5 Tips for Buying the Best Organic Food
Buying organic foods is considered more important now than before. This is after health organizations and doctors have discovered that the use of pesticides and other ways used by farmers to increase livestock and crops are a danger to the health of every citizen.
To combat this threat, the United States Department of Agriculture has issued a new directive which encourages farmers to stop these old practices and go organic. It details methods, practices and substances that can only be used in handling organic products, livestock and other processed products. It specifies a ban on the use of genetic engineering, irradiation and sewage sludge which were the things that were used in non-organic produce.
Crops and harvests that are sold to the consumer can only be done if the farm is certified by this department. To help cover the costs of this accreditation, the government on its part will shoulder some of the expenses.
Here are 5 tips that will help the consumer know that the product bought in the supermarket or grocery is organic;
1. At the supermarket, before selecting an item from the rack, it is best to see if there is a label that reads that the ingredients used are 50% to 70% organic. This will assure the customer that it was handled properly and safe to eat.
The wordings written should also state the exact percentages of each of these ingredients. A certification label should also be printed in the packaging. Some of the organizations that are concerned very much on the health of the consumer are Quality Assurance International, California Certified Organic Farmers and the Oregon Tilth Farm Verified Organic.
2. There are a lot of companies that sell a wide range of products in the supermarket. By looking and buying only from firms that support a sustainable agriculture, this is a good sign that the products bought are from those who care about the environment.
3. It is also good to look for companies that give a certain percentage of the profits to help charities. This information can be seen in the news and printed on the label. Being a member of a community-supported agricultural farm can also provide information about such firms.
4. If the person has the time and the space, why not grow it in the backyard. The only thing that is needed is to buy the seeds and to water it. This will give a deeper understanding on the importance of organic foods and develop an intimate relationship with the environment.
5. Coming home from the supermarket, it is best to wash it before being cooked. Organic produce may carry some residual pesticides and waste from animals that are in the same field.
Buying organic foods is just a step towards living a healthy life. By reading magazines and doing some research on the internet, the person will be updated on the latest issues of food production once it has been released. This includes new policies that have been set out the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drugs Administration.
Some good publications that provide information are The Vegetarian Times, Healthy Living and Veggie Life.
Agriculture is a $6 billion industry and organic farming has grown rapidly over the past 16 years. This is because of the incentives given by the government that encourages farmers to shift from non-organic to organic farming.
These farms have to be certified first by the United States Department of Agriculture before such produce can be sold in the supermarket. The guidelines set by the government are just a few steps to help the public. If there are suggestions that can further improve the quality of organic foods, the person must not hesitate to write to the proper authorities.
There is no price on the health and safety of the public. The customer must be not be fooled by fancy marketing or packaging. An earth tone or a drawing on the planet does not necessarily mean that this one is better than another organic product. For this reason, it is always best to read what is on the written on the label before paying for it.
by: Marjorie Geiser, RD
We come from a society where growing organic and just growing produce and livestock for food was once one and the same. Small, family farms still grow their own food using traditional methods passed down through the generations. As commercial farming became big-business, however, growers and farmers started to investigate methods of increasing crops and building bigger livestock in order to increase their profits. This led to increased use of pesticides and drugs to enhance yield.
In this article, we will look at what is required in order to call a product organic, how choosing organic eating and farming impact the environment and our health, discuss the benefits of eating organic foods, and what research says about the nutritional benefits of organically-grown produce.
Calling it “Organic”
In 1995, the US National Organic Standards Board passed the definition of ‘organic’, which is a labeling term denoting products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. It states, “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony.”
The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals, and people.
The philosophy of organic production of livestock is to provide conditions that meet the health needs and natural behavior of the animal. Organic livestock must be given access to the outdoors, fresh air, water, sunshine, grass and pasture, and are fed 100% organic feed. They must not be given or fed hormones, antibiotics or other animal drugs in their feed. If an animal gets sick and needs antibiotics, they cannot be considered organic. Feeding of animal parts of any kind to ruminants that, by nature, eat a vegetarian diet, is also prohibited. Thus, no animal byproducts of any sort are incorporated in organic feed at any time.
Because farmers must keep extensive records as part of their farming and handling plans in order to be certified organic, one is always able to trace the animal from birth to market of the meat. When meat is labeled as organic, this means that 100% of that product is organic.
Although organic crops must be produced without the use of pesticides, it is estimated that between 10-25% of organic fruits and vegetables contain some residues of synthetic pesticides. This is because of the influence of rain, air and polluted water sources. In order to qualify as ‘organic’, crops must be grown on soil free of prohibited substances for three years before harvest. Until then, they cannot be called organic.
When pests get out of balance and traditional organic methods don’t work for pest control, farmers can request permission to use other products that are considered low risk by the National Organic Standards Board.
According to the 15-year study, “Farming Systems Trial”, organic soils have higher microbial content, making for healthier soils and plants. This study concluded that organically grown foods are raised in soils that have better physical structure, provide better drainage, may support higher microbial activity, and in years of drought, organic systems may possibly outperform conventional systems. So, organic growing may help feed more people in our future!
What is the cost of conventional farming, today? The above-mentioned 15 -year study showed that conventional farming uses 50% more energy than organic farming. In one report, it was estimated that only 0.1% of applied pesticides actually reach the targets, leaving most of the pesticide, 99.9%, to impact the environment. Multiple investigations have shown that our water supplies, both in rivers and area tap waters, are showing high levels of pesticides and antibiotics used in farming practices. Water samples taken from the Ohio River as well as area tap water contained trace amounts of penicillin, tetracycline and vancomycin.
Toxic chemicals are contaminating groundwater on every inhabited continent, endangering the world’s most valuable supplies of freshwater, according to a Worldwatch paper, Deep Trouble: The Hidden Threat of Groundwater Pollution. Calling for a systemic overhaul of manufacturing and industrial agriculture, the paper notes that several water utilities in Germany now pay farmers to switch to organic operations because this costs less than removing farm chemicals from water supplies.
What About our Health?
Eating organic food is not a fad. As people become more informed and aware, they are taking steps to ensure their health. US sales of organic food totaled 5.4 billion dollars in 1998, but was up to 7.8 billion dollars in the year 2000. The 2004 Whole Foods Market Organic Foods Trend Tracker survey found that 27% of Americans are eating more organic foods than they did a year ago.
A study conducted by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation reports that the number of people poisoned by drifting pesticides increased by 20% during 2000.
A rise in interest and concern for the use of pesticides in food resulted in the passage of the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act, directing the US EPA to reassess the usage and impact of pesticides for food use.
Particular attention was paid to the impact on children and infants, whose lower body weights and higher consumption of food per body weight present higher exposure to any risks associated with pesticide residues.
Publishing an update to its 1999 report on food safety, the Consumers Union in May 2000 reiterated that pesticide residues in foods children eat every day often exceed safe levels. The update found high levels of pesticide residues on winter squash, peaches, apples, grapes, pears, green beans, spinach, strawberries, and cantaloupe. The Consumers Union urged consumers to consider buying organically grown varieties, particularly of these fruits and vegetables.
The most common class of pesticide in the US is organophosphates (OP’s). These are known as neurotoxins.
An article published in 2002 examined the urine concentration of OP residues in 2-5 year olds. Researchers found, on average, that children eating conventionally grown food showed an 8.5 times higher amount of OP residue in their urine than those eating organic food. Studies have also shown harmful effects on fetal growth, as well.
Pesticides are not the only threat, however. 70% of all antibiotics in the US are used to fatten up livestock, today. Farm animals receive 24.6 million pounds of antibiotics per year!
Public health authorities now link low-level antibiotic use in livestock to greater numbers of people contracting infections that resist treatment with the same drugs. The American Medical Association adopted a resolution in June of 2001, opposing the use of sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics in agriculture and the World Health Organization, in its 2001 report, urged farmers to stop using antibiotics for growth promotion. Studies are finding the same antibiotic resistant bacteria in the intestines of consumers that develop in commercial meats and poultry.
Is it More Nutritious?
Until recently, there had been little evidence that organically grown produce was higher in nutrients. It’s long been held that healthier soils would produce a product higher in nutritional quality, but there was never the science to support this belief. Everyone agrees that organic foods taste better.
In 2001, nutrition specialist Virginia Worthington published her review of 41 published studies comparing the nutritional values of organic and conventionally grown fruits, vegetables and grains. What she found was that organically grown crops provided 17% more vitamin C, 21% more iron, 29% more magnesium, and 13.6% more phosphorus than conventionally grown products. She noted that five servings of organic vegetables provided the recommended daily intake of vitamin C for men and women, while their conventional counterparts did not. Today there are more studies that show the same results that Ms. Worthington concluded.
Considering the health benefits of eating organic foods, along with the knowledge of how conventionally grown and raised food is impacting the planet should be enough to consider paying greater attention to eating organic, today. Since most people buy their food in local supermarkets, it’s good news that more and more markets are providing natural and organic foods in their stores. Findings from a survey by Supermarket News showed that 61% of consumers now buy their organic foods in supermarkets. More communities and health agencies also are working to set up more farmer’s markets for their communities, also, which brings more organic, locally grown foods to the consumer. The next time you go shopping, consider investigating organic choices to see if it’s indeed worth the change!
Organic proponents cite evidence showing that certain chemicals used in conventional farming, including pesticides and herbicides, mimic hormones - usually estrogen - when inside a person. They claim that this is significant even at the minute levels that the average person is exposed to. The US government states that these chemicals are safe when used correctly, but proponents claim such tests are only done on healthy adults - and that it is instead children and fetuses that are most at risk to even small amounts of these chemicals.
Currently, the US government uses testing methods that do not include the idea of hormesis, which is now widely accepted as a criticial model for the unique behavior of substances at extremely low doses. Conventional testing looks only for high dose effects.
In Australia, the Government sponsored Australian Total Diet Survey measures pesticide residues found in typical Australian diets. The 2004 survey found all estimated dietary exposures to pesticide residues were below 16% of the respective Acceptable daily intakes and therefore all exposures are less than the applicable health standards.
In the case of organic fertilizers, some critics claim that using manure to fertilize organic crops might increase the risk of contamination by dangerous microbes like E. coli.
There is no conclusive evidence or scientific consensus on any of these issues, other than that there are pesticide residues present on conventional produce.
Every food purchase supports the system that delivers it and the idea is that if large-scale chemical production methods are damaging to the environment, then the purchase of these foods supports this damage. Critics of organic farms cite evidence that organic farms produce less yield than conventional farms. In fact, one prominent 21-year Swiss study found an average 20% lower organic yields over conventional methods. However, that came with consumption of 50% less fertilizer, and 97% less pesticide (Maeder et. al.). Another study that supports the claim that organic farms are more energy efficient was done with apple farms in the state of Washington. In that study the organic farms were found to be at least 7% more energy efficient (Reganold et. al.).
In comparing yields, a US survey published in 2001 analyzed of some 150 growing seasons of data on various crops and concluded that organic yields were 95-100% of conventional yields (Welsh). Because organic farms don’t use toxic pesticides and herbicides, there is a higher biodiversity in the soil. Besides higher soil quality (Johnston p97) - more life in the soil allows for higher water retention. This helps increase yields for organic farms in drought years where there is less rain. It turns out this is quite a startling contrast, in fact, because during drought years organic farms have been found to have yields 20-40% higher than conventional farms (Lotter et. al.).
Claims that eating organic food is better for the environment are, however, frustrated by the fact that most of the organic food sold today travels the same great distances as conventional food. A UK study published in 2005 in the Journal of Food Policy found that maximum environmental benefit would result from purchasing food produced within a 12-mile radius. Therefore, buying local food that is not organic could be environmentally “better” than buying organic food that has travelled hundreds or thousands of miles.
It is possible that organic foods taste better simply because it is fresher. Because organic farms tend to be smaller operations, they often sell their products closer to the point of harvest. Thus, organic fruits and vegetables taste more “farm fresh” than the comparable conventional produce.
However, organic foods can also have more flavor because organic farmers often breed with taste instead of marketability as the primary factor. Conventional tomatoes, for example, are often bred to be perfectly red and round, to match the ideal appearance of a tomato. They are furthermore bred to be resistant to damage in transport and storage, for a longer shelf-life. This means that taste is an attribute that falls lower in priority. In addition to crop diversity and selection practices, organic farming also emphasizes soil nutrition, which can positively influence the taste of the food.
Certain food such as bananas are picked when unripe, then artificially enduced to ripened using a chemical (such as propylene or ethylene) while they are in transit, possibly producing a different taste. The issue of ethylene use in organic food production is contentious, with opponents claiming that its use only benefits large companies, and serves to open the door to weaker organic standards.
Some organic advocates claim that food produced under organic conditions is more nutritious. This is not the objective of organic agriculture, but may be a positive side effect. The main aim of organic agriculture is to produce food that does not degrade soil, the environment, or public health. 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, however research is growing.
Organically grown potatoes, oranges, and leafy vegetables have higher levels of vitamin C than conventionally grown. Phenolic compounds are also found in significantly higher concentrations in organically grown foods, which may be used as antioxidant protection against heart disease and cancer.
Still isolated bits of research are appearing that suggest that conventional agricultural practices are degrading food quality. 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 noticeable decreases in six of 13 nutrients examined (the six were: protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and ascorbic acid). Percentage reductions ranged from 6% for protein to 38% of riboflavin, although when evaluated on a per-food or per-nutrient level, usually no distinguishable changes were found. Reductions in calcium, phosphorus, iron and ascorbic acid were also found. The study, conducted at the Biochemical Institute, University of Texas at Austin, suggested that the easiest explanation for differences comes from changes in cultivated varieties between 1950 and 1999, in which there may have been trade-offs between yield and nutrient content.
Certified organic foods are not substantially genetically modified. The health risks surrounding genetically modified foods remain highly contentious. In the USA, a small admixture of a GM variety is compatible with organic certification, as long as it is unintentional. The USDA regulates the organic production process, and does not verify the actual composition of the final product. So as long as the farmer complies with the rules of organic farming, he cannot lose his organic certificate solely because of random presence of transgenic variety. In most European countries, certification rules are much stricter. Basically, any confirmed detection of transgenic plant, seed or feed can result in a loss of organic status and cosenquent substantial economic losses for the farmer.
With estimates that pollen of some crops (eg. canola) can travel more than 5 kilometers per year, we can be certain that the technology and marketing of organic foods will clash with the technology and marketing of GMO foods. In many countries, however, public awareness is limited and the battles seem to take place with a small elite in the GMO industry and the NGOs that oppose them.
Many of these claims are contentious. The most important issue seems to be the effect of pesticides on people, animals, and the environment. This is still being debated by experts in toxicology. There are research reports, expert opinions, and anecdotal evidence both supporting and rebutting them.
The history of organic farming is one of methods and markets. It is also largely the history of the organic movement, which began as an insiders group of agricultural scientists and farmers, and later expanded to become a grassroots consumer cause. Initially, organics focused on the methods, as a definite reaction against the industrialization of agriculture, and remained below the awareness of the food buyer. Only when the contrasts between organics and the new conventional agriculture became overwhelming, did organics rise to the attention of the public, creating a distinct organic market. World War II marks the two phases.
Pre-World War II
The first 40 years of the 20th century saw simultaneous advances in biochemistry and engineering that rapidly and profoundly changed farming. The introduction of the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine ushered in the era of the tractor, and made possible hundreds of mechanized farm implements. Research in plant breeding led to the commercialization of hybrid seed. And a new manufacturing process made nitrogen fertilizer - first synthesized in the mid-1800s - affordably abundant. These factors changed the labor equation: there were some 600 tractors in the US around 1910, and over 3,000,000 by 1950; in 1900, it took one farmer to feed 2.5 people, where currently the ratio is 1 to well over 100. Fields grew bigger and cropping more specialized to make more efficient use of machinery.
In England in the 1920s, a few individuals in agriculture began to speak out against these agricultural trends.
Consciously organic agriculture (as opposed to the agriculture of indigenous cultures, which always employs only organic means) began more or less simultaneously in Central Europe and India. The British botanist Sir Albert Howard is often referred to as the father of modern organic agriculture. From 1905 to 1924, he worked as an agricultural adviser in Bengal, where he documented traditional Indian farming practices, and came to regard them as superior to his conventional agriculture science. His research and further development of these methods is recorded in his writings, notably, his 1940 book, An Agricultural Testament, which influenced many scientists and farmers of the day.
In Germany, Rudolf Steiner’s development, biodynamic agriculture, was probably the first comprehensive organic farming system. This began with a lecture series Steiner presented at a farm in Koberwitz (now in Poland) in 1924. This lecture series, published in English as Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture, was the very first publication anywhere on organic agriculture. A number of farmers interested in finding a healthier approach to farming attended the course, and several farms began working with a biodynamic/organic approach. Steiner emphasized on the farmer’s role in guiding and balancing the interaction of the animals, plants and soil. Healthy animals depended upon healthy plants (for their food), healthy plants upon healthy soil, healthy soil upon healthy animals (for the manure).
In the early 1900s, American agronomist F.H. King toured China, Korea, and Japan, studying traditional fertilization, tillage, and general farming practices. He published his findings in Farmers of Forty Centuries (1911, Courier Dover Publications). King probably did not view himself as part of a movement, organic or otherwise, but in later years his book became an important organic reference.
In 1939, influenced by Sir Howard’s work, Lady Eve Balfour launched the Haughley Experiment on farmland in England. It was the first scientific, side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional farming. Four years later, she published The Living Soil, based on the initial findings of the Haughley Experiment. Widely read, it led to the formation of a key international organic advocacy group, the Soil Association.
The coinage of the term organic farming is usually credited to Lord Northbourne, in his book, Look to the Land (1940), wherein he described a holistic, ecologically-balanced approach to farming.
In Japan, Masanobu Fukuoka, a microbiologist working in soil science and plant pathology, began to doubt the modern agricultural movement. In the early 1940s, he quit his job as a research scientist, returned to his family’s farm, and devoted the next 30 years to developing a radical no-till organic method for growing grain, now known as Fukuoka farming.
Post-World War II
Technological advances during World War II accelerated post-war innovation in all aspects of agriculture, resulting in big advances in mechanization (including large-scale irrigation), fertilization, and pesticides. In particular, two chemicals that had been produced in quantity for warfare, were repurposed to peace-time agricultural uses. Ammonium nitrate, used in munitions, became an abundantly cheap source of nitrogen. And a range of new pesticides appeared: DDT, which had been used to control disease-carrying insects around troops, became a general insecticide, launching the era of widespread pesticide use.
At the same time, increasingly powerful and sophisticated farm machinery allowed a single farmer to work ever larger areas of land. Fields grew bigger, and agribusiness as we know it today was well on its way.
In 1944, an international campaign called the Green Revolution was launched in Mexico with private funding from the US. It encouraged the development of hybrid plants, chemical controls, large-scale irrigation, and heavy mechanization in agriculture around the world.
During the 1950s, sustainable agriculture was a topic of scientific interest, but research tended to concentrate on developing the new chemical approaches. In the US, J.I. Rodale began to popularize the term and methods of organic growing, particularly to consumers through promotion of organic gardening.
In 1962, Rachel Carson, a prominent scientist and naturalist, published Silent Spring, chronicling the effects of DDT and other pesticides on the environment. A bestseller in many countries, including the US, and widely read around the world, Silent Spring is widely considered as being a key factor in the US government’s 1972 banning of DDT. The book and its author are often credited with launching the worldwide environmental movement.
In the 1970s, global movements concerned with pollution and the environment increased their focus on organic farming. As the distinction between organic and conventional food became clearer, one goal of the organic movement was to encourage consumption of locally grown food, which was promoted through slogans like “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food”.
In 1972, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, widely known as IFOAM, was founded in Versailles, France, and dedicated to the diffusion and exchange of information on the principles and practices of organic agriculture of all schools and across national and linguistic boundaries.
In 1975, Fukuoka released his first book, One Straw Revolution, with a strong impact in certain areas of the agricultural world. His approach to small-scale grain production emphasized a meticulous balance of the local farming ecosystem, and a minimum of human interference and labor.
In the 1980s, around the world, various farming and consumer groups began seriously pressuring for government regulation of organic production. This led to legislation and certification standards being enacted through the 1990s and to date.
Since the early 1990s, the retail market for organic farming in developed economies has been growing by about 20% annually due to increasing consumer demand. Concern for the quality and safety of food, and the potential for environmental damage from conventional agriculture, are apparently responsible for this trend.
Throughout this history, the focus of agricultural research, and the majority of publicized scientific findings, has been on chemical, not organic farming. This emphasis has continued to biotechnologies like genetic engineering. One recent survey of the UK’s leading government funding agency for bioscience research and training indicated 26 GM crop projects, and only one related to organic agriculture. This imbalance is largely driven by agribusiness in general, which, through research funding and government lobbying, continues to have a predominating effect on agriculture-related science and policy.
Agribusiness is also changing the rules of the organic market. The rise of organic farming was driven by small, independent producers, and by consumers. In recent years, explosive organic market growth has encouraged the participation of agribusiness interests. As the volume and variety of “organic” products increases, the viability of the small-scale organic farm is at risk, and the meaning of organic farming as an agricultural method is ever more easily confused with the related but separate areas of organic food and organic certification. In Havana, Cuba a unique situation has made organic food production a necessity. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and its economic support, Cuba has had to produce food in creative ways like instituting the world’s only state-supported infrastructure to support urban food production. Called organopónicos, the city is able to provide an ever increasing amount of its produce organically. If the U.S. embargo is lifted, however, the future of organic urban growing here may be in peril.