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Organic food has both a popular meaning, and in some countries, a legal definition. In everyday conversation, it usually refers to all "naturally produced" foods, or the product of organic farming. As a legal and marketing term, it means certified organic. The distinction is important, as the two definitions can represent quite different products.
Types of organic food
Organic foods, like food in general, can be grouped into two categories, fresh and processed, based on production methods, availability and consumer perception.
Fresh food is seasonal and highly perishable. Fresh produce — vegetables and fruits — is the most available type of organic food, and closely associated with organic farming. It is often purchased directly from the growers, at farmers' markets, from on-farm stands, through speciality food stores, and through community-supported agriculture (CSA) projects.
For fresh food, "organic" usually means:
- produced without synthetic chemicals (e.g., fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones)
- free of genetically modified organisms
- (often, but not necessarily) locally grown
Processed organic food products are rarely available, and prices are often higher. The majority of processed organics comes from large food conglomerates, as producing and marketing products like canned goods, frozen vegetables, prepared dishes and other convenience foods is often beyond the scope of small organic producers.
For processed organic food, the general definition is:
- contains only (or at least a certain specified percentage of) organic ingredients
- contains no artificial food additives
- processed without artificial methods, materials and conditions (e.g., no chemical ripening, no food irradiation)
Identifying organic food
Organic consumers are generally looking for chemical-free, fresh or minimally processed food, and originally they had to buy directly from growers: Know your farmer, know your food was a practical reality. Organic food at first comprised mainly fresh vegetables. Personal definitions of what exactly constituted "organic" could be developed and verified through first-hand experience: talking to farmers and directly observing farm conditions and farming activities. Small farms could grow vegetables (and raise livestock) using organic farming practices, with or without certification, and this was more or less something the individual consumer could monitor.
As consumer demand for organic foods continues to increase, high volume sales through mass outlets, typically supermarkets, is rapidly replacing the direct farmer connection. For supermarket consumers, food production is not easily observable. Product labelling, like "certified organic", is relied on. Government regulations and third-party inspectors are looked to for assurance.
Modern food processing is complex and complicated. Commercial preparation methods, the use of food additives, the effects of packaging and storage, and the like are outside the first-hand experience of most people (including organic farmers). Traditional and minimally processed products, baked goods; and canned, frozen, and pickled fruits and vegetables, are somewhat easier for consumers to understand by comparison with home preparation methods, although home and mass-production techniques are quite different. For convenience foods, like frozen prepared foods, cooked breakfast cereals, and so forth, ingredients and methods are quite a mystery to most consumers. A "certified organic" label is usually the only way for consumers to trust that a processed product is "organic".
Organic food and preservatives
Unfortunately, there are no natural models for preserving food the way it's found in supermarkets. Today, food with a long shelf life is the cornerstone of the food industry, providing most of the revenue and profits. In wealthier locales, an impressive array of technologies is used to make food "last" longer: home refrigerators and freezers at the consumer end, and industrial and chemical practices applied along the food production chain, from seed to field to fridge or table.
In general, organic standards cover in detail this entire process, specifying what is an "organic" ingredient or practice. However, since there is little natural reference for preparing, for example, a precooked, frozen dinner, a "certified organic" label on such an item may be hard to understand. The main ingredients are one thing, the processes and additives used to assemble and preserve them are quite another.
Differences in Organic Food
Some of the differences that have been claimed for organic food are:
- tastier: Organic advocates claim organic food tastes better because of the way it is produced, and because there is generally a greater variety to choose from. There is no body of scientific taste testing to consult.
- more nutritious: Food produced under organic conditions are somehow structurally different from chemically-raised and processed products. This pro-organic claim is so far beyond the scope of modern science to prove or disprove. The complex make-up of food, the effect of growing and processing methods, and the internal interactions between people and their nutrients are largely unknown. Measurements of some food components — protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and minerals, and so on — only account for the most obvious factors that have been identified so far, and research is minimal. However, there are scientific indications that, by favoring certain aspects of a plant's development, other aspects may be retarded, resulting in less nutritious food. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in 2004, entitled Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999, compared nutritional analysis of vegetables done in 1950 and in 1999, and found substantial decreases in six of 13 nutrients examined. Percentage reductions included 6% of protein and 38% of riboflavin. Reductions in calcium, phosphorus, iron and ascorbic acid were also found. The study, conducted at the Biochemical Institute, University of Texas, concluded that the most likely cause was the breeding of crops to maximize yield. Although not on the surface a strictly organic issue, plant breeding objectives for commercial production is completely integrated with industrialized, chemical-based farming.
- non-toxic: Organic proponents point to potential problems with toxic residues from agricultural chemicals like pesticides. There is no argument that traces do not exist; however, it is widely held that: (a) they are well in "safe" limits (as established by government regulations); (b) washing and other recommended preparation methods eliminate any risk. One potentially relevant new areas is the principle of hormesis, an emerging outlook on the extreme low level effects of substances, that might suggest that exposure to minute quantities of toxic residues on foods may have as specific effects on humans.
- better for the environment: By this argument, every food purchase supports the system that delivers it: if the large-scale chemical production methods are damaging to the environment, then people who buy these products are directly contributing to the problem. A recent UK study concluded that local food is best for the environment, and recommended food produced within a few miles radius as being the most advantageous. Insofar as organic food is often imported from long distances, local organics would seem environmentally to be the better bet.
To the consumer looking for self-education, a basic awareness of recent food history provides a useful context. Chemical agriculture and mass production of supermarket food have only been big business for about 50 years. During that period, radical changes in the way food is produced have been justified by quoting scientific studies and conducting large-scale advertising and publicity campaigns. In recent years, the negative longer-term effects of many chemical agriculture practices have become increasingly hard to deny, however, the lack of balanced agricultural and food research is still overwhelming. It is unlikely that anything near definitive scientific conclusions will be drawn for years, possibly decades. In the meantime, consumers have to either trust the existing standards and claims, or come to their own common sense conclusions.
Various alternative organic standards are emerging. They generally bypass formal certification, and provide their own definition of organic food. One such, the Authentic Food standard, proposed by leading US organic farmer Eliot Coleman, includes criteria that are incompatible with current agribusiness:
- All foods are produced by the growers who sell them.
- Fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs and meat products are produced within a 50-mile radius of their place of their final sale.
- The seed and storage crops (grains, beans, nuts, potatoes, etc.) are produced within a 300-mile radius of their final sale.
- Only traditional processed foods such as cheese, wine, bread and lactofermented products may claim, "Made with Authentic ingredients."
Particularly in developed nations, it is difficult to imagine not having the majority of products found in today's supermarkets. On the other hand, most of those products did not exist 100 years ago, and many of them are only a few decades old.
Legal definition of "Certified Organic"
In the United States, agricultural products that claim to be "organic" must adhere to the requirements of the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 (found in 7 U.S.C.A. § 6501-22) and the regulations (found in 7 C.F.R. Part 205) promulgated by the USDA through the National Organic Program ("NOP") under this act. These laws essential require that any product that claims to be organic must have been manufactured and handled according to specific NOP requirements.
Products that bear the Organic label come from farms and processing facilities that have been certified by a third party certifying organization to meet the USDA National Organic Standards.
The Standards are based on the following rule: any "natural" product may be used in organic production, except for a list of exemptions; and no "synthetic" products can be used in organic production, except for a list of exceptions. Organic farmers are required to have a working management plan, including crop rotation and integrated pest management strategies. They must show that the farm has been organic for at least 3 years before they receive certification.
Defining "natural" and "synthetic" and creating those lists of exemptions has been contentious. An important example of the exemptions that are allowed in organic production despite not being natural is synthetically produced insect pharamones used for management of insect pests, which are allowed provided that they are applied passively (allowed to dissipate from on sponges) rather than sprayed. These exemptions are justified in that they are extremely useful and completely non-toxic. An example of the "natural" products that are disallowed is lead arsenic, a naturally occurring compound that was widely used as an insecticide before DDT was invented. It is disallowed because it is highly toxic to all animals, including humans; it persists in the environment almost forever, and causes even more environmental damage than almost any synthetic insecticide.
- You can read more about organic food in Wikipedia.
- Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association A description of why organic foods and farming may be superior.
- Brief Introduction to Organics
- Organic Food & Product Blog
- Organic Consumers
- Mounting Evidence that Organic Food is Healthier 3/20/05
- Whole Food Whooey
- The costly fraud that is organic food (Guardian article by Dick Taverne, 6/5/2004)
- The Organic Farm