In the United States, organic is a term used for food produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. Organic animal products come from animals that have been fed 100% organic feed and raised without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics in an environment where they may or may not have access to the outdoors. Standards for organic foods vary from country to country. The requirements in Canada, Japan, Western Europe, and other developed countries are similar to those in the United States. These countries require special certifications in order to market food as being organic. In the United States, the National Organic Program (NOP) is the federal regulatory organization that governs organic food. The NOP is within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is responsible for administering and enforcing the federal regulations. However, many developing countries have limited standards for certifying food as “organic.”
Pesticides in fruits and vegetables
Sweet bell peppers
Sweet peas (frozen)
SOURCE: Environmental Working Group. 2018 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php#.WsfhQy7wZaQ (acessed April 22, 2018).
Through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the NOP and the Organic Foods Production Act are intended to assure consumers that the organic foods they purchase are produced, processed, and certified to be consistent with national organic standards.
Organic foods are thought to promote health in humans by eliminating toxins in foods. In addition, the process of growing organic food helps to conserve soil health and water resources, a benefit to the ecological health of our world and its inhabitants. With healthy soil, the surrounding ecosystems are healthier, including birds, animals, and other living organisms. Organic foods helps to reduce agriculture's impact on the environment when farming practices are done in the true sense of organic, sustaining agricultural methods.
The goals of the organic food movement are to:
Organic foods comprise less than 2% of total food sales in the world. However, the growing and consumption of organic foods is far outpacing non-organic foods. According to the World of Organic Agriculture (WOA), the number of acres used for organic farming totaled about 5.3 million acres in 2015. The countries with the largest number of organically managed land were Australia, Argentina, and the United States. The largest increase of land being converted to organic farming occurred in Europe. The WOA stated that global organic sales totaled 77.4 billion US dollars in 2017 and is expected to reach $320.5 billion by 2025. The countries with the largest sales of organic food were the United States, Germany, and France, though the highest per capita consumption of organic foods was in Denmark, Switzerland, and Austria.
Organic farming is the oldest method of farming. Before the 1940s, what is today called organic farming was the standard method of raising crops and animals. World War II (1939–1945) accelerated research into new chemicals that could be used either in fighting the war or as replacements for resources that were in short supply because of their usefulness to the military. After the war ended, many of the new technological discoveries were applied to civilian uses, and synthetic fertilizers, new insecticides, and herbicides became available. Fertilizers increased the yield per acre and pesticides encouraged the development of single-crop mega-farms, resulting in the consolidation of agricultural land and the decline of the family farm.
Organic farming, although only a tiny part of American agriculture, originally offered a niche market for smaller, family-style farms. In the early 1980s, this method of food production began to gain popularity, especially in California, Oregon, and Washington. The first commercial organic crops were vegetables that were usually sold locally at farmers' markets and health food stores.
By the late 1980s, interest in organic food had reached a level of public awareness high enough that the U.S. Congress took action and passed the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. This act established the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) under the USDA. The NOSB developed regulations and enforcement procedures for the growing and handling of all agricultural products that are labeled “organic.” These regulations went into effect on October 21, 2002.
Since the 1990s, the market for organic food has expanded from primarily fruits and vegetables to eggs, dairy products, meat, poultry, and commercially processed foods. In 2000, for the first time, organic food was purchased more often in mainstream supermarkets than in specialty food outlets. By 2005, every state had some farmland that was certified organic, and some supermarket chains had begun selling their own brand-name organic foods. In 2010, according to the WOA, 54% of organic food was sold in mass-market retail establishments, such as supermarkets and warehouse stores; 39% was sold in natural-product retailers; and 7% was sold in farmers' markets, through the Internet, by mail order, or through other various means.
Organic certification is voluntary and applies to anyone who sells more than $5,000 worth of organic produce annually. (This exempts most small farmers who sell organic produce from their own farm stands.) If a product carries the USDA Organic Seal indicating that it is “certified organic,” it must meet the following conditions:
To meet these requirements, organic farmers use natural fertilizers such as composted manure to add nutrients to the soil. They control pests by crop rotation and interplanting. The process of interplanting involves growing several different species of plants in an alternating pattern in the same field to slow the spread of disease. Pest control is also achieved by using natural insect predators, traps, and physical barriers. If these methods do not control pests, organic farmers may apply certain nonsynthetic pesticides made from substances that occur naturally in plants. Weed control is achieved by mulching, hand or mechanical weeding, the use of cover crops, and selective burning.
Animal products that are USDA certified organic must come from animals that are fed only organic feed; are not given growth hormones, antibiotics, or other drugs for the purpose of preventing disease; and have access to the outdoors. (This last requirement is considered rather vague, as regulations set neither a minimum amount of time the animal must spend outdoors nor any minimums concerning the amount of outdoor space available per animal.)
The USDA allows three label statements to help consumers determine if a food is organic:
Consumers may be bewildered by other words on food labels such as “natural” or “grass-fed,” which may be confused with organic. Natural and organic are not interchangeable. “Natural” foods are minimally processed foods, but they are not necessarily grown or raised under the strict conditions of organic foods, and the term natural does not have a definition. “Grass-fed” indicates that the livestock were fed natural forage but were not necessarily in open pasture for their entire lives.
Debate continues about the exact requirements to label animal products “cage-free,”“free-range,” or “open pasture.” Cage-free simply means the animals were not kept caged, but it does not necessarily mean that they were raised outdoors or allowed to roam freely. There is no certification process for the designation “cage-free.” Animals can spend as little as five minutes per day outdoors and still be considered “free-range.” Animal rights organizations are working to clarify these designations and improve the conditions under which all animals are raised.
Certified organic food requires more labor to produce, which generally makes it more expensive than non-certified food. Some consumers buy organic food primarily because the way that it is raised benefits the environment. Others believe absolutely in the health benefits of organic food. A larger group of consumers are uncertain if organic food offers enough health benefits to justify the additional cost.
Discussions of the health benefits of organic food can be varied. Advocates of buying organic foods firmly believe that they are preserving their health by protecting their bodies from chemicals that may cause cancer, asthma, and other chronic diseases, as well as the earth's health. Non-organic food buyers take the position that the level of pesticide and fertilizer residues in non-organic food is small and harmless. Others follow this thought, and but feel that it is more important to buy locally than purchase organic products from different countries where much energy has been used in the transport of the organic food. Studies comparing organic and non-organic foods have drawn the following conclusions:
Eating organic food does reduce the risk of consuming pesticides, artificial chemicals, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, growth hormones, and other contaminates. Organic foods are produced using environmentally friendly methods and are free from genetically modified ingredients. However, consuming organic food does not completely eliminate the risk of consuming these contaminates. In addition, individuals should be informed about food labeling requirements and read food labels carefully so that they can make informed decisions about their purchases.
No complications are expected from eating organic food. However, consumers should still be cautious when eating any foods they may already be allergic to, such as peanuts, that cause medical problems in some children. People consuming organic meats should ensure that it is cooked properly to decrease the risk of foodborne illnesses.
Chemicals found in traditionally grown foods may have a greater effect on the growth and development of younger children than older ones. Young children are rapidly growing while still developing their nervous system, immune system, and other organs. Chemicals may have a greater effect on these developing tissues than on adult tissues.
The health benefits of consuming organically produced foods compared with conventional foods are unclear. Personal health is one of the main reasons for consumers to buy organic; however, scientific evidence for a health effect is still limited. It is also hard to define the benefits of diet or lifestyle since it has been shown that people switching to organic foods often eat more freshly prepared foods and have healthier lifestyles than those who do not choose organic.
Studies do show evidence of improved nutrient profiles in organic foods. Recent studies show that dairy products contain significantly higher protein, alpha linolenic acid, total omega-3 fatty acid, cis-9, trans-11 conjugated linoleic acid, trans-11 vaccenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid, and docosapentaenoic acid, all which have been shown beneficial to overall health, than those of conventionally produced dairy products. In other studies, they show higher levels of micronutrients in organic foods more often than in conventional foods, and the total micronutrient content, to also be higher in organic as compared to conventionally grown produce. The micronutrient content of food groups was more frequently reported to be higher for organic vegetables and legumes compared to their conventional counterparts. More research is needed to show if these increases in nutrient value relate to an increase in overall health benefits.
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Soil Association, South Plz., Marlborough St., Bristol, UK, BS1 3NX, +44 11 7314-5000, Fax: +44 11 7314-5001, http://www.soilassociation.org .
Helen M. Davidson
Revised by Megan Porter, RD