What do we mean when we say organic food? Prior to World War II all agriculture was organic, as the only chemicals found on a farm were in the tractor. After World War II, science and technology have advanced so much that they enabled the development of new chemicals from those developed for the war, like N₂H₄O₃, which was used for making ammunition, and organophosphates in nerve gas were modified into pesticides and fertilizers used on farms.
The industrialization of agriculture is ironically known as the Green Revolution.
In the 1940s, a group of men who were concerned about the direction that agriculture was headed in decided to lead a movement to preserve the time-honored techniques of farming, such as soil conservation, composting and farm diversity. The progenitors of the organic movement shared the same values that those of us who embrace organic food still do today. In the beginning of the organic movement, there wasn’t any regulatory or certification process so that the consumers concerned about their food and the environment relied on relationships that they had with their farmers. In 1990, the United States government recognized this unique method of agriculture and launched the National Organic Program. They defined organic agriculture as an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity.
Organic vs Natural
Many people confuse natural with organic. The term natural can be used everywhere but organic means that the food was produced in a specific way. The bottom line for consumers is either buy organic or buy from a farmer you know and whose practices you agree with. Organic certification involves the process of review by a third party that has a permit to inspect and determine if a farm is operating in agreement with the rules that govern organic food production. The benefit to the consumer is that if a farm is certified organic, you can go to a grocery store and look for that certified organic status and know that that product complies with the National Organic Program.
When you’re buying organic, you’re taking a stand against GMO’s, irradiation, sewage sludge, preventative antibiotics, growth hormones, synthetic fertilizers and synthetic pesticides. Organic gardening and farming don’t simply refer to a list of what to use and not to use. They present a completely different view on agriculture. The organic approach is a proactive system that favors soil life and fertility, beneficial insects and natural predators or pests, such as bats. To get it started, the organic farm or garden may take a little bit more attention, but in the long run you’ll add fewer inputs and save time. For example, the soil feeds the plants, which produce food for the people and the livestock. Livestock, like chickens, help the plants by eating pest insects, and cattle add manure to pastures. You can compost the dead plants with kitchen scraps and droppings from the chickens and cattle to naturally make the soil richer.
When you find yourself at the store looking for something quick and easy to eat, you might be also trying to be health-conscious, so instead of regular food you choose the one which says organic on it. Organic is so much better for you than ordinary food, or is it? Well, as it turns out, not necessarily. While 45% of Americans think the organic label means that something is healthier, organic really has nothing to do with how much nutritious the food is for you. Organic defines how the ingredients are created, prepared or raised. It actually means that there are not any genetically modified ingredients, as well as that no chemicals are used to kill bugs and weeds and that all pesticides used are natural instead of synthetic. Organic means nothing is fertilized using the sewage sludge and that nothing is exposed to radiation, which some manufactures use to sterilize food. Finally, it means that no industrial solvents are used to clean things up, as well as no chemical food additives are added to some foods to make them stay fresh for an unnatural amount of time. If we are talking about meat, then there is no routine use of antibiotics or hormones pumped into the animals.
When you’re at the store, how do you feel about labels like cage-free, organic, not tested on animals, phosphate-free and others? Organic doesn’t really mean what we think it means. The US Department of Agriculture took over the term organic in 2002 and defined it as having been produced using methods which “integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity”. However, chickens in a cage are organic. Some farmers and activists don’t agree with this definition, so they’ve created other terms like pasture, meaning an animal literally raised in a pasture. Cage-free means that the animals are not kept in cages. Free-range means that the animals are provided an area to go outside though that area can be fenced and covered, and grass-fed means the animals are fed mainly grass but they can still use pesticides hormones and antibiotics to feed them.
Once Again, Organic and Natural
Notice that organic doesn’t necessarily mean that the ingredients are nutritious, or more nutritious than other food. So, if you care about healthy foods, it is more important to just eat whole foods, mostly fruits and vegetables and avoid package-like substances. One very important tip – if you can pronounce all the ingredients in a package you are holding, then you are on the right track. Over the past 5 years, you may have noticed the organic produce section slowly getting bigger and bigger.
Organic and Conventional Food
While organic and conventional produce look pretty much the same, organic is often more expensive. So, the question is what you are paying the extra money for. At the end of the day, the answer to that question comes down to personal priorities and budget. But there are different studies that have mixed results.
A controversial study that came out of Stanford in 2012 found that there was no significant nutritional difference between organic and conventional produce. The scientists hand-selected 237 studies to analyze and they found a few key outcomes: (1) no difference in vitamin, protein, or fat content, (2) no evidence of health risks with conventional produce, but (3) conventional produce has a 30% increased risk of pesticide contamination. They also found that children who eat conventional produce have more pesticide residues in their pee and exposure to higher levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The study was widely criticized by the scientific community for using faulty methods and leaving several really important studies about nutritional content out of their analysis.
The British Journal of Nutrition has released the largest international analysis ever in 2014, covering 343 studies on organic produce. Their findings tell a slightly different story. The researchers found that organic produce is more nutritious and that it contains up to 70% more antioxidants than conventionally grown produce. They found that chemical fertilizers, which allow vegetables to grow bigger and faster with little effort, don’t allow for proportional antioxidant development. So, even though the vegetables are bigger, the health benefits are not the same. Antioxidants are developed as the vegetable fights to survive and grow, so if they’re protected by chemicals, you get a different result. The review also found that conventional produce has more pesticides and up to 48% more exposure to the toxic metal cadmium.
In the end, it is up to you to decide what to eat. If you’re on a budget and need to be choosy, prioritize the fruits and vegetables where you eat the skin, like apples, strawberries, grapes, and tomatoes.