Organic. It’s a hot buzzword these days, with that little round USDA Organic seal seeming to promise so much in terms of food safety and freedom from pesticides, badly-planned genetically-modified organisms and harmful chemicals. But there’s a lot of misinformation, myths and confusion over what organic is and isn’t, which is being perpetuated even by the media. In this article, we’ll take a solid look at what exactly organic food production is, how it works and why it’s important to many people.
When someone refers to something as organic, it’s typically a reference to food that is produced under USDA Organic standards. This is a standard that was developed by the United States Department of Agriculture to ensure that particular chemicals and processes were not being used in food that was grown under that standard. It disallows the use of genetically-modified organisms in farming. It also precludes the use of some additives in food production and processing, such as artificial food dyes.
When a food wrapper includes a USDA Organic label, it just means that it meets that standard. It doesn’t automatically ensure that the food was produced in an earth-friendly fashion, that it hasn’t crossed thousands of food miles across the country or world or that the food is guaranteed to be free of pesticides or modified genetics from drift.
When food is produced using the organic standard, it requires particular processes and materials be used or excluded. This doesn’t always mean that it grows the healthiest food or uses the most earth-friendly processes, it simply means that it meets that standard. This can include the use of several synthetic pesticides.
Instead of using most traditional pesticides, this style of production mostly uses natural pesticides to kill or drive off harmful insects or pests. It may also incorporate the use of beneficial insects to drive off the harmful insects. However, even organic production may have some level of pesticide or GMO contamination from neighboring conventional crops, as we’ll discuss below.
A lot of consumers buy organic because it’s considered to be superior to conventionally-raised agriculture. They know that there are limits to the chemicals that can be used in the production process, which can limit the amount of these chemicals that show up in the ripe produce. Individuals who have concerns about GMOs showing up in their foods may choose to buy organic because they know that GMOs are disallowed under the standard.
If they have particular allergies, such as my daughter’s allergy to artificial red food dyes, buying certified organic foods means being able to skip the label reading portion of the grocery-shopping process, which can in and of itself be difficult and time-consuming during a busy week. Others choose to use organic foods because of the idea that it’s friendlier to the earth and health, with fewer pesticides being used in the production process. However, there are also significant limitations to organic production.
Though the organic standard was developed to restore the soil and avoid chemical pesticide use that can be dangerous to humans, it doesn’t achieve that as cleanly as you might think. As an example, modern organic strawberry production often uses black plastic sheeting as mulch to keep weeds down. The black plastic eventually degrades in ultraviolet light from the sun, requiring regular replacement. Because it’s produced using petroleum products, this practice isn’t sustainable in the long term. Furthermore, drift from neighboring farms often leads to GMO and pesticide contamination of organic crops. If this drift isn’t caught, it’s entirely possible to end up with foods that contain modified genetics or significant levels of pesticides. Even certified organic production may use some synthetic pesticides, provided that the pesticide is approved by the standard for organic production.
Another issue that regularly comes up is soil and plant nutrition. Because many certified organic farms can only use organic fertilizers, they may not be giving their plants consistent nutrition. Organic fertilizers can have a widely varying level of compounds, which can be difficult to impossible to test in the field, although possible, giving proper plant nutrition through organic methods is still a great challenge. Because many consumers lump mineral fertilizers in with other agricultural chemicals, they are often limited in organic production, even though they pose absolutely no risk to human health compared to pesticide residues. The irresponsible use, however, can be damaging to the environment.
This lack of consistency in plant nutrition can lead to poor nutrition in foods. Imagine a tomato that is being grown in organic production. The plant doesn’t care where the calcium it needs comes from, provided that there is enough to allow it to grow well. An organic farmer may pour milk onto the soil. As the milk settles while waiting for application, it separates, so some plants get a lot of calcium while others don’t get enough. Blossom end rot sets in on those plants that are deficient, causing the farmer to lose part of his crop and requiring a higher price be paid for the tomatoes that do come to harvest. By comparison, simply spreading ground limestone or other calcium-based mineral fertilizer evenly on the soil ensures all the tomato plants get the nutrition they need. When you eat that tomato, you’re enjoying better nutrition overall. Organic fertilizers do more for the soil, than they do for the plant, this is why applying organic compounds when dealing with soil growing is very important.
However, organic isn’t the only option you have available in earth-friendly gardening. Sustainable production looks at a range of possibilities that create a long-term plan to keep the garden or farm in operation, including integrated pest management, carefully managed soil nutrition and similar approaches. Hydroponics takes advantage of suspending nutrients in a water-based solution while allowing for significant production in very small or interior spaces, such as basements, shipping containers and patios. USDA Certified Organic is simply a certification process that can be expensive and difficult to manage if you’re a commercial grower, but it’s not the only one available to meet your gardening needs, as when you’re the grower, you set the standards.
Though organic production meets many consumers’ demands for safe food, it often falls short in terms of nutrition in the produce. Organic production only means that the food was produced under the USDA Certified Organic standard. What’s more, just because production is organic doesn’t mean that it’s free from pesticides or GMOs. It may also not be nearly as earth-friendly as you may think it is. Before engaging in organic, hydroponic grade, and conventional produce talk, a better option is to first shift your diet to include significantly more fresh produce on a regular basis, which vastly reduces the amount of chemicals in your food compared to processed foods. The easiest way to accomplish this feat is by doing a little gardening on your own, whether it’s a pot of patio tomatoes or a backyard garden. To learn more about modern gardening, better nutrition and more information on living your best life now, take a look at some of the other articles Fitleaf has to offer.
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