Once upon a time, people ate “food.” Then corporate farming got involved and started using questionable methods to churn out ever larger volumes, and somehow the word “food” came to mean anything that could be marketed as allegedly edible, and “organic food” became the new term for the only kind of food our ancestors knew.
But what is organic? What exactly does it mean for your wallet or your diet? For the planet? Can you simply buy organic and rest assured you’re doing the best thing for your health?
Organic is a somewhat useful term, but it doesn’t mean what most people think it means. And it doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing from one state. province or country to the next.
What is organic?
First of all, it’s important to understand what the organic label does and doesn’t mean:
Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.
This covers most of the issues in food production that many people are concerned about. It does not necessarily mean the food producer has used the greenest farming and packing methods available – many organic farmers do, but many corporate farms will do the least they can to get the “organic” label so they can cash in on it. It also does not mean that every ingredient in, say, an organic cracker is actually organic. In the US and Australia, for example, only 95% of the ingredients need be organic to earn the label. “Organic” does not mean the same as “100% Organic”:
The USDA has identified for three categories of labeling organic products:
100% Organic: Made with 100% organic ingredients
Organic: Made with at least 95% organic ingredients
Made With Organic Ingredients: Made with a minimum of 70% organic ingredients with strict restrictions on the remaining 30% including no GMOs (genetically modified organisms)
Products with less than 70% organic ingredients may list organically produced ingredients on the side panel of the package, but may not make any organic claims on the front of the package.
See how confusing the labeling gets? It gets worse: corporate dairy farmers who refuse to stop using hormones known to harm cows (and possibly humans) have lobbied several states to force organic producers to put a statement on their hormone-free products saying that hormone-free products have not been shown to be better than ones that use hormones. This is ludicrous, but California has fallen for it and no doubt other states have or will as well. The burden should be on the hormone dairy producers to label their products with that statement, not the other way around. For a hurried but conscientious label reader like me, it was a confusing statement. I’m used to seeing labels like that on the foods alleged to do harm, not the ones alleged to avoid it. I believe that’s just what the corporate farmers are hoping for.
For a long time, I bought organic meat and veggies whenever possible. I really did think what I was buying was superior to items not labelled organic. Then, suddenly, it wasn’t. Suddenly a lot of organic meat was nearly spoiled, or already spoiling, by the time I got it. The veggies were already wilting, yellowing and showing signs of decay. What had changed?
I don’t know, but my guess would be one of two things: either corporate farming got in on the “organic” label once they saw profit in it, and they’ve wrecked it like they wreck everything they touch, or organic products aren’t being transported and put on shelves quickly enough to avoid spoiling. In either case, this problem could be local to my area, but it’s just an example of how buying “organic” doesn’t automatically mean you’re getting good quality food.
Organic and health
Organic does not mean the food is low fat, low carb, low sugar or low calorie, or higher in nutrition. It just means the food has been exposed to less harmful toxins than other foods and will therefore expose you to less toxins. Not all organic food is “health food.” It will not help you lose or gain weight, or eliminate the need to follow a doctor-advised diet for diabetes, high blood pressure or any other health concern. Nor does organic mean it’s free of allergens – people can be allergic or sensitive to pretty much any food, including foods which are nutritious and good for everyone else.
Organic and genetically engineered
Foods with the organic label should be GMO-free according to USDA regulations. It is possible for some GMO ingredients to “sneak in” as crop seed blows around or organic farmers unknowingly give their animals feed that has some GMOs.
All food at the farmer’s market is organic, right?
Goodness, no! Farmer’s markets are a great source of organic foods and produce, and in my experience most of their product is organic. But small farms can use pesticides and sludge just like the big boys, so if it’s not certified organic, you have to assume it’s not. All-natural does not mean organic. Hand-picked does not mean organic. Neither do pesticide-free or no antibiotics. Those mean the farmer is using some organic procedures, but not enough to get certified organic. However, this may be acceptable to you, especially if your only other option is to corporate farmed food.
It’s amazing how much work is involved in getting hold of traditional food these days – the only kind of food our grandparents and great-grandparents knew. It’s also a pity how determined corporate farming is to keep us from having simple labels that make informed choices easy. You kind of have to wonder how much lower our food costs could be if corporate farming wasn’t spending so much on lobbying politicians!
So should you buy organic or not? Organic is partly a good thing, but it’s also become a marketing gimmick. Sometimes you may decide the “non-GMO”, “free-range”, “grass fed” or “no hormones or antibiotics” labels are more important to you, especially if you’re on a tight budget and the organic option is too expensive for you. We can only hope food labeling will be refined as time goes on, making it easier for us to make the best choices for our health and our wallets.