than 70 percent organic ingredients cannot use the term organic anywhere on the principal display panel. However, they may identify the specific ingredients that are organically produced on the ingredients statement on the information panel.
So now that you know what all those labels mean, what’s the big deal with organics anyway? Under its simplest definition, organic agriculture is farming without synthetic chemicals. Oddly enough, that’s just the way humans have farmed for centuries. It’s only been in the last several decades that factory-farms have cropped up.
Conventional, mass farming practices rely heavily on fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and mass-production techniques. These practices exact a tremendous toll on the environment from soil contamination to chemical run-off into water systems and groundwater contamination, not to mention erosion and loss of soil fertility. There is also some evidence that these chemicals or their residuals may remain in the food produced, thus entering human bodies. Eventually, a movement grew to counter this chemically-intensive farming and the organic industry was born.
Organic farming prohibits the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and sewage sludge – all common components of conventional farming. Genetically modified organisms and irradiation are also prohibited. Organic farms must employ positive soil building, conservation, manure management and crop rotation practices. Farmers must provide outdoor access and pasture for livestock, refrain from antibiotic and hormone use in animals, sustain animals on 100% organic feed and avoid contamination during the processing of organic products. Of course these farms must also maintain records of all operations to verify their farming practices.
Organic products are grown in healthier soil, contain higher levels of nutrients, and many people claim that they taste better than more conventionally-grown produce. Organic fruits and vegetables test at minimal or zero pesticide residue levels and, with the passage of the USDA organic standards, consumers can now be assured producers follow earth-friendly cultivation and grazing practices.
If you’re new to organics, are overwhelmed by the choices out there or need to pick and choose where to spend your grocery dollars, you’ll get the best bang for your buck (and health) if you purchase organic products for which you eat the skin or rind. Pesticides and residues are more likely to remain on the outside of the product, so if you’re going to eat the skin, choose organic over conventional products. Apples, tomatoes, carrots and beans are good examples. You don’t eat the skin or rinds of bananas and melons, for example, so save your money and purchase non-organic, if you’re forced to make a choice.
Of course, purchasing organic wherever and whenever possible is the surest way to support organic farming, drive down the cost and show your support for responsible business, strong communities, and local farmers. By all means, choose organic.