As the local food and organic food movements continue to grow, I think it’s important that everyone understands WHY this is important to us as consumers. Why isn’t everyone in the world going crazy over organic stuff? What’s up with American food? Here are a few important facts to help you understand WHY it’s important to eat as local as possible, and as organic as possible, as OFTEN as possible. The Mayo Clinic has an excellent summary written by their dieticians, which shows some of the main differences between conventionally grown and organically grown produce:
Conventional vs. organic farming
The word “organic” refers to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat. Organic farming practices are designed to encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution. Farmers who grow organic produce and meat don’t use conventional methods to fertilize, control weeds or prevent livestock disease. For example, rather than using chemical weedkillers, organic farmers may conduct more sophisticated crop rotations and spread mulch or manure to keep weeds at bay.
Here are some key differences between conventional farming and organic farming:
|Apply chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth.||Apply natural fertilizers, such as manure or compost, to feed soil and plants.|
|Spray insecticides to reduce pests and disease.||Use beneficial insects and birds, mating disruption or traps to reduce pests and disease.|
|Use herbicides to manage weeds.||Rotate crops, till, hand weed or mulch to manage weeds.|
|Give animals antibiotics, growth hormones and medications to prevent disease and spur growth.||Give animals organic feed and allow them access to the outdoors. Use preventive measures — such as rotational grazing, a balanced diet and clean housing — to help minimize disease.|
Organic or not? Check the label
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established an organic certification program that requires all organic foods to meet strict government standards. These standards regulate how such foods are grown, handled and processed.
Any product labeled as organic must be USDA certified. Only producers who sell less than $5,000 a year in organic foods are exempt from this certification; however, they’re still required to follow the USDA’s standards for organic foods.
If a food bears a USDA Organic label, it means it’s produced and processed according to the USDA standards. The seal is voluntary, but many organic producers use it.
Products that are completely organic — such as fruits, vegetables, eggs or other single-ingredient foods — are labeled 100 percent organic and can carry the USDA seal.
Foods that have more than one ingredient, such as breakfast cereal, can use the USDA organic seal plus the following wording, depending on the number of organic ingredients:
- 100 percent organic. To use this phrase, products must be either completely organic or made of all organic ingredients.
- Organic. Products must be at least 95 percent organic to use this term.
Products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients may say “made with organic ingredients” on the label, but may not use the seal. Foods containing less than 70 percent organic ingredients can’t use the seal or the word “organic” on their product labels. They can include the organic items in their ingredient list, however.
Do ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ mean the same thing?
No, “natural” and “organic” are not interchangeable terms. You may see “natural” and other terms such as “all natural,” “free-range” or “hormone-free” on food labels. These descriptions must be truthful, but don’t confuse them with the term “organic.” Only foods that are grown and processed according to USDA organic standards can be labeled organic.
There are important moral issues involved with conventional vs organic farming as well. Many states have extremely lax laws about pesticide reporting, so even though we’ve been told to buy American fruits and veggies, we have loopholes and lax laws and reporting standards here as well. Farm workers are often sprayed directly with pesticides while they work. Working conditions on huge farms are notoriously terrible. Cancer has been directly linked to pesticides for decades – and while this is not new, laws have not changed significantly to alter their use or regulate them since 1984. The European Union has a toxicity classifying system which indicated if a pesticide is carcinogenic, but in America we do not. While well known chemicals like DDT are off the market, countless others exist in their place. Pesticides are only required to be reevaluated every 15 years. That means your child could have been ingesting a terrible pesticide until they can almost drive before the FDA may re-evaluate it.
Organic feeling too expensive for you? Join a local CSA – Community Supported Agriculture. This is an AWESOME way to get cheap, local and often organic fruits and vegetables year round. Each week I get a huge bag of fruits and veggies, for about 18 bucks. All organic. Google your hometown with “CSA” – guarantee you’ll find one!
This guest post comes from Claire O’Bryan, from her blog Heavy On the Veggie. She is a Nurse Practitioner with a BS in Exercise Science. She has recently entered the world of blogging to share her passion for all things local, organic, healthy, and delicious. She’s a vegan wanna be who deep down loves a good piece of cheese. She’s currently practicing at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, SC.