Savvy shoppers are increasingly looking for healthful, ethical choices when it comes to buying food. No surprise, then, that the organic food industry has grown between 15 and 20 percent every year since 1998, with a 17 percent expansion in 2005. Attracted by the growth and premium price potential, mass market retailers like Wal-mart and big name manufacturers like Campbell’s are jumping on the organic bandwagon. The result is an even greater push for organic products.
The good news is that more consumers will become exposed to organics and sustainable food choices. The bad news is the implication for potential industrialization of organics. This would not only have an environmental impact—as we begin transporting organics across the globe—it would have a devastating effect on the small family organic farmer, who will struggle to keep up with discount-store prices. Pressure has already been exerted to relax organic standards so that giant growers can more easily meet the requirements set for organic certification. The corresponding support for maintaining these standards will need to come from a committed base of organic advocates.
We’ve seen that consumer faith in organics is capable of faltering. Recent food scares, such as the E. coli-tainted California spinach, cast doubt in some consumers’ minds about organics. Misinformation was rampant, but ultimately it was discovered that the outbreak, caused by water contamination from a neighboring cattle ranch, had nothing to do with organic farming. The instance underlined that both how and where food is grown is an important factor in maintaining a truly sustainable, healthful food system.
Organic advocates know that, on so many levels, organic food is worth the vigilance required to ensure its availability. Organic foods meet all of the government safety standards that other foods must meet, plus the requirements outlined for organic certification. Foods that are grown organically have been shown to be more healthful—higher in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and free of troubling additives like pesticides, GMOs and other products that have been linked to health problems. Animals on organic farms are typically treated more humanely.
While conventional farming practices cost taxpayers billions of dollars in environmental damage and federal subsidies, organic growers protect soil sustainability (by preventing erosion and contributing to natural fertilization), respect the water quality (by not adding chemical herbicides and pesticides to the water), and contribute to biodiversity (by encouraging the existence of multiple species of plants and animals). Organic farming protects the health and welfare of farm workers as well as consumers, and it provides the world with the safest, most healthful means of nourishment.
In addition, those who buy local organic products eliminate the need for unnecessary middlemen, greatly reducing transportation costs and directly supporting farmers and their communities.
Of course, savvy consumers should know that you can’t always tell a food by its label. When a food is labeled “all natural,” or “natural,” for example, we’re left guessing about just what that means; these designations aren’t government regulated. When it comes to organics, though, a “USDA organic certified” label should be a guarantee that the product has been grown in accordance with very specific federal standards.
These standards are extensive, but in a nutshell they specify that the organic farmer may not use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), irradiation, antibiotics or growth hormones in the production of their products. Growers must use renewable resources and sustainable growing methods, including soil building, conservation, manure management and crop rotation; they must avoid contamination during the processing of products; and they must keep detailed records of their operations.
Not all organic labels are the same, though. “USDA Organic” means that the product was grown according to the federal standards for organics, while “made with organic ingredients” means that the product contains at least 70 percent organic content, and “organic” means the product is 95 percent organic ingredients by weight or volume (not including water and salt). If it’s a “transitional” label you’re looking at, it means the farmer grew the produce while converting to organic production. (The soil must be free of non-organic use for three years prior to organic certification.)
In order for the “USDA Organic” label to remain meaningful, it is critical that consumers continue to put pressure on the USDA to uphold the highest organic standards. Only reputable certifying agencies should be accredited, and only food that is grown in accordance with current requirements should be certified. Relaxing any of these standards would greatly compromise the value of the system and the reliability of organic products. By voicing our support for strict standards, we can ensure that the organic label continues to be meaningful and true not only to the letter of the law but also to the spirit.
Our co-op has been offering organic foods to our shoppers since we first opened our doors in 1976. Organic production methods ensure that food is being produced without the addition of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides or fungicides. That means food grown organically is healthier for our bodies, for the land, and for the farmers and workers who grow our food.