How does your morning start? If you're like me and a growing number of Americans, maybe it includes organic food. Whether it's milk on my cereal or the sunny side-up egg on my toast, I usually spy a USDA organic label somewhere in the mix while I make my breakfast.
But how much do you really know about organic food? It's a big, complicated issue that I'm still learning about after years of reading (and lots and lots of eating). To start, take this quick quiz to see what you already know:
1. The National Organic Program (NOP) is the federal regulatory framework governing organic food and is also the name of the organization in the USDA responsible for administering and enforcing the framework. The Organic Food Production Act of 1990 required that the USDA develop national standards for organic products and the NOP Final Rule was published in 2000.
2. Organic food is grown with organic fertilizer, no synthetic fertilizers are allowed.
3. Heirloom fruits and vegetables are varieties that were commonly grown in the past, but aren't used in large-scale agriculture. They can be grown using organic or conventional practices.
4. The USDA's standards require three years of organic methods to earn organic status.
5. Stickers on organic produce always start with 9.
6. To use the USDA Organic label, products are forbidden from containing genetically-engineered ingredients.
7. It's true, products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients and are produced without synthetic methods can be labeled “made with organic ingredients.” To use the USDA organic label, though, they must be made from at least 95% organic ingredients.
8. It's also true that organic dairy cows must graze on pasture for the full length of the growing season where they're being raised. See this New York Times article for more information.
9. The National Organic Program allows farmers selling under $5,000 worth of organic food per year to label their food as such without needing certification.
USDA's National Organic Program regulates labeling requirements for organic agricultural products. Organic labels can be found on produce, dairy, meat, processed foods, condiments and beverages. Food products labeled "organic" must contain at least 95% organic ingredients with no synthetic growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, biotechnology, synthetic ingredients or irradiation used in production or processing. Products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients and are produced without synthetic methods are labeled "made with organic ingredients," though they cannot use the USDA organic seal on their packaging.
There are a lot of questions, myths, misunderstandings, misinformation and downright propaganda out there about organic food. I'll let this month's Ask Farm Aid column answer the question of whether organic food can feed the world, but I'll try to respond to a couple other questions here.
Does organic food taste better?
I don't know. I bet you don't either. I've had truly delicious food made from both the cheapest "conventional" ingredients and from 100% local and organic ingredients. On the flipside, I've had pretty terrible local chicken I cooked myself using a recipe I've tested many times. And needless to say, I've had terrible industrial food! I think I was eight and near Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, when I discovered that pizza really could be bad enough to be inedible (How?! Why?!).
Still, better taste is an argument some people make about organic food. It seems to make sense — a more "natural" food would probably taste better than one mass-produced, possibly made with lots of synthetic chemicals, right? But it's just not always the case. So whenever I see a recipe that calls for "organic string beans" or something without explaining other aspects or benefits of organic agriculture, I get a little frustrated. Will I notice a taste difference? If I'm a first-time organic buyer and the recipe writer told me it will taste better, but I don't notice any difference am I likely to spend the extra money next time? Maybe not, unless they also took the time to explain that food grown organically contributes to healthy soil, cuts down on synthetic pesticides and herbicides and protects water quality.
Is organic food healthier?
The jury's still out. A 2010 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (no, not exactly my normal bedtime reading material), looked at hundreds of published studies and found there wasn't enough evidence to conclude that food grown organically has more nutrients than food grown conventionally. But they also couldn't say that organic food has the same (or even fewer) levels of nutrients; there just hasn't been enough good research published on the issue.
Still, those external benefits of organic food mentioned above aren't examined and neither is the issue of pesticide residue. The Environmental Protection Agency sets safety levels for the amount of pesticide residue allowed on food, but groups including the Environmental Working Group say those allowed levels are too high, especially for children. Farmers, farm workers and farm families are also exposed to increased levels of pesticides during conventional growing. Eating organic food can cut down on the amount of pesticide residue you ingest, since synthetic pesticides aren't allowed in the production of organic food.
So where does organic food fit into my life?
Well, mostly it fits into my mouth. (Obviously it hasn't helped my sad jokes.) These days, finding organic food doesn't require much extra effort or thought, since you can find it in almost any grocery store. If I need carrots and didn't make it to the farmers market that week, I just go to the bin at the store with organic carrots. I sort of consider the organic label a bit of a shortcut for information about my food. Depending on where I bought it, the food might not come from a family farmer living across town, but I can at least be sure that it's made without genetically engineered ingredients, synthetic pesticides or unnecessary antibiotics. If I'm at the grocery store, it arms me with a little bit more information to go along with the nutrition/ingredient label and the price tag in choosing what to buy. If I'm at the farmers market, I have to say I don't really pay much attention to whether items are organic or not — if I have a specific question, I can just ask the farmer standing there.
Have your say
How does organic food fit into your life? Do you leave it on the shelf or load up your shopping cart?
What other questions about organic food do you have?
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