Knowing what is organic food and what isn't is important to help you understand and make the best health choices for you and your family.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity."
Um yeah, but exactly what is organic food? Simply put, organic food is any food that has been grown using accepted organic practices. Those organic practices include:
No chemical pesticides: Pesticides have been linked to numerous cancers, diseases and disorders in adults and children. They also create superbugs that are resistent to pest control and create more problems for farmers and gardeners alike. Read more about the dangers of pesticides here.
No chemical herbicides: Keeping weeds at bay is important to the gorwth of food, but petroleum-based herbicides disrupt plant hormones, impacts the natural balance of habitats and has an effect on our health. Read more about herbicide toxicity here.
No genetically-modified organisms: GMOs are still highly untested, although we know they can contaminate organic fields quickly and easily with their seed. GMO seed can also be patented, meaning companies can actually own a farmer's crop, or even the contaminated farmer's crop. Even if GMOs seem safe or healthy, they certainly don't seem ethical. Read more about GMOs here.
No artificial additives: This includes artificial colors, perservatives, flavors, taste enhancers, etc which have been shown to have an adverse affect on our health.
No hormones or antibiotics: Any organic animal products should be raised without growth enhancers or antibiotics which reach our own systems. Animal feed must also be organic so no trace substances reach our systems.
No other strange or gross practices: No irradiation, no sewer sludge, and nothing else that goes against common sense or Nature.
No farmer or manufacturer is permitted to use the term "organic" on their label without being certified. They may however specify if certain ingredients are organic, or if the grower or producer follows organic practices without certification they will often highlight the practices they follow, such as "Grown with Pesticides" or "Raised with Hormones or Antibiotics".
Organic food is instead grown with organic pesticide and herbicide methods, using only natural fertilizers, organic or heirloom (traditional) seeds, no or all-natural perservatives and holistic animal husbandry practices.
So, how do you tell what is organic food and what isn't? Well, you can look for the certification from multiple private or governmental agencies, such as USDA Organic or Quality Assurance International (QAI). Or you can get to know your local farmer's at the farmer's market, ask them about their practices or visit their farm to know more.
What is Organic Food NOT?
Although knowing what is organic food does guarantee you certain things, there are several things that the "Certified Organic" label can't guarantee:
May not be humanely raised: Just because someone is raising organic meat or dairy doesn't mean they are doing it for humane reasons. Organically-raised animals may still be housed in small living areas or treated poorly. This is more rare since poor or inhumane living conditions and treatment often lead to animals that need antiobitics, which means they can't be certified organic.
May not be naturally raised: Seems contradictory right? But just because your milk says organic, doesn't mean the cows ate grass, their biologically-appropriate food. Feeding organic corn and grain to cows, chickens or other animals is unhealthy for them and unhealthy for us.
May not be eco-friendly: Organic doesn't always mean eco-friendly. Manure runoff may still contaminate areas, improper growing practices may still strip the topsoil, etc.
May not be local: Food grown or raised on the other side of the Earth and shipped to you is not only unhealthy for the environment, it also means less nutrition for you as the food is either older or was picked before fully ripen and at peak nutrition.
May not be sustainable: All of these points lead to one conclusion: Unsustainability. If our food system is not sustainable, organic or not, it's not going to be good for us or the environment.
May not be 100% organic: There is a lot of controversy over whether farmers can use small amounts of non-organic practices or manufacturers can add certain non-organic additives. For instance, according to the USDA, manifacturers using less than 70% of what is organic ingredients can't use the USDA Organic seal. But does that mean 30% of the ingredients CAN be non-organic and still use the seal? Complicates things doesn't it?
Understanding what isn't doesn't change what is: Organic food is still a better choice, especially when you're shopping at the grocery store and don't know your farmer, and CAN stil be just as affordable.
But knowing your farmer, shopping the local farmer's market, visiting the farm and even growing your own organic garden will always help you to know for sure what is organic food and what is organic AND sustainable.