Should I Buy Organic? (Part 1)

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Part 1: Understanding what organic means

“Should I buy organic?”

It’s a question I ask myself constantly when perusing the aisles of the grocery store. That’s because organic is more expensive than non-organic, most of the time. Is it worth our extra dollar to get those organic strawberries, or would the regulars be just fine? In this two-part series, I will give you all the information you need to make an informed decision.

What is organic?

First, let’s cover what it means for a food to be organic.

In 1990, the Organic Food Production Act was passed. It gives the National Organic Program (NOP), under the USDA, authority to regulate the labeling of organic products and set national standards for organic food production.

To use the USDA organic label, farmers must meet a number of regulations that are meant to enhance soil quality, conserve natural environments, and avoid the use of synthetic fertilizers.

Farms that qualify for the USDA organic label go through an application process and an annual in-person inspection. Going through this process is not cheap; certification costs can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand depending on the operations size, although, there are reimbursement programs once the certification is successful.

When it comes to growing plants for consumption (eg. fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains) the USDA organic standards ban use of genetically engineered seeds (ie. GMOs) and most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. As for organic meat and poultry, it cannot be irradiated or given antibiotics or growth hormones. The animal feed must be 100% organic and the animals must have access to outdoor pasture. Note there are no official organic standards for seafood in our country.

To manage pests and weeds on an organic farm (as defined by the USDA), producers are encouraged to use physical practices as a first line of defense, such as laying down mulch to suppress weed growth or releasing predatory insects to quell pest problems. However, as a “last resort,” organic farms are allowed to use approved pesticides. These include “natural” pesticides and a few approved synthetic substances as well.

Thinking that no pesticides are used at all is a common misconception of organic farming. If you’re interested in knowing what pesticides are currently allowed in organic farming, consult the The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. Not every natural substance is allowed, and not every synthetic substance is prohibited. Here are a few examples, to give you an idea:

Examples of Prohibited Natural Substances:

  • Arsenic
  • Strychnine
  • Tobacco

Examples of Allowed Synthetic Substances:

  • Alcohols
  • Newspaper
  • Soaps

The fact that some pesticides are allowed in organic agriculture raises concern about how much of them make it to our plate. Although the pesticides allowed in organic farming are generally considered more benign than their conventional counterparts, there is the issue of quantity used. In an NPR article, Jeff Gillman, professor of nursery management at University of Minnesota, was quoted as saying, “I’d rather buy food from someone who used Roundup once than someone who uses organic pesticides all the time.”

There are alternative organizations that certify organic farms, such as the Oregon Tilth, that have stricter standards than the USDA.

Understanding Organic Labels

The USDA has different labels related to organic products. Read on for a brief description of each:

  • 100% Organic – if a product is labeled as “100% organic,” all of its ingredients must be organically produced (with the exception of water and salt). Usually these are single ingredient products like fruit or milk. 100% organic products can display the USDA Organic seal on the package.
  • Organic – a product carrying the “organic” label must have at least 95% organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). Organic products can display the USDA Organic seal too.
  • Made with Organic Ingredients – processed products that have at least 70% organic ingredients can be labelled “made with organic ingredients.” Up to three of the organic ingredients can be listed next to this label. Here’s an example from my own cupboard: Annie’s Creamy Deluxe Macaroni Dinner says “made with organic pasta.” If I read the ingredient label closely, I see that the cheese and milk ingredients are not organic. These products are not allowed to display the USDA Organic seal.
  • Not allowed to say organic – a product that has less than 70% organic ingredients is not allowed to say “organic” on the packaging, except under the ingredient list when listing individual organic ingredients. The USDA Organic seal may not be used.

Wrap-up (for now)

That’s today’s installment on organics. I hope you have a better understanding of all that goes into the USDA organic label from farm to table. The intention of organic standards is to create more sustainable agriculture that is friendlier to the earth, the animals, and us humans. Next week I will write on the health implications you should consider when contemplating the question, “Should I buy organic?” and some practical advice for keeping under budget if you choose to do so. Until then, happy eating!

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