What Does ‘Organic’ Really Mean?

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“Organic” may appear on meat packages, milk or egg cartons, cheese, and other single-ingredient foods. Certified organic requires the rejection of synthetic agrochemicals, irradiation, and genetically engineered foods or ingredients.

Literally, the term is redundant: all food comprises organic chemicals (complex chemicals containing carbon). Any materials used in producing or processing organic food must be proven safe. Awareness is growing about the value of organic foods. But whether organic chicken or pesticide-free lettuce represents “healthier” alternatives has long been debated.

Organic farming is one of the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. Gardening organically is much more than what you don’t do.

Sales of organics have surged more than 20 percent each year in the past decade. In terms of the number of farms, acreage and value of production, the organic food industry is growing at 20-30% per year. As commodity programs are eliminated, more farmers have discovered that organic production is a legitimate and economically viable alternative enterprise. The growth in organic farmers has increased steadily, similar to the U.S.

In current organic production systems, growers cannot use conventional synthetic organic fungicides in their disease management program. Non-organic milk comes from farms that can use genetically modified cattle feed, routine antibiotic treatments, and synthetic pesticides. Arguments have long raged about how these hormones and chemicals affect bioproducts. Growth hormones in cows, pesticides on produce, and antibiotics in poultry are among the reasons many Americans turn to organic foods.

Organically raised animals may not be given growth hormones to or antibiotics for any reason. Producers are required to feed livestock agricultural feed products that are 100 percent organic, but farmers may also provide allowed vitamin and mineral supplements.

The US Department of Agriculture finally established a national system for labeling organic food. The new federal rule guarantees you, the consumer, organic products that are grown without toxic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. Pesticides derived from natural sources (such as biological pesticides) may be used in producing organically grown food. Limitations in relation to which pesticides may or may not be used present the organic grower with some unique and very demanding challenges. Food at least 70 percent organic will list the organic ingredients on the front of the package. More than 40 private organizations and state agencies (certifiers) certify organic food, but their standards for growing and labeling organic food may differ. Even with these labeling rules in place, consumers should be prepared for some confusion when shopping for organic foods. Organic products are not uniformly labeled because many farmers using organic methods do not pursue certification at all. In addition, the language contained in seals, labels, and logos approved by organic certifiers may differ.

While consumers struggle with the fact that organic materials are often limited when large quantities are needed, more and more people have come to appreciate the added dimensions of value and quality available in the organic marketplace.

Cover Photo by Markus Spiske

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