What is "Organic"?
“Organic is a labeling term found on products that have been produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity....Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used”.
In the United States, the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) creates regulations for the organic food industry. Products must meet these regulations to be certified and labeled as “USDA Organic”.
Always be sure to look for the “USDA Organic” seal on your products to ensure they have met the proper regulations. There are a lot of claims that give a good appearance, when in reality, they have no meaning. For example, the term “all-natural” has no official definition. But, so many products use it in their labeling because it looks appealing to consumers. This is typical of greenwashing, and something to look out for!
Is Organic Food Healthier?
This question is one of great debate, and the official-ish answer is that “we need more information”. But, opinions aside, it’s a fact that organic foods are different than their non-organic counterparts. Organic foods contain higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins & minerals, and polyphenols. They also contain lower levels of potentially harmful substances like cadmium and pesticides.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids:
Our bodies can’t make these fatty acids on their own, so we must get them from the food we eat. Omega-3 fatty acids are excellent for cardiovascular health! They also benefit bone and joint health, mental health, reduce inflammation, and may even help in the prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Polyphenols are plant-based micronutrients. They have a HUGE list of health benefits ranging from anti-aging to anti-cancer effects! According to this article,
“Epidemiological studies and associated meta-analyses strongly suggest that long term consumption of diets rich in plant polyphenols offer protection against development of cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis and neurodegenerative diseases.”
But, as with most things, moderation is key. Some negative effects have been seen with high doses of polyphenols (mainly from supplements). So, I suggest getting your polyphenols naturally through diet rather than taking supplements. Foods like fruits, veggies, and beans are a good source of polyphenols. Luckily, so are chocolate, coffee, and red wine. Bring on the polyphenols!
What are GMO's?
GMO’s are Genetically Modified Organisms. They are produced using genetic modification (not surprising, right?). Ok...so what is genetic modification?
Genetic Modification: The production of heritable improvements in plants or animals for specific uses, via either genetic engineering or other more traditional methods...
Are GMO's New?
Many people may not realize that humans have been genetically modifying their food for thousands of years. Saving seeds from the most abundant plants for the next year’s crops, for example. However, genetic engineering is a more modern technique. Most GMO foods today are actually products of genetic engineering.
Genetic engineering is a form of genetic modification. Genes for a desired trait are transplanted from one organism to another. It is a much more precise and specific method than “old fashioned” genetic modification. The ‘Flavr Savr’ tomato in the 1990’s was the first commercially available food of this type. It was engineered to have a longer shelf-life to delay rotting and spoilage.
Are GMO's Bad?
Some people think that all GMO’s are inherently bad. But, GMO’s were introduced into the food system to provide benefits such as higher crop yields, increased resistance to drought and pests, and decreasing nutritional deficiencies throughout the population. All of that is pretty awesome! However, despite their potential, I avoid GMO’s because of their link to the following issues:
In 1996, genetically engineered “Roundup Ready” seeds by Monsanto became commercially available. Crops grown from these seeds are resistant to glyphosate (the main ingredient in the weedkiller, Roundup). This encouraged farmers to use Roundup as their sole weedkiller. But, over time, something happened that Monsanto said would never happen. Weeds developed resistance to glyphosate. Similar to the overuse of antibiotics and "superbugs", the overuse of Roundup has led to “superweeds” that have become extremely difficult to get rid of. So, now farmers have to use techniques such as tilling and higher amounts of herbicides, which eliminate the claimed environmental benefits of using GMO seeds in the fist place.
Contribution to Industrial Agriculture:
Industrial agriculture is basically farming on a large scale, where farms specialize in one crop or animal instead of a variety. The focus is on efficiency and high crop yields instead of quality. And, heavy use of chemicals like fertilizers and pesticides are common, as well as antibiotics. Industrial agriculture was around before GMO’s, but the introduction of GMO technology has made this type of farming even more prevalent. Unfortunately, the majority of industrialized GMO crops are grown to supply the processed and fast food industries. It’s hard to support this technology when it contributes to major public health crises of our nation.
Organic vs. Non-GMO:
Organic? non-GMO? Is organic and non-GMO the same thing? Can GMO’s be organic?
Distinguishing between organic and non-GMO can seem confusing. Here’s the breakdown:
|USDA ORGANIC||NON-GMO PROJECT VERIFIED|
|No Synthetic Fertilizers, Pesticides, Sewage Sludge||X|
|No Hormones or Antibiotics||X|
|No Artificial Preservatives, Colors, or Flavors||X|
|Overseen by a USDA National Organic Program||X|
If you are only trying to avoid GMO’s, labels with either “USDA Organic” or “Non-GMO Project Verified” stamps will suffice. However, you can see from the table above that the “USDA Organic” certification provides so much more in terms of ensuring a safer product.
What About Organic Meat?
The “USDA Organic” promise falls short in my opinion when it comes to meat. Although there are benefits like no hormones or antibiotics, proper treatment of the animals is not as prioritized as it should be. To understand what I mean here, let’s talk about concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFO’s.
Concentrated animal feeding operations are facilities where animals are kept and confined for 45 days or more in a year. Food is delivered to the animals in these spaces instead of grazing and other natural foraging methods. Not only does this present some major environmental concerns, but it is an inhumane way for animals to live.
The USDA Organic program allows meat to come from CAFOs, but requires that animals have access to the outdoors. This differs from non-organic CAFO meat, where animals can go their whole lives without ever stepping foot outside. The problem is that the USDA fails to be specific about the size of the outdoor access, time requirements, etc. So, “organic” CAFO’s are actually pretty hard to distinguish from non-organic ones.
Getting Your Voice Heard:
Voting with your dollars is one of the best ways to voice your opinion, and I think this is especially true in the food system. Keep in mind that you get what you pay for, and always try to purchase foods that align with your values. Here are some ideas to get your voice heard in the food industry:
- buy certified organic foods whenever available
- purchase your meat from locally trusted farmers
- limit meat consumption
- switch to a plant-based diet
- grow your own veggies by planting a garden or growing in pots
- avoid processed foods and fast foods
- learn what different food labels mean