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What Does "Organic" Really Mean?

August 21, 2019

If you’ve been to the supermarket lately, you’ve probably noticed that the number of food products being labelled “organic” has increased. You may have also noticed those products tend to be more expensive than non-organic foods. But what does it really mean to be “organic”? How is it helpful, and is it worth the extra cash? We’re going to discuss how a product gets the label “organic”, so you can make smarter choices in the grocery store.

Organic farmers, ranchers and food processors follow a strict set of rules to produce food. These standards cover the product from the farm to your shopping cart, including soil and water quality, pest control, livestock practices and rules for food additives.

The USDA categorizes organic agriculture as “producing products using methods that preserve the environment and avoid most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics”. Specifically, a USDA certified organic seal on produce verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms weren’t used.

USDA certified organic livestock means that producers met animal health and welfare standards, didn’t use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors.

When it comes to multi-ingredient foods, a USDA organic seal verifies the product has 95% or more certified organic content. The remaining 5% are ingredients or additives on a USDA approved list.

“Certified organic” isn’t the only label you may see. Some food are labelled “100% organic”, which means they all meet the above standards. Another label is “Made with organic”, which means all the ingredients contain 70% or more organic material. “Made with organic” foods are not allowed to use the USDA seal, and the remaining 30% of ingredients cannot be foods or additives on a special exclusion list.

So now that we know what the label “organic” means, what are the actual benefits to buying organic foods? Here’s where the debate really heats up. Stanford University scientists conducted a study using four decades of research comparing organic and conventional foods. Their conclusion was that organic foods have no substantial vitamin or mineral advantage (other than phosphorous, which is high in human diets anyway). Nor were organic foods less likely to be contaminated by dangerous bacteria like E. coli.

Some people who buy organic say they don’t do it for nutritional benefits. They say the paybacks of buying organic are centered on environmentally friendly farming and growth practices, cycling of natural resources and growing food without the need of harsh pesticides or fertilizers. The Stanford study concluded that conventional fruits and vegetables did have more pesticide residue, overall, 38 percent of conventional produce tested in the studies contained detectable residues, compared with 7 percent for organic produce. However, scientists say the almost all the levels found in conventional produce were still under Environmental Protection Agency safety limits.

Challengers of organic farming are quick to point out that pesticides are still allowed- and actually in many cases, need to be used in a higher quantities- but they are “naturally occurring pesticides” instead of synthetics.

For example, a recent study compared the effectiveness of a rotenone mixture versus a synthetic pesticide, imidan. (Rotenone is considered organic because it is derived from the seeds and stems of several plants. Imidan is considered a “soft” synthetic because it is designed to have a brief lifetime after application, and other traits that curtail undesirable effects. )

The study found that up to seven applications of the rotenone mix were required to obtain the level of protection provided by two applications of imidan. It’s also interesting to note that rotenone has been found to be extremely toxic to fish and other aquatic life.

Studies of bacterial contamination in organic verses conventional meat show widely unpredictable results. These findings suggest that organic meat may be slightly more likely to be contaminated, probably because antibiotics aren’t used. But conventional meat is more likely to be contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The Stanford study found slightly more organic chicken samples were contaminated with Campylobacter, and organic pork was more likely to harbor E. coli. But overall, the risk in meat is essentially the same, and adequate cooking eliminates these issues in both organic and conventional meat.

Advocates of organic farming for environmental reasons point to studies like Journal of Environmental Management’s study in 2012. Their study showed organic farms have a lower environmental impact than conventional farms overall.

But while organic farms tend to have higher soil organic matter content and lower nutrient losses, ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions were higher on organic farms. Organic farms had lower energy requirements- but higher land use. The potential for eutrophication (when an aquatic system has excessive plant growth due to the introduction of fertilizers or sewage) is also higher, as is acidification (the buildup of hydrogen protons, reducing the soil pH).

The last motivation for buying organic is taste. Which is, basically, a matter of taste. Some people claim organic produce and meats taste better. Others say conventional fruits and vegetables are bigger, and stay fresher longer. It all comes down to preference. Whether you choose to buy “Certified organic”, “Made with organic”, “100% organic” or conventional meat and produce, it’s important to know what exactly you’re paying a premium price for.