What Does It Mean to be Truly Organic?
The USDA defines organic produce by specific guidelines. Organic certified farmers must grow food under approved methods according to the USDA1. For example, the use of genetic engineering, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is prohibited in organic products. This means an organic farmer can’t plant GMO seeds, cow's can’t eat GMO feed, alfalfa, or corn. Plus, a canned vegetable producer can’t use any GMO ingredients. In order to meet the USDA regulations, farmers and processors must prove they aren’t using GMOs. That they are protecting their products from contact with prohibited substances. This must be strictly followed from farm to table.
What Does it Mean for Food Items to Have the Organic Seal?
First, the seal is allowed on products that are either 100% organic or 95% organic. All food items must comply with the national list of allowed & prohibited ingredients. Food must be grown & processed organically, made with only approved substances, and be USDA verified. Approved and trained agents of the USDA regularly inspect the process to verify standards are met. They also check to verify that labeling is not misleading and is accurate.
The goal of an organic system is to improve the soil and work within nature's boundaries to grow healthy food. The USDA describes organic agriculture as cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support on farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. This consists of enhancing and maintaining soil, water quality, conserving wetlands and woodlands. Along with conserving wildlife and avoiding use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering is required. Organic producers use natural processes and materials when developing farming systems. These contribute to soil, crop and livestock nutrition. It also contributes to pest and weed management, attainment of production goals, and conservation of biological diversity.
Is Buying Organic Worth the Extra Cost?
I say yes! Especially if you want to ensure that your food was grown without chemical or GMO influence. This can give you peace of mind, knowing that organic produce is grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Meat must come from animals that didn’t receive hormones, antibiotics, and that were fed 100% organic feed. Another reason for choosing organic is that organically grown crops have higher levels of antioxidants2 and Vitamin C3. Nitrate levels are also generally lower in organic grown crops4. Finally, Organic meat has been found to contain higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids and lower levels of saturated fat compared to conventional raised meat4.
How to Know When Your Buying Organic
You will know you are buying organic when you see the official seal that states “USDA Organic.” Products with less than 70% organic ingredients may only list their ingredients on the information panel. These products will not bear the USDA organic seal since they are not certified. In addition, a package can still have a claim that says “Made with organic ingredients” but will only be made up of 70% to 94% organic ingredients. These types of products will still not have the official seal. In closing, those who label or sell a product "organic" when it does not meet USDA standards can be fined up to $17,952 for each violation5.
Tanya Humphrey/The Fruiting Vine © 12/20/2019