Wednesday, July 1, 2009

What does 'organic' mean?

The market for natural and organics foods has literally exploded over the last ten years. Walk down the aisles of any standard supermarket today, and you can't miss a section devoted to armies of boxes and bottles and bars, all shouting the word ORGANIC or ALL-NATURAL somewhere on the label.

But what does that even mean? In a purely chemical sense, that title merely ensures that what you have on your hands is a carbon-based substance. Good start, but what else? Many people assume that organic food equals health. Others assume that it means the food is morally correct -- grown with certain stardards, banning certain substances or practices. Some associate it with being fresher, higher-quality, or better-tasting. Upper-tier, white collar, $6-box-of-crackers food.

The bottom line is that being organic does not make food magical. An organic slice of triple-fudge-explosion cake has just as many calories as a conventional one (albeit lacking the high fructose corn syrup). What does make food magical (or meet your own expectations, whatever you want to call it), is how you personally can implement organic food and knowledge of organic practices to support the type of agriculture and food philosophy that is important to you, and be aware of when you are being sold nothing more than a pretty 7-letter label.

The standards by which a farm or food handler can become USDA certified organic are outlined in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. Some of the basics of this document state:

- Organic produce cannot be grown with the aid of synthetic nitrogren or phosphorus fertilizers (lime, potash)
- Organic produce cannot be grown with the aid of synthetic lead and arsenic salt-based pesticides
- Organic meat and animal products must be fed with feed not containing manure or plastic roughage
- Organic meat and animal products may not be produced with the aid of anitbiotics or growth hormones

Which, to the concerned consumer, all sound pretty dandy and well. However, there are a lot of common misconceptions about what is implied with an organic label. I'd like to commment on a few below.

(1) Organic means that the food is produced on a small, indepdenent, family-owned farm.

No, no, and no. Ok, yes -- many small, independent, family-owned farms follow organic practices. But this does not ensure that every organic product comes from this origin. People are often suprised to learn about who the giants are in the organic food industry. If one of your motives for buying organic food is to support independent business, you'd best become acquainted with who is owned by who. The following charts, just a couple of many to be found here at Michigan State Univeristy, are particularly useful.

The chart above shows the acquisition of a variety of organic food companies and who their parent or owner now is. A saturday-grilled boca burger is fueled by the same monetary giant that puts Velveeta (food only in the loosest interpretation) on the shelves. That delicious green Naked Juice smoothie? Funneled up to Pepsi. Even the most offensive of the corn industry giants, such as ConAgra, are getting their share of the growing market.

However, there still remain quite a few successful independents in the industry, outlined in this chart:

A pack of Newman's own cookies or Turtle Mountain ice-cream are still safe for those concerned with supporting independent business. However, the industry is rapidly shifting and organic companies can be bought and change hands in the blink of an eye. Just because your food is organic does not mean that it neccesarily supports the farmer-next-door; or if it does, there's a significant chance that it won't in the near future.

(2) Organic means that my food is unaltered genetically, and free of all pesticides, hormones, and anything that doesn't occur naturally/in the wild.

Organic food in the US is subject to a variety of restrictions regarding pesticide, fertilizer, hormone, and additive use. However, being organically certified means only that -- that they follow a certain set of restrictions and requirements, not that they replicate pristine natural conditions.

Take, for example, the standards by which a packaged food can even label itself organic, found in the USDA Organic Labeling and Marketing Information guide. In using the label "organic", there is a 5% allowance for ingredients that are not fully organic or may even be grown under conventional standards. In order to say that something is "made with organic ingredients", only 70% of the total food mass must actually be considered organic. The secondary whey or casein ingredients in such an instance might come from conventionally farmed dairies, where growth hormones, antibiotics, and pesticide residue from a non-organic diet can build up and present in the animal product.

In addition to this, the standards by which an ingredient or produce can be considered fully, certifiably organic are in flux, and there is market pressure to change legislation and allow for more lax regulations.

"...efforts by some of the larger organic companies to create a less stringent definition of "organic" continue. In April 2004, the USDA announced that it was considering allowing farms to retain the organic seal even if they used animal growth hormones, fed cattle nonorganic fishmeal, or sprayed some kinds of pesticides." -Jason Mark, "The Green Machine"

Whether or not this 5-30% is considered a big deal or permissable is entirely up the the individual eating the food, but simply including the word "organic" on the label does not give the item a free pass when it comes to controversial ingredients.

(3) Organic equals sustainability

There is a tremendous demand for organic food, which is growing by the day. Consequently, a variety of large-scale farms and food producers have appeared on the scene to cater specifically to this market. However, in order to meet the demands of supermarkets across the country intent on expanding their organic produce section, organic farming has taken on many of the qualities that are less than desirable about conventional farming -- large-scale monoculture, poor soil management, fuel-consuming farm equipment (tractors, combines, tillers, etc), and as I mentioned above, the potential for use of certain kinds of approved or exempted pesticides and fertilizers. Organic farms are not all owned and run my Mom & Pop.

In addition to this, the immense amount of packaging involved in a lot of prepared organic foods (frozen dinners, granola bars, chip bags) is no more biodegradable or sustainable than that used to package conventional foods. Having worked in them, I know that organic restaurants and cafes still produce large amounts of food waste every day, and often don't even have composting systems.

Even within the overarching category of organic foods, if sustainability is a primary factor in the food choices you make, it still requires thought and preparation to avoid farms, companies, and packaging that employ conflicting practices to this effect.

(4) All-Natural and Organic mean the same thing

All-Natural has even less meaning than organic when it comes to food labeling.

"The USDA's current definition says that a product labeled as natural should not contain any artificial flavor, coloring or chemical preservative. The policy also says that meats should not be more than minimally processed -- a pretty vague directive." - Allison Aubrey, All Things Considered

All-natural food can be made from conventionally-farmed ingredients without any problem -- Monsanto GMO corn, cage-raised eggs, and a factory farmed beef-derived ingredient identified only as 'natural flavors' can all happily coexist in any natural food product.

I would like to make clear that I'm not trying to discourage people from buying organic food, fight the organic industry, or even act morally superior by presenting this information -- I still buy my soymilk in a box, after all. Buying organic is still a great step forward in changing the food landscape of this country (and others) toward a more thoughtful, sustainable future. However, the label 'organic' has its limitations, and is certainly not the be-all and end-all when it comes to making progress in that arena.

There are farms out there that are making a difference, growing organic produce and operating on a local, seasonal, more sustainable scale. Getting involved and learning about the organic farms local to your area is a great start. At the Farmer's Market, ask the sellers about their farm -- you can't get better information than straight from the source of your food. WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) offers an excellent program to volunteer and learn about organic farming, or even just to find organic farms in your area that might participate in a CSA or other cooperative organization.

Feeding a world with an appetite such as ours is no easy task -- in farming and food, there's always more to learn, and there's always more to be done.

Sources and Resources:

Howard, Philip H. 2009. Consolidation in the North American Organic Food Processing Sector, 1997 to 2007. International Journal of Sociology of Food and Agriculture 16(1), 13-30.

Mark, Jason 2004. The Green Machine: Conventional food processors in the organic industry raise debate about the value of organic agriculture and the motives of big business. The Monthly, Emryville CA.

Organic Foods Production Act of 1990:

United States Department of Agriculture, National Organic Program. Organic Labeling and Marketing Information. October, 2002.

Allison Aubrey 2006. National Public Radio, All Things Considered: Meat Firms Give USDA an Earful on 'Natural' Label.

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF)

1 comment:

  1. I love this post. Being informed is the most important thing about food should come before labels, statistics, and everything else. I'm posting this as a note on my facebook!!! Props props props.