First of all, what does that organic label mean? The USDA has defined organic crops as those "raised without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. The NOP [National Organic Program] regulations prohibit the use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge in organic production and handling."
For animal farms to be certified organic, the animals "must be fed organic feed and given access to the outdoors. They are given no antibiotics or growth hormones."
A couple other things to note:
- Products labeled "100 percent organic" must contain only organically produced ingredients.
- Products labeled "organic" must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients.
- Processed products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients can use the phrase "made with organic ingredients" and list up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups on the principal display panel.
What Certified Organic Does Not Mean
The system for certifying organics is not perfect. The purpose is to protect the consumer, so you know what you're purchasing when you see the "organic" label. But the organics program is mainly concerned with health issues and is less concerned with sustainability or other environmental issues. For instance:
- Certified organic is not the same as grass-fed or pastured. Animals on certified organic farms must be given "access" to the outdoors, but the form or amount of that access is vague.
- Certified organic does not mean small farm. Becoming certified is costly, which means that many small farmers are financially excluded from certification.
- Certified organic farmers can only use certified seed, so their options about varieties to grow are limited. People who prefer heirloom varieties are probably not going to find much choice when shopping for certified organics.
- Certified organic restricts the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers but does not provide specific guidelines for sustainable farming practices.
Because of these and other considerations, I think it's less important to look at the label and more important to know your farmer. Ask the farmers at your local farmers market about their methods for pest management and fertilization, and make an informed decision, even if they're not certified.
Now that You're Ready to Go Shopping...
- Start with the Dirty Dozen. According to the Environmental Working Group, these are the fruits and vegetables that have the highest pesticide residue. They include peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, imported grapes, pears, spinach, and potatoes.
- Look for organic baby food. Studies have indicated that young children, and especially babies, are more susceptible to the negative effects of pesticide exposure than adults.
- Switch your animal products to organic. Levels of chemical toxicity get more concentrated the higher you get up the food chain. Additionally, factory-farm produced meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs are full of extra yuckies like antibiotics and hormones.
- Go all organic. Look for the organic label on all of the foods you eat.