26 June 2009
'Certified Organic' may not be 100%
Q: What is the difference between "100% organic" and "organic"?
A: Organic has a precise meaning under the USDA's organic program. Certified 100% Organic means that all the ingredients in a product have been grown or raised according to the USDA's organic standards, which are the rules for producing foods labeled organic. Certified Organic requires that 95 to 99 percent of the ingredients follow the rules.
What, exactly, are those rules? Summarizing what's in hundreds of pages in the Federal Register:
-- Plants cannot be grown with synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, genetic modification, irradiation or sewage sludge.
-- Animals must be raised exclusively on organic feed, have access to the outdoors, and cannot be given antimicrobial drugs or hormones.
-- Producers will be inspected to make sure these practices are being followed to the letter.
Q: How do we know "organic" truly reflects our beliefs?
A: I am guessing this question refers to the spirit of organics. In the 1920s, the British botanist Albert Howard learned from observing farmers in India that human health depends on growing foods sustainably. Indian farmers taught him the importance of protecting soil nutrients through composted manure, crop rotation and appropriate cultivation, and using biological pest controls. Later, these methods were called "organic."
But USDA organic rules do not say a word about sustainability. This gap occurred as a result of the history of the organic standards (as I recount in "What to Eat"), but also as a result of the USDA's inherent conflicts of interest. The USDA's main job is to promote industrial agriculture. Organics, the USDA says, are just different, not better. Alas, the USDA has not always been a loving home for the organic program.
Q: Do food companies use the word "organic" in the same way they use "health"?
A: USDA organic rules are about the letter of the law, not its spirit. Food marketers, however, take advantage of public perceptions that "organic" implies spirit - sustainability and better nutrition. Companies that follow the rules can legitimately market highly processed foods as organic, taking advantage of their health aura to command higher prices.
No wonder so many big food companies have bought organic product lines (see links.sfgate.com/ZHKJ).Yes, organic junk food is free of synthetic pesticides, but the foods still have calories. As I like to put it, an organic junk food is still a junk food.
Q: Which is worse: eating nonorganic produce full of pesticides or not eating produce at all?
A: Research demonstrates substantial health benefits from eating fruits and vegetables. Although I wish we had more definitive research, these benefits appear to greatly outweigh any risks of pesticides.
If you want to compromise, you can save your organic dollars for the foods most likely to be high in pesticides. These, according to the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org), are peaches, nectarines, apples, bell peppers, strawberries, cherries, pears, raspberries, imported grapes, celery, potatoes and spinach.
In contrast, foods that you peel - onions, peas, bananas, sweet corn and tropical fruits, for example - tend to be low in pesticides.
Q: Is organic food nutritionally worth its higher cost?
A: Foods grown on sustainable soils ought to contain higher levels of nutrients - and some studies show that they do - but organic certification does not require higher nutritional values. Without testing, I'd be hard-pressed to know whether the organic foods I'm buying really are nutritionally better. The main point of organics is production methods, and these require hand labor and careful management, both of which come at a higher cost.
If you believe, as I do, that growing foods according to organic practices is better for the environment, then paying more is worth it if you can afford to.
Q: Aren't organics elitist? People can't buy organic foods if they aren't available at an affordable price.
A: I once heard Eric Schlosser answer a similar question aimed at his book, "Fast Food Nation." He pointed out that social movements have to begin somewhere and that several began with elites but ended up helping the poor and disenfranchised - the civil rights, environmental and women's movements, for example.
I would add the organic movement to this list. It has already forced mainstream food producers to start cutting down on pesticides and to raise farm animals more humanely. As the supply of organic foods increases, and the Wal-Marts of the world sell more of them, organics should become more democratic.
But please don't blame organic producers for the high prices. Until the latest farm bill, which has a small provision for promotion of organic agriculture, organic farmers received not one break from the federal government. In contrast, the producers of corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton continue to get $20 billion or so a year in farm subsidies.
Industrial agriculture also benefits from federally administered marketing programs and from cozy relationships with congressional committees and the USDA. In contrast, the USDA considers fruits and vegetables "specialty crops." This kind of food politics shows up as higher prices in the grocery store.
Dealing with the elitism implied by the higher cost of organics means doing something about income inequities. If we want elected representatives to care more about public health than corporate health, let's work to remove the corruption from election campaign contributions. If Congress were less beholden to corporations, we might be able to create a system that paid farmers and farm workers decently and sold organic foods at prices that everyone could afford.
The organic gardens at the White House and USDA send an important signal that the way we grow food makes a difference. Let's hope they also symbolize a new era in agricultural policies, one that unites the letter and spirit of the organic movement.