When we think of ‘organic foods’, we tend to think of natural and healthy foods. We even associate environmentally sustainable and socially responsible farming systems with ‘organic food’ labels we encounter in our supermarkets. Today, we find out what the term ‘organic’ really means and how it is changing consumer habits:
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), “Organic is a labelling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods.” Any and all production of organic goods must be regulated and meet very specific requirements. Simply put, the farming of organic products must be free of artificial fertilizers, GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) and genetic engineering, hormones, irradiation, pesticides and additives to livestock feed. For animal products, this also includes animal welfare and regulated antibiotic usage. Organic farms must maintain soil and water quality, and conserve their environment. For more information, check out the web site of the USDA.
The use of artificial fertilizers first came about during the 19th century, whereas notable developments occurred for chemical pesticides in the 1940’s. These advances in agricultural techniques lead not only to an increase in erosion and an overall decline in soil fertility in the long term, but also concerns were raised on health issues and chemicals in our food.
Botanists Albert and Gabrielle Howard, considered founders of the organic farming movement, began writing about organic agriculture in the 1930’s. They and their colleagues coined the term ‘organic’. In the 1940’s, J.I. Rodale, who studied Howard’s ideas, founded both a working organic farm to teach and advocate organic methods to the wider public. Interest in organic food considerably increased during the 1960’s, when numerous pesticides and fertilizers were found to be toxic to humans and animals. Since the 1970’s and with increasing speed, the practice of organic farming has been spreading across the globe, with governments taking on these standards to regulate food production. The USDA finalized the organic definition and inspection program in 2002.
The Benefits of Organic Farming
Organic farming practices greatly support efforts to conserve and maintain balanced and sustainable ecosystems. The main goal is to have the land thrive without conventional agricultural chemicals. Organic farming’s ecologically protective practices contribute to water quality, soil health, and biodiversity.
Science has clearly shown that certain pesticides are potentially carcinogenic. Meanwhile, some studies suggest that certain organic food items have more nutrients than their conventional counterparts. Furthermore, findings from a recently published study suggest that organic foods may lower the risk of cancer.
In addition to health concerns, consumers have been mainly choosing organic labelled products motivated by environmental concerns, ethical concerns, animal welfare and the need to reduce exposure to modern agricultural chemicals. Ultimately, by continuing to buy organic food products, consumers are supporting organic farming and subsequently environmental and conservational efforts.
Organic produce sales are reported to have increased sharply in 2020 (mainly due to the Covid-19 pandemic). Yet, farmer’s market and CSA sales still account for a very small percentage of overall organic sales in the USA. Instead of small family operations feeding their local communities, much of this reported growth originates from large industrial farms. In most places, consumers don’t seem to have enough information about the production methods of their organic food. There is a risk that shelf space for organic products from local and small farms is being taken over by industrial corporate producers.
There is a true need to connect buyers with their local producers to make healthy, fresh, organic food available to all and to support small-scale farmers.
There is a difference between ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ foods. The Organic Food Network warns: The US “The FDA defines ‘natural’ for beef and chicken as: no artificial ingredients or added colors, and if it wasn’t “fundamentally altered” during processing. Many people think the words ‘natural’ or ‘all natural’ on a food label means it contains no artificial ingredients, GMOs, synthetics, pesticides, artificial hormones or antibiotics, just like organic. But that’s not true.”
U.S. Department of Agriculture – Organic Grades and Standards ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/organic-standards Accessed 28 October 2020
Grauerholz L. and Owens N. (2015), “Alternative Food Movements”, International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd Edition, p. 566-572.
Civil Eats – “The Pandemic Has Given Organics a Big Boost—but Most Profits Aren’t Flowing to Small Producers” civileats.com/2020/10/23/the-pandemic-has-given-organics-a-big-boost-but-most-profits-arent-flowing-to-small-producers Accessed 28 October 2020
Organic Produce Network – OPN organicproducenetwork.com Accessed 28 October 2020
American Institute for Cancer Research – “Organic Foods and Cancer Risk: Separating Myth from Fact” aicr.org/resources/blog/organic-foods-and-cancer-risk-separating-myth-from-fact Accessed 28 October 2020
The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation – “Organic Food” komen.org/BreastCancer/OrganicFood.html Accessed 28 October 2020