Consumers purchasing organic foods or products often do so out of concerns for personal health and safety, worker safety, environmental protection, and animal welfare. We expect the organic label to provide some degree of assurance that we know what’s in our food. So what do organic regulations cover?
Products with an organic label undergo a regulatory process overseen by the Department of Agriculture to ensure that potentially harmful substances are not used in their production, that there are no genetically modified ingredients, and that the practices on the farm or facility in which they were produced “foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity” according to the USDA’s description of the program. Generally speaking, organic regulations are meant to ensure safety for people, animals, and the environment.
The organic label isn’t just for fruits and vegetables. It can apply to animal products like dairy, eggs, and meats; textiles and leather; seeds and nursery plants; skincare products and some household goods; coffee and processed or packaged foods. Any agricultural crop or products made from it can be eligible for organic labeling.
Farmers and processors submit a detailed production plan and undergo an inspection process with certifying agents to ensure that their production methods and documentation practices follow organic standards. The regulations focus on ensuring that the production of food and other inputs (such as textiles) and raising animals is done in an ecologically sustainable manner. Regulations eliminate the use of synthetic substances and some natural substances that are considered to be potentially harmful to people, animals, and the environment. Some regulations deal directly with food safety, soil and water quality, and minimizing the harmful impact on habitats surrounding the producer or farm.
A growing number of studies in the US and Europe correlate exposure to small amounts of pesticide residues over time to human health problems, especially for infants and children. 26 different pesticide compounds or their byproducts were found in a random sampling of children and adults during annual population monitoring by the Center for Disease Control, according to the 2017 report. Farmworkers exposed to pesticides through lack of safety training or accidental exposure can experience immediate poisoning or long-term health concerns, with an estimated impact on up to 20,000 farm workers per year. Impacts on biodiversity – most famously on bees in North America – are also attributed to pesticide use in agriculture. Growth hormones and high levels of estrogen in conventional dairy are strongly linked with increased risk of cancer and developmental differences, while antibiotics used preventatively in livestock have contributed to epidemics of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In addition to being free of these serious environmental and health impacts, organic producers also claim that their food is more nutritious, based on the growing practices that tend to be used by organic farmers.
Why do organic foods have higher levels of nutrients? Some of it has to do with the way they are grown. It’s more common for organic dairy cows and meat animals to graze on pasture for most of their diet, leading to higher healthy fatty acids in milk, eggs, and meat. For fruits and vegetables, farmers rely heavily on compost and other soil health practices to produce healthy crops, making a much wider range of nutrients available to plants compared to synthetic fertilizers.
Some of the difference in nutrients also has to do with the greater number of risks that organic crops face. While conventional growers can turn to pesticides and insecticides to handle crop diseases and insect attacks, organic growers have a much more limited toolkit. Organic growers focus on growing healthy crops that are able to successfully withstand pests and diseases. In the meantime, the plants’ natural responses to pests and diseases – akin to an immune system – often produce molecules that are actually healthy for people, too.
Given these benefits and concerns, sales of organic products – including fresh produce, dairy, and packaged foods – have grown at a rapid rate of 10-14% per year over the last ten years, according to the Organic Trade Association’s 2016 Organic Industry Survey. Total organic sales grew from about $16 billion in 2006 to over $43 billion in 2016. This rapid growth compares with only a 3% increase in overall food sales in the United States.
It’s important to remember what the organic label covers – and what it doesn’t. Consumers concerned about environmental protection, animal welfare, and protection for farmers can sometimes rely on the organic label to meet all of these standards. It’s not meant to do that. Although animal welfare standards are part of organic regulations, just because a cut of meat or carton of eggs is organic doesn’t require that the animals are raised 100% free-range or 100% grass-fed. These labels are also federally regulated and sometimes appear next to or separately from the organic label. The organic label also doesn’t ensure that workers are paid a “living wage” or given all the standards of worker safety and comfort that they might deserve. The organic label also doesn’t require farms to meet the image consumers often have of organic meaning small family farms. In fact, that’s often not the case.
Many large industrial-scale farms have responded to the demand for organic food. A large percentage of organic produce, eggs, and dairy commonly available in grocery stores come from a small number of mega-farms. Some of these mega-farms have been investigated for failure to meet standards and have taken strong pushback for efforts to change the organic standards themselves. Although the organic label provides a meaningful amount of consumer protection and assurance of ecological practices, like any regulatory process, loopholes and failures to comply are always possible.
So what should the concerned consumer do? Food production is far more complicated today than it was a century ago, and it’s hard to know everything about what’s in our food or how it was produced. The easiest way to know that our food satisfies our health, safety, and environmental concerns is to have a personal relationship with the people who make it – or to grow it ourselves. In many parts of the country, farmer’s markets, CSAs (a subscription model), and farm stores offer an opportunity to purchase directly from organic producers. Many farmers who choose these ‘direct marketing’ paths do so because part of the ‘market appeal’ of their products comes from their organic, sustainable process. Our organization, NOFA-NJ, manages a “Farm and Food Guide” that lists many of these local sources: www.farmandfoodguide.com
For those who want to try to grow some of our food ourselves, a wealth of resources is available. Here in New Jersey, most counties maintain a Master Gardener or Certified Gardener program meant to educate home gardeners, complete with a volunteer-staffed hotline to answer gardeners’ questions. Gardening classes are available through many organizations, including NOFA-NJ. And many townships allow homeowners to raise their own flock of backyard chickens to provide fresh, hormone-free eggs (check with your township for local regulations).
Allegra Lovejoy is NOFA-NJ’s Education Coordinator. She also manages a working urban farm in Trenton, Capital City Farm, as D&R Greenway Land Trust’s Urban Farm Manager.