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Organic food, genetically engineered food – what does it all mean?

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Once upon a time, people ate “food.” Then corporate farming got involved. They started using questionable methods to churn out more and more food.

As people started investigating whether certain modern farming methods were safe for our food supply, “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’ve 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 sometimes means different things from one state. province or country to the next.

Basket of organic food on picnic table

What is organic?

First of all, let’s look at what the organic label means:

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.

What organic doesn’t mean

This covers most of the issues in food production that many people are concerned about. But it does not necessarily mean the food producer has used all the greenest farming and packing methods available.

It tells you very little about how the animals are being treated. Some farmers do the least they can to get the “organic” label. “Organic” 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.”

Animal welfare

Chickens

Does organic mean the animals are treated more humanely? Uh, somewhat. Taking chickens as an example, “organic” chicken does not mean “free range”, and vice versa.

Organic chickens must have “access to the outside, direct sunlight, fresh air and freedom of movement.” They’re supposed to live outside for most of their lives.

With free range, they’re supposed to have access to the outside for at least half their lives. Free-range chickens may also receive antibiotics while organic chickens may not. 

Both “organic” and “free range” chickens live in more humane conditions than “conventionally” raised chickens. 

Cattle

When it comes to beef and dairy, a “grass-fed” cow spends most of its time grazing outdoors, except in bad weather. Then they can be given grass substitutes like alfalfa. “Organic” cattle are raised similarly, but without antibiotics, hormones, or non-organic grains.

The USDA has a PDF that details their standards for organic livestock here.

Reading organic food labels

See how confusing organic food labeling gets? It gets worse. At one point, Monsanto lobbied several states to pass laws forcing organic producers to stop labeling their hormone-free dairy products as hormone-free. Many states bought in, but eventually a court overturned it.

This is ludicrous, of course. But it may not even matter since apparently our growth hormone-free milk is probably loaded with sex hormones:

Remember the backlash against the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rbGH)? Many commercial dairies now market their milk as free of this synthetic hormone, but that label may not tell you everything you need to know. Thanks to the way it is produced nowadays, milk from a commercial dairy is likely to contain much higher levels of natural sex hormones than you’d find in milk from a traditional (pre-industrial) dairy herd. And that could pose an rbGH-type problem.

Or maybe that doesn’t matter either, because it’s not clear whether modern hormones used in livestock and dairy production actually harm humans. Still with me?

Hormones in meat

Let’s talk about hormone-free livestock. Good news! If you live in the US, your chicken and pork already are free of growth hormones. The FDA doesn’t approve any hormones for use in pigs or chickens. Also, growth hormones don’t really work on chickens.

Growth hormones are mainly used in beef and dairy production.

“All Natural”

Please completely ignore the word “natural” on any product. It means nothing because the FDA has never defined a standard for when a food can be called “natural.” We all have our own ideas about this word. I see a lot of “all natural” products that are loaded with processed sugar, which I don’t consider natural. The only thing this word tells me is that the brand is full of it.

Organic and health

Is organic better for your 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 hasn’t been exposed to pesticides, preservatives, or hormones.

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 foods can be loaded with sugar, GMO soy, and other ingredients connected with health issues.

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?

No, not at all. Farmer’s markets are a great source of organic foods and produce. In my experience most of their product is indeed organic. But not all small farms are organic.

Many use pesticides and sludge and, where legal, hormones just like the big farms. 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. You have to wonder how much lower our food costs could be if corporate farming wasn’t spending so much on lobbying politicians!

My conclusions

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”, “no hormones” (in the case of beef and dairy), or “no antibiotics” labels are good enough.

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.

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