In the past few decades, the organic food movement has reached its peak levels. In almost every major grocery store across the country there is an organic or natural section where the certified shelf goods are consolidated for the convenience of the customers who wish to strictly buy organic.
“I don’t know if you know this but ‘Organic’ is just a grocery term that means more expensive.” – Comedian Jim Gaffigan
Many people wish to buy organic products for different reasons. Some people don’t trust larger manufacturers of food products and the practices associated with such companies. Others want to do what is best for the environment by supporting organic growing practices. With all these different labels and higher prices than their generic counterparts, why should I buy these products, what do all these labels mean and how should that impact what I buy? We can start by looking at some USDA definitions associated with food labeling.
According to the USDA’s website: “USDA organic products have strict production and labeling requirements. Organic products must meet the following requirements:
1. Produced without excluded methods, (e.g., genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge).
2. Produced using allowed substances.
3. Overseen by a USDA National Organic Program-authorized certifying agent, following all USDA organic regulations.”
Just to clear some things up about this definition; ‘sewage sludge’ is an industry term that means human waste as fertilizer for field crops. The list of allowed substances even contains many products that don’t have to be produced organically. Also, “processed foods sold as ‘organic’ must contain at least 95% organic ingredients,” and the other 5% cannot contain GMO (genetically modified organism) products either.
The full list of ‘allowed substances’ and additional information can be found at: https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic/labeling
Another interesting find from digging on the site is there are no regulations in place for aquaculture (fish farms), honey, mushrooms and pet food, despite the fact that both mushrooms and honey are available with the official seal on the products. One can only assume they are certified with the same agricultural standards as other raw produce.
Now that we understand the term organic a little better we as consumers should ask why. There are many reasons to buy organic food especially when it comes to those who are looking out for the environment. Monocultures (farms that only produce one crop only) have a history of using synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and GMO crops. Many of these practices have proved to be unsustainable, damaging the soil, local environments and habitats, all without any significant boost in yield.
As a general rule, it is not horrible to spend the extra dollar for the organic foods if you wish to be a steward of the planet. On average, Americans only spend 6% of their disposable income on food so, as a nation, we can afford to buy more organic products that are better for the planet and us. Most times they have better nutritional value and a better flavor than their generic counterparts. But there has to be a fine line when making these purchases. As an informed consumer you must be able to understand what impacts your choices have, instead of blindly buying any thing with a ‘USDA ORGANIC’ sticker on it.
While most organic practices and products are better for the environment than most commercial products, keep in mind the packaging these products come in. If you are trying to protect the planet by buying an organic product that comes in an unrecyclable plastic container or bag, you might feel foolish. Always be as aware as you can be with how your product gets to you.
Another great example of ‘organic oversight’ is organic produce like cucumbers being flown to the United States from European countries like Norway.
I cannot express how backwards this is.
By buying this product, in an attempt to be more sustainable, the consumer has supported the practice of out of season hothouse growing from a foreign economy and the practice of flying or shipping (two of the highest green house gas emitting transport options) vegetables across the world in order for you to have an organic option when the local producers cannot produce them. I’m sorry to say that trusted retailers like Whole Foods Market are guilty of these products on many accounts.
The ultimate take home message is: Buying local and in season is first and foremost, even if it is not certified organic; ask your farmers how they grow their product. If you want local produce year round, buy it while it is fresh and can or freeze it. If you can’t get it local or in season, always double-check the packaging and the point of origin. Lastly, understand that organic does not always mean sustainable. Spending a little more on foods with sustainable practices now means a better growing potential and environment for future generations.
Dan Wood is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.