Organic foods have taken the U.S. by storm, leaving many of us just a bit confused about why they’re so much more expensive than the other foods we buy. And what does the word “organic” mean anyway? I did some research, and here’s a little bit of what I found:
The organic movement, with roots in early 20th-century Britain, Germany and the States, blossomed in the 1960’s as a response to something called “industrial agriculture.” The movement never settled on a solid and scientific definition for the word “organic,” instead focusing on what may be called an “organic philosophy.”
Many people in the early stages of the organic movement at this time were concerned with not just growing, but also distributing, cooking and eating food in a wholesale counter-cultural manner. Industrial agriculture, they said, was hurting farms, farmers, eaters and the earth. At the time, this was more or less a philosophical statement, but decades later more and more studies are justifying this claim.
Industrial farming was a science involving inputs and outputs: you put in certain nutrients and you get crops; add more nutrients and the crops get bigger, which means more money. Organic farming, on the other hand, was a philosophy of human and food relations involving a whole universe of factors. Organic farmers, for instance, had to be concerned about whether their land would still be usable year by year, as they often operated on small, family-owned and run farms.
In the 1990’s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided to define the term “organic” to help people more easily tell the difference between organic and industrial foods. Their definition included some parts of the organic movement, such as no pesticides and no cannibalism (cows eating cow meat, etc.), but not other parts, such as an emphasis on local foods and the importance of raising animals outdoors with lots of space. Today, even some “organic” food is derived from animals raised in factories or vegetables imported from another country and processed in two different states before it reaches you. This market is called “industrial organic.”
So much of what you see advertised as “organic” in the store doesn’t necessarily relate to the organic foods movement. Labels that say “USDA Organic” on them belong to a food that has been certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a list of criteria that change from time to time. In general the label means that at least 95% of the ingredients have been grown with no synthetic pesticides or herbicides, irradiation, GMOs or sewage sludge. There’s a bit more to it, which is covered in the below graphic:
What Does Organic Mean? Source: The Center for Science in the Public Interest
Sometimes, even if it seems better for you, it’s a tough choice to buy organic food because it costs so much more. A lot of the methods used in industrial organic farming end up costing more in the short-run than conventional methods. For example, instead of hosing down their crops with weed killers, industrial organic growers often hire workers to either pull the weeds out by hand or burn them with torches. Industrial organic farmers may also have to make or buy compost instead of just loading their land down with synthetic fertilizers.In some ways, the organic foods you can buy at the supermarket are better for the earth (they don’t poison it with pesticides), better for the animals (they don’t poison their bodies with loads of antibiotics), and better for you (they tend to have better nutrition).
In other ways, though, industrial organic foods are just another marketing ploy by the same huge companies that make conventional foods. Organic foods tend to take up the same amount of gasoline or diesel to grow, process and ship and they don’t usually come from a family farm. Maybe, after all, there is a lot more to be said for the organic foods movement than there is for a label that says “certified organic.”