Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Conscious Shopper Challenge: Buy Organic

The next few weeks of the Conscious Shopper Challenge will focus on greening our groceries. Here's the next challenge:


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.
Do you buy organic groceries?

*A version of this post originally appeared on my Conscious Shopper blog in June 2009. For more tips on saving money on organics, check out the original post as well as my post "12 Strategies to Save Money on Organics."


A Green Spell said...

Great post! I usually have to stick with the dirty dozen, only, due to finances. But only in the winter - thank goodness for our summer CSA!

Anonymous said...

It is great to look for organic products, but I am glad you touched on actually talking to your farmers about their practices.

Many smaller farms cannot afford the large costs to get certified organic, even though they use organic practices in their work. That's no reason to overlook their goods!

Shona~ LALA dex press said...

If given the choice between USDA Organic and not, I will go with the USDA Organic item, but truth be told, I look for an additional certifier (from what I have found OTOC appears to be the best secondary certifier) because the regulations seem to be getting a bit lax. Friends of mine are more "big picture" thinkers and we have some lively discussions.

I do not buy all organic because, like A Green Spell mentioned above, my budget does not allow for it. I stick with the Dirty Dozen/ Clean 15 lists and lots and lots of bulk. Now if I really wanted to make myself crazy I would carry this chart around the grocery store:

Sense of Home said...

I buy organic whenever I can. However, when the choice is local or organic I go local. In this situation I usually know how the animals were treated or what methods the farmer/gardener used in growing the produce.


Jen said...

I buy as much organic as I can. I look for sales and try to be practical. The farmers market is a good place to get local but I find it hard to find what is also organic.


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