Thursday, February 12, 2009

Understanding Organics

Today dear readers begins a 5 part series on organic foods, a subject I am pretty passionate about. If you read this series of posts you probably will be too.

If you're confused about organics, don't feel bad, you're not alone. When market research firm the Hartman Group asked a group of allegedly devout green consumers about the USDA organic seal’s meaning, 43 percent did not know!

The small circular green United States Department of Agriculture Organic label affixed to foods is one powerful piece of paper. It assures consumers of exactly how, and under what conditions, their food was grown and produced.

Many people are amazed when they find out that organic farming is now the fastest growing component of world agriculture, and organic foods the fastest growing segment of the grocery industry. Likewise, consumers can expect to encounter an ever increasing variety of organic foods – from staples like produce, dairy products, and meats, to prepared foods like snacks, drinks, and even frozen meals.

What Exactly Are Organic Foods?

The United States Department of Agriculture gives this definition:

”Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.”

What Do Organic Food Labels Actually Mean?
In order to wear the “USDA Organic” seal, food must come from a certified operation, and farmers and food producers must jump through a lot of hoops to obtain that coveted status.

The same standards apply whether the food is produced in the US or another country -- a government-approved certifier must inspect the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.

It turns out the variations on organic labeling are based on the overall percentage of organic ingredients in a given product. Here’s how it breaks down according to the USDA:
  • Foods labeled "100 percent organic" and "organic" must contain (excluding water and salt) only organically produced ingredients.
  • Prepared or Processed Food Products labeled “organic” must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). Any remaining product ingredients must consist of approved nonagricultural substances or non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form. Any product labeled as organic must identify each organically produced ingredient as well as the name and address of the organic certifying agent of the product on the information panel.
  • Prepared or Processed products labeled "made with organic ingredients" must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients. These products cannot use the term organic anywhere on the principal display panel, however, they may identify the specific ingredients that are organically produced on the ingredients statement on the information panel.
Buzzwords: Biodynamics
Started in 1924 by Austrian scientist Rudolf Steiner and now a worldwide movement, non-chemical biodynamic farming actively works with the forces of nature to create sustainable agriculture Biodynamics combines common sense practices like rotating crops and natural pest control with an understanding of ecology and the specific environment of a given garden with a new spiritual scientific approach to the principles and practices of agriculture. A biodynamic farm is by default following organic practices (although they may or may not be certified organic), but an organic farm is not necessarily biodynamic. For more information visit the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association’s website at

Safeguarding Organic Integrity
As the popularity of organics continues to grow and more and more industrial food producers get into the game, the need for organic vigilance is ever increasing. The corporations and their lobbyists are continually trying to water down the government’s stringent organic standards. So far, public outcry has been loud enough to stop proposed changes like allowing some hormones, antibiotics and other non-organic materials to be introduced in livestock feed, and allowing the use of some pesticides in growing produce. However, there’s no reason to believe the efforts to degrade the quality of organic food won’t continue.

So what’s a smart consumer to do? Get informed, stay informed, and when the time comes, get active. One of the best places to do all three is through the Organic Consumer’s Association (OCA), an online grassroots non-profit public interest organization that deals with issues of food safety, industrial agriculture, genetic engineering, children's health, corporate accountability, fair trade, environmental sustainability and other key topics. Representing over 850,000 members, the OCA’s website is first place to look for news and /or changes relating to organic foods --

Ok, so now you understand what organic foods are, but what are the benefits of eating organic? Read tomorrow's post to find out the Benefits of Organics in a nutshell.

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