What is "Organic"?
Organic can be a very confusing and vague term. Most of us know that “organic” means that it’s supposed to be better for us, but how and why is it better? And if “organic” means the food is grown with natural methods, then why does it cost more? We’ve gathered some information here to help answer some of those questions.
What's the Difference?Organic refers to the process of how certain foods are produced. These foods are usually agricultural products, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products, and meats. Products that can be grown and can be classified as living things with carbon compounds can typically undergo organic certification. If a product is not certified organic, it’s called “conventional.” (1)
And to be sure, “organic” is not the same as “natural.” If you see a product labeled as “natural,” it may mean that the product does not contain artificial flavorings, preservatives, or other additives, but it does not mean the product underwent the same strict farming practices as organic certified products. This is the same for “heirloom” or “wild” products, which sometimes claim to be superior to organic. They may use different farming techniques than organic certified producers, but since there is no regulation, certification, or scientific evidence, it’s really hard to confidently say that their techniques are better than organic.
Overall, organic farming practices are designed to meet the following goals:
- Enhance soil quality and water conservation
- Reduce pollution
- Provide safe, healthy, and humane livestock habitats
- Enable natural livestock behavior
- Promote a self-sustaining cycle of resources on a farm/orchard
What Qualifies as "Organic"?There are many global organizations that set their own standards for organic certification. The US, Canada, Europe, China, and Japan, to name a few, all have their own set of rules and requirements to meet organic certifications. (2) Some of these organizations recognize each other’s requirements to equal their own while others do not. For example, US certified organic products are also considered organic in Canada. However, US certified organic would need to meet a whole other set of requirements to be considered organic in China or Europe. Overall, these organic certification programs aim to prevent fraud, instill product assurance, and promote consumer confidence.
In the US, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) created the US organic program and sets the standards for organic certification. (3) It partners with regional organizations such as Quality Assurance International (QAI) and California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). (4) These organizations work directly with farms and orchards to conduct quality inspections and process verification required for organic certification.
Here are a few general guidelines that organic products must meet in order to be certified organic:
- No synthetic fertilizers – synthetic fertilizers can contain chemicals made from fossil fuels. Instead, organic farmers use mulch, cover crops, plant wastes, composts, and animal manure to enrich the soil.
- No fertilizers from sewage sludge – this is the residue left over from processing human waste. (5) It’s not allowed for organic farming but some conventional farms use it. Gross. Rest assured that none of the farmers we work with use sewage sludge as fertilizer.
- No synthetic herbicides – to control weeds and other unwanted vegetation, organic farmers use crop rotations, mulching, tiling, hand-weeding, and cover crops.
- Avoid use of synthetic pesticides – since chemical pesticides are not allowed, organic farmers use insects that eat pests, traps, and naturally-produced pesticides made from minerals or other plants. Some farmers will even raise bats and owls that eat pests, and it’s not uncommon to shake a tree bare so that any remaining leaves, nuts, or fruits will fall to the ground instead of attracting pests or encouraging disease for long-term tree damage.
- No genetically engineered crops, growth hormones, or antibiotics – genetically engineered crops are commonly known as GMOs. GMOs are designed to produce natural pesticides or resistant to synthetic weed killers so conventional farmers can apply more of them and increase crop yields. For livestock to be organic, farmers cannot use growth hormones or antibiotics.
- No irradiation to kill diseases or pests – organic farmers are not allowed to use ionizing radiation to kill diseases or pests or to extend the product’s shelf-life.
- Animals are not fed with animal by-products – organic certified animals can only feed or graze on natural grasses.
- Animals raised for meat, eggs, and milk are provided ample outdoor space – certified organic animals must be allowed to roam an area that allows for fresh air, exercise, shade, shelter, and clean drinking water.
- Livestock are raised on certified organic land – the land used for organic livestock must also meet organic crop production standards, such as no pesticides, no herbicides, etc.
In addition, a farm or orchard must follow these organic requirements for a minimum of 36 months (3 years) before it can officially become certified organic. During this period the farm or orchard is considered “in transition” but cannot label its products “organic.” And if a section of organic land is too close to conventionally farmed land, that organic land can lose its organic certification because the neighboring conventional farming methods can contaminate the organic side.
Why is "Organic" More Expensive?There are many reasons why organically grown produce and livestock are more expensive than conventionally grown foods. Here are a few of them:
- Natural fertilizers only – since organic farmers can’t use synthetic fertilizers, their crops tend to grow more slowly than conventional farmers’. No chemicals or growth hormones are allowed. Natural fertilizers like livestock manure and compost are also more expensive than the sewage sludge and chemical fertilizers that conventional farmers use.
- Natural pest control and weed killing only – without pesticides or herbicides, organic farmers need to manage their crops more carefully and with more labor. Weeds need to be hand pulled and the land needs to be managed properly to limit pests. The higher costs are a trade-off for growing food without chemicals.
- Higher losses – Because no chemicals or antibiotics are used, organic crops and livestock usually sustain higher losses due to natural pests and disease. These chemicals also help to preserve the foods and provide a longer storage time. All of this added together means that there are fewer organic foods available and that they are not available for very long.
- High demand, low supply – In a 2012 Thomson Reuters survey, 58% of Americans said they preferred eating organic but organic farmland only counts for 0.9% of the total farmland in the world. Since then, more farms have transitioned to organic, but the supply still does not meet the demand. Other conventional farms are reluctant to transition because the profits don’t outweigh the costs. Until we have enough supply, organic produce will continue to cost more than conventional due to the demand. The good news is that organic costs have been gradually decreasing. As more consumers buy organic, they are voting and telling food producers what they want, and the food producers are more than happy to accommodate the consumers’ needs. (6)
There are more reasons why organic food costs more than conventional, such as certification fees and the use of cover crops. Organic farming is much harder and more expensive mainly because it’s done without chemicals. It’s a tradeoff for sustainable farming and keeping our foods the way nature intended them to be.
Is "Organic" Better for You?This is the million-dollar question, and of course, it’s not so easy to answer. There have been many studies between organic and conventional foods to determine if one is “healthier” for you compared to the other. In some cases, organic foods contain more nutritional value, but in most cases, organic foods were more or less the same as conventional foods. Here’s what we found:
- Organic has more omega-3 fatty acids – this is mostly seen with organic dairy and organic meats, and it’s because the animals are fed with grass and alfalfa. Omega-3s have been related to numerous health benefits including lowering the risk of heart disease.
- Organic has more antioxidants (and some micro-nutrients) – organic foods have been found to have more antioxidants in the form of flavonoids and polyphenols. (7) And in some studies, organic foods have also contained more micronutrients such as Vitamin C, iron, and zinc. This increase in antioxidants and micronutrients may be due to the lack of pesticides. Without the chemicals, the plants produce more of their own natural defenses. However, it is important to note that nutrients can decrease during the time between harvest to consumption, and that a ripe conventional fruit or produce can contain more vitamins than its less-ripe organically grown counterpart.
- Organic has less nitrates and cadmium – high levels of nitrate have been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers, and cadmium is a toxic chemical naturally found in soils and absorbed by plants. Some researchers believe that the higher presence of these two substances in conventional foods may be due to the use of chemical pesticides. Though some researchers believe that substances like cadmium can accumulate in our bodies to harmful levels over time, most agree that the harmful effects of nitrates and cadmium in our foods do not appear to outweigh the health benefits of eating them.
- Organic has lower pesticide residue – organic foods contain up to four times less pesticide residue compared to conventional foods. The reason why organic food may even have any pesticide residue is because of airborne pesticides from neighboring conventional farms or the use of some USDA approved pesticides for organic farming. The increased amount of pesticide residue in conventional foods is still within the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) safety standards, however there have been studies showing that lower pesticide exposure is a great benefit for pregnant women, children, and older people with chronic health problems. One study showed that “women with the highest pesticide levels during pregnancy gave birth to children who later tested 4 to 7 percent lower on I.Q. tests compared with their elementary school peers.” (8)
- Organic has less resistant bacteria – organic farming does not use antibiotics in animals so organic meat contains lower levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Also, the overall risk of bacterial contamination between organic and conventional foods are found to be the same.
Again, it is important to remember that most studies were inconclusive or did not find results that could confidently claim organic foods contained more nutritional value compared to conventional foods. There have been studies linking organic food consumption to stronger growth, reproduction, and immune systems, but there are also studies that have found no difference in cancer risk between those who ate organic foods versus those who did. More high-quality studies are needed for any definitive results to be widely accepted. (9)
Eating organic doesn’t have to be just good for you and your body, it can also help farm workers and the environment. For farm workers, some pesticides appear to cause cancer. The EPA has banned the use of many toxic pesticides, but the threat is still there. Some who buy organic foods choose to do so out of concern for the farm workers who would need to use pesticides if they were working a conventional farm. The environment is another good reason to buy organic. The pesticides and herbicides used in conventional farming can kill good insects and animals, damage the land, and decrease the soil’s nutrient content over time. There are also growing concerns that agricultural antibiotics can lead to new antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Eating organic is a positive choice that impacts more than just ourselves.