Certified Organic: What does the label mean?
In my health coaching practice, I consistently recommend that my clients choose certified organic produce and products whenever possible. Organic is worth the extra costs in terms of money and time to obtain organic food in my small Southern town.
Many people are confused as to why organic is worth the extra time and effort. Others are convinced certified organic labeling is a marketing scam. I don’t blame them! Food manufacturers slap the word “natural” onto their products willy-nilly, rendering the term virtually meaningless.
Each time I’m cruising the produce section of my local supermarket, I ask myself, “Why should I buy a bag of certified organic celery for $5.99 instead of the larger, fresher-looking conventional celery for $1.79?” Note: these are the actual prices at my local supermarket.
Unfortunately, many stores in food deserts lack organic produce, or only offer select items for 2-4 times the cost of their conventional counterparts. Moreover, because the prices are so outrageous, product turnover is slow, and shipments are infrequent. Often, the organic produce on the shelf has clearly weathered through its peak freshness, and sits waiting, soft, squishy, and molding.
Clearly, the people in less progressive areas (read: the middle of the country, the South, and non-metropolitan areas) do not know the value of organic. It’s a buzzword most people are familiar with, but the meaning of the term escapes the masses.
WHAT DOES CERTIFIED ORGANIC MEAN EXACTLY?
Technically-speaking, the term “organic” describes the way in which the food was grown, raised, or produced. “Certified organic” denotes that a government-accredited certifying agent verified that the produce, livestock, or product passed government-defined standards and requirements.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic agriculture encompasses cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that protect natural resources, conserve biodiversity, and promote ecological balance. Organic farming operations enhance soil and water quality; conserve wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife; and use approved substances.
THE DOUBLE STANDARD
This makes me wonder that if certified organic farms must meet regulations to ensure all the benefits of their natural practices, why is it that conventional operations are allowed to use potentially harmful farming practices scot-free? Conventional farming ostensibly damages soil and water quality; devastates wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife; and uses God-knows-what on OUR FOOD? It seems like the government has it backwards!
Moreover, organic farmers avoid synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge and biosolids (i.e. organic matter recycled from sewage), irradiation, and genetic engineering. It’s frightening that conventional farmers use these unnatural substances in the first place! Who wants their spinach grown with sewage sludge? Not me!
MAN WITH—NOT VERSUS—NATURE
Organic farmers harness the power of natural processes and materials in farming systems that augment crop and livestock nutrition, preserve nutrients in the soil, manage pests and weeds, meet production goals, and conserve biodiversity (e.g. don’t kill off any and all critters, directly or indirectly, that may threaten production goals).
In other words, organic agriculture respects and embraces nature, rather than fighting against it, which I may add, is a losing battle! This planet existed for many milenia before humans showed up on the evolutionary timeline. To think that humans are separate from nature and above the laws of nature is absurd.
The bottom line: the certified organic label represents food grown without things we don’t want on or in our food (e.g. sewage, genetic modification, plant- and insect-killing chemicals), and in ways that help maintain and preserve our land, water, and wildlife.
Is it worth the extra money and hassle to obtain certified organic produce? Let me know in the comments below.
Certified Organic: How Organic Produce Differs From Conventional
Above, I clarified the meaning of the term organic to demystify this buzzword. It turns out that “organic” is not a marketing scam. The term organic denotes food grown in environments that use natural, sustainable farming practices.
Organic farming is a sustainable alternative to conventional farming. Profit-driven, unsustainable practices that damage the health of the planet, humans, and non-human animals characterize conventional agriculture. On the other hand, organic farming works with the farm’s resources and the cycles of nature to produce food and soil that feed humans now and for years to come.
What are the sustainable farming practices used to grow USDA-certified organic food?
Organic crop production practices involve: soil fertility; crop rotation; the PAMS strategy of pest, weed, and disease management; organic seeds and planting stocks; and maintaining the identity and integrity of organic crops.
1. Soil fertility
Good soil fertility allows crops to naturally resist diseases, survive droughts, and tolerate insects. Organisms in the soil break down compost and animal and green manures (as opposed to the sewage sludge and biosolids!) applied by farmers. This decomposition process yields nutrients that the plants absorb. It also creates humus, the organic component of soil. Farmers use cover crops, mulches, conservation tillage, contour plowing, and strip cropping to protect the soil from wind and water erosion.
2. Crop Rotation
The practice of crop rotation—the rotation of crops in a field or planting bed over time—allows farmers to circumvent many problems. Instead of planting potatoes in the same field year after year, an organic farmer using crop rotation chooses to plant crops from other families (e.g. broccoli, watermelons, corn) for several years before replanting the original potato crop. Crop rotation disrupts insect life cycles, wards off plant diseases, and reduces soil erosion. It bolsters the production of organic matter, nitrogen fixation, and biodiversity.
3. The PAMS Strategy of pest, weed and disease management
Rather than routinely dousing crops in a cascade of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides to kill everything but the crop, organic farmers use the “PAMS” strategy. PAMS involves: prevention, avoidance, monitoring, and suppression. Organic farmers may release predatory insects to decrease pest populations or lay mulch to discourage weeds. Suppression involves only approved substances, such as naturally occurring microorganisms, naturally derived insecticides, or a handful of approved synthetic substances.
4. Organic Seeds and Planting Stocks
In order to protect the integrity of their crops, organic crop producers do not use seeds and planting stocks that are genetically modified. Buying organic ensures that you are not getting GMOs, which is awesome, since GMOs do not require labeling. Organic farmers also avoid seeds and planting stocks treated with prohibited substances (e.g. fungicides, herbicides, pesticides). Instead, organic farmers use organic seeds and planting stocks.
5. Maintain the identity and integrity of organic crops
Organic farmers prevent contact between organic and conventional crops, and contamination by pesticides and fertilizers. Split operations that raise both organic and conventional crops must ensure that organic crops are unscathed by conventional agrochemicals, spray drift, and residues. Defined boundaries and buffer zones separate organic and conventional crops. Land must be free of prohibited materials for 36 months prior to use for organic cultivation.
Why choose organic?
Back in the day, all food was organic food. Produce and livestock were grown and raised without pesticides, herbicides, chemicals, synthetic fertilizers, irradiation, and genetic modification. Foods were unrefined and minimally processed until World War II, when chemical farming and food processing became the new norms.
As a result, the soils and foods of the world have degraded in nutritional quality. Once brimming with vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, the food and soils are now filled with pollutants and farming chemicals.
The modern processes of heavy refinement and chemical treatment have effectively denatured our food. To denature is to take away or make unnatural the very substances that are meant to help us thrive and keep us healthy and happy into old age.
Pesticides accumulate in the organs, taxing the immune system. They create the conditions for disease and cancer in the liver, kidneys, and blood. With a weakened immune system, the human body has no defense to the carcinogens and pathogens that are normally filtered out of the body.
Five reasons to buy organic food:
1. Organic food does not use conventional agrochemicals.
Instead, organic food is grown, raised, or produced using only approved substances. By definition, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides are poisons developed to kill living organisms (e.g. insects, fungus, and plants). We are living organisms! Moreover, research indicates links between pesticides and cancer. Unfortunately, many pesticides were approved long before research was conducted to test their safety.
2. Organic food reduces water pollution.
Pesticides pollute drinking water even when they are properly applied. When rain falls before pesticides bind to the plant, the pesticides wash away to surface water sources, such as lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. During the recharging of groundwater and aquifers, pesticides seep into the soil, and contaminate drinking water. Additionally, conventional food systems apply pesticides to lakes and wetlands to control aquatic plant and animal life.
3. Organic farming conserves energy by decreasing carbon emissions and cutting fossil fuel use.
Compared to conventional methods, organic farming increases carbon sequestration. It takes carbon from the atmosphere and locks it into the soil. According to David Pimentel of Cornell University, the transition to organic, local farming reduces energy inputs into the food system by fifty percent. Currently, conventional agriculture accounts for 19 percent of the United States’ energy use. It relies heavily on non-renewable energy sources with an estimated 2,000 liters of oil per year to supply each person’s food.
4. Organic farming systems increase plant resistance and resilience.
Instead of conventional monocultures (e.g. fields and fields of GMO corn), organic farms utilize a mix of diverse plant communities. The diversity boosts plant resistance to disruption by environmental stress (e.g. drought, hurricanes). Additionally, organic plants are more resilient and able to quickly bounce back after environmental stress.
5. Help small farmers make the change from conventional to organic!
The majority of organic farms are small, independently-owned operations. Most organic food is 20-30% more expensive than conventional food, and higher premiums help farmers boost income. Additionally, organic farming does not require the steep investments associated with chemical farming. Moreover, organic farmers are less dependent on money lenders. Crop failure leads to less losses and debt. Small farmers easily understand the synergy between plant and animal life forms, and can utilize traditional knowledge in organic farming.
What’s your top reason for choosing organic?
The Truth About Pesticides & Your Health + Safe Food Shopping Guide
It’s not super easy to get to the truth about America’s pesticide usage. The latest data I could find were market estimates from 2006-2007 published in 2011.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States used 5.6 billion pounds of pesticides in 2006 and 2007. That’s about 2.8 billion pounds per year! I can only imagine how use has increased in the past decade.
Unfortunately, the majority of pesticides fail to reach the intended targets in their application sites (e.g. the pests and weeds). As a result, these rogue chemicals end up contaminating food, air, and water, and negatively affect the well-being of humans and non-human animals.
THE SEEMING OMNIPRESENCE OF PESTICIDES IN THE ENVIRONMENT HAS BEEN LINKED TO VARIOUS PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS:
- Cancers, especially in children
- Birth defects
- Learning disabilities and deficits
- Developmental delays
- Lower IQ
- Neurological problems (e.g. learning, memory, attention)
- Autism and ADHD
- Decreased fertility
- Endocrine disruption
WHO IS AT RISK?
People and animals who regularly eat conventional foods grown with agrochemicals are at an elevated risk of developing health problems.
Additionally, humans and non-human animals who live near sprayed crops are at risk. This makes me quiver as I think back to the years I lived in an apartment complex in Terre Haute, Indiana sandwiched between fields of GMO corn and soy doused with Round Up.
Infants and young children comprise an additional at-risk population due to their developing brains and bodies.Compared to adults, children eat more food relative to their size, and are ill-equipped to process chemicals that enter their bodies.
According to a review by Grandjean and Landrigan (2006), children living in areas with high levels of pesticides developed impaired hand-eye coordination and short-term memory, decreased physical stamina, and trouble drawing.
Pregnant mothers are advised to be very mindful of what they put on and into their bodies. During fetal development, exposure to industrial chemicals causes brain injury at much lower doses than during adulthood.
WHAT’S SAFE TO EAT?
Pesticides contaminate most conventional produce. The Environmental Working Group reported that USDA testing found traces of at least one pesticide on 75% of fruit and vegetables sampled in 2014.
Eating organic produce is the best way to eliminate the harmful effects of pesticides on your health.
SAFE FOOD SHOPPING GUIDE
Although organic is always the better choice, often budgetary limits prevent buying 100% organic fruits and vegetables. Below I have included the Environmental Working Group’s notorious Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen to assist you with your shopping.
The “Dirty Dozen” most contaminated fruits and vegetables include:
- Bell peppers
- Cherry Tomatoes
The Clean 15 least contaminated fruits and vegetables include:
- Sweet peas
*I would recommend buying organic corn and papayas, as they are amongst the most common genetically modified crops.
How do you protect yourself and your loved ones from pesticides?