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
Organic also does not mean non-GMO. Organic food can absolutely be genetically engineered and still meet the criteria for organic. Why is GMO a concern? Modern genetic engineering goes much further than breeding bigger and bigger tomatoes:
Traditional breeders have never been capable of crossing fish genes with strawberries. But genetically engineered “fishberries” are already in the field. With genetic engineering, these types of new organisms can be created and released into the environment.
Will they harm the environment? We don’t know – it may turn out to be perfectly safe. But there aren’t enough restrictions in place to give us a chance to find out before much damage is done. If they are a problem for the environment, it’s a lesson we’ll learn the hard way – possibly very hard. Most genetically engineered crops have been engineered to withstand dangerous pesticides – isn’t it better to just farm without pesticides? Of course! But it’s not as profitable.
But won’t the government take care of us and make sure this doesn’t hurt us? If only!
Neither the FDA, the Department of Agriculture (USDA), nor the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has done any long-term human health or environmental impact studies of GE foods or crops, nor has any mandatory regulation specific to GE food been established. Biotech companies are on the honor system. They have virtually no requirements to show that this new technology is safe. FDA scientists and doctors warned that GE foods could have new and different risks such as hidden allergens, increased plant-toxin levels and the potential to hasten the spread of antibiotic-resistant disease. The USDA has reviewed more than 5,000 applications for experimental GE crop field trials without denying a single one. USDA officials claimed they would conduct long-term studies of GE crops, but have no plans to require any pre-market or pre-release assessment. Studies conducted after our environment and food supply have been contaminated will be too late.
The allergen concern is very real. For example, soy proteins are very popular in cross-breeding, which means people with (sometimes potentially lethal) soy allergies or sensitivities are finding it more and more difficult to avoid soy because genetically engineered food doesn’t have to spell out its genes. And the spread of antibiotic resistant disease is a great concern. We’re already seeing the repercussions of these problems as virus mutate to get past every antibiotic we put on the market. Why risk making it worse?
TrueFoodNow has a page listing many widely available brands that do or do not contain genetically engineered ingredients. The fact that they don’t contain GE ingredients does not mean they are organic.
Ready to give up yet?
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!
Honestly, I don’t pay much attention to the organic label anymore, because I think corporate farming has made it virtually meaningless. I pay more attention to claims like “free range” or “grass fed” or “no hormones or antibiotics” because those are specific claims that matter to me. You have to come to your own conclusions about what works for you, your body, your budget and your household, and then you unfortunately have to work to get the information you need to make your choices. It’s very frustrating and unfair.