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What is Organic? Is it as “Clean” as You’d Like to Believe?

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Organic food sounds good. But what does “organic” mean, anyway? The fact is, a lot of the chemicals used by organic growers are safe and have been tested, at least reasonably well. But not all. When Oz Osborn suggested that I was sharing inaccurate—or at least overgeneralized—information about the organic food industry on my Facebook page, I asked him if he’d like to write a post about it. Here he is; please make him feel welcome.

red ripe raspberries on a wooden table

What is organic food?

I buy mostly organic produce. If you’re reading this, chances are you do, too, or you at least buy some of your fruits and veggies in that VIP (very important produce!) area in the produce section. Come to think of it, perhaps VEP would be a better acronym. Very expensive produce, all of it available at a premium cost. Typically 10% – 30% higher, when compared to the non-organic versions.

Organic food is big business

Organic is making big strides. The Organic Trade Association says “U.S. sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010. Sales in 2010 represented 7.7 percent growth over 2009 sales. Experiencing the highest growth in sales during 2010 were organic fruits and vegetables, up 11.8 percent over 2009 sales.”

But wait a second – why is a higher priced alternative experiencing this kind of growth?

We Americans are notorious for our laser-like focus on low prices, right? So what would cause us to ‘go organic’? Well, pretty much everybody you ask offers one of a number of reasons, all of which boil down to the notion that it’s better. But what is organic food, really? Some say organic food is more ethical and sustainably grown, causing less harm to animals and to the biosphere. Others say that it just tastes better. And in some circles buying organic has become a status thing. But far and away the most important reason people buy organic produce? The perception that it’s more healthful than conventionally grown crops.

organic produce at a farm stand in front of a blackboard with prices

Determining what is organic in food crops

A primary driver of this perception is the fact that organic produce isn’t sprayed with pesticides, fungicides, and the like. Except, well, as it turns out, that’s not a fact at all! The organic standard (managed by the USDA) permits the use of a substantial number of chemicals at various stages of producing organic produce. This includes pesticides.

The pesticides that the USDA permits organic producers to use show up on a list with the rather forbidding name of “The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances” – more info and a link to the actual list here. [There are actually three lists – one for organic crop production, one for organic livestock production, and one for organic processed foods.]

So, sure, the USDA allows organic growers to use pesticides on their crops. But these can’t be ‘synthetic substances’ in USDA-speak. In plain English: The USDA only allows substances derived from natural sources. (Although, there are a few exceptions in the list.)

green lettuce with purple highlights, growing in a shade garden

Related: Organic Farming Facts: Not Perfect, But I’ll Take it

What is organic labeling good for if it doesn’t guarantee safety?

And that’s where one of the problems comes in. The assumption here is that such non-synthetic substances – aka ‘natural’ compounds – are safe, or at least safER than synthetics. Which is probably – ON BALANCE – a good bet.

But here’s the rub: not all of the pesticides organic growers use are thoroughly tested. We’re simply not sure about that. When a popular one (Rotenone) recently was, the researchers discovered that feeding this family of compounds to rats induced Parkinson’s Disease-like symptoms. Hmmm…that worries me.

Related: Food in Italy: Lessons in Eating Locally

Jars of organic honey

How do we know they’re safe?

The fact is, a lot of the chemicals organic growers use are safe and have been tested, at least reasonably well. But not all. So, we’re supposed to assume that the USDA is on top of this and looking out for the organic consumer’s health and safety in a competent and effective manner, just like they’ve been doing for, say, GMOsI don’t know about you, but I don’t find that thought reassuring!

A further problem is that the organic pesticides tend to be less effective than their synthetic cousins. This means that they’re often used at significantly higher volumes than their synthetic counterparts. (Although, strangely, the volume of organic pesticides in use is not tracked by any governmental agency.) That worries me.

Some of you are no doubt ahead of the curve on this one. Perhaps you’re thinking, ‘but wait – I knew that organic growers were allowed to use pesticides. They’re not allowed to use persistent pesticides!’ Well, I’ve got news for you. In many cases, the chemicals on that list are not thoroughly tested.

We have no idea of how persistent they may or may not be.

This turns out to be the case for many of the test criteria – for example, from 7 U.S. Code § 6518, tests to establish ‘the effect of the substance on human health.’ Or even more difficult, tests to establish ‘the potential of such substances for detrimental chemical interactions with other materials used in organic farming systems.’

Even more difficult than that, it tests to establish ‘the effects of the substance on biological and chemical interactions in the agroecosystem. This includes the physiological effects of the substance on soil organisms (including the salt index and solubility of the soil), crops and livestock’!

red radishes on a dark background

So what’s the takeaway?

When we add up all the pieces (and there are many more I’ve not had a chance go go into here), it’s simple. We simply do not have enough solid evidence to credibly assert this simple equation. Organic = safe + healthful. Well, probably safER and more healthful than industrially farmed food, on balance. Is that really good enough for you and your family?

As I said in the beginning, I do buy organic.

I also grow as much of my own food as I’m able. And I take advantage of local farmers whose farms I can visit, in the form of farmer’s markets and CSAs and NSAs. I also use sites like eatwild.com and localharvest.org.

There simply is NO better way to ensure you are eating safe and healthful food than connecting directly with those who grow or raise the food you put on your table. Opting for certified organic food is just one way to eat clean.

Related: How to Grow Your Own Organic Broccoli Sprouts

herbs in planters from above

About Oz

For 15 years, Oz worked in several countries as an applications engineer in the semiconductor and wireless industries. Six years ago, he successfully plotted and then effectuated his escape from the corporate world, sold most of his worldly belongings, and went off to study Buddhist meditation.

Determining that enlightenment was going to require at least several more lifetimes, he moved to Denver, Colorado.

He’s intent upon building a life organized around his passions. These include yoga, permaculture, volunteering, and the local urban agriculture and food justice movements. He coordinates a local crop mob program on behalf of non-profits Slow Food Denver and Grow Local Colorado. This puts him in touch with the earth on a regular basis, and people who love it and understand how to work with it better than he ever will.

Oz is an avid gardener, dog person, permaculture designer, motorcyclist, reader, yogi, and adult gymnastics coach and aficionado.

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Meet the Author

Kris Bordessa

Kris Bordessa founded Attainable Sustainable as a resource for revitalizing vintage skills. Her book, Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living (National Geographic) offers a collection of projects and recipes to help readers who are working their way to a more fulfilling DIY lifestyle.

9 comments… add one
  • Laura Mar 5, 2014, 8:03 am

    The emphasis on organics is a step in our growing awareness about how our food is grown. It’s not, by any means, the entire answer. Some rules governing organics are irrational. For example, cows on an organic dairy farm cannot be treated by antibiotics EVER. There are very good reasons to stop routinely using antibiotics on the farm and antibiotic residue should never end up in our food supply (there are already rules in place for dairy farms to sequester and toss milk from any cow on antibiotics). However this particular rule has a cruel consequence. An illness or infection that’s highly recoverable with a few days of antibiotics can become life-threatening without them, resulting in greater suffering or culling. 

  • David C Mar 5, 2014, 2:20 pm

    I enjoyed reading this article and would like to see more from Oz.

  • Joanne Tipler Mar 5, 2014, 3:24 pm

    Thus the term:  “Know you farmer, know your food.”  Thank you for the article.  

  • Marilyn Mar 5, 2014, 3:55 pm

    Yup. Good article. I’ve always wondered if my mother had Parkinson’s or just the symptoms as my father was a landscaper and a home gardener. Back in the 60’s there wasn’t the awareness there is now. She passed in ’98 and there was no autopsy, unfortunately for us “kids”. But I was raised with the attitude that homegrown was the best and I grow organic in the purest sense of the word as I am allergic or sensitive to chemicals. Store bought gets washed with veggie wash. Due to living on the NW coast, I have a very short season for growing all but the shade loving and water loving plants. This article was informative and well written and I, too, would like to see more information from Oz. Thank you for sharing. This is one of my most favorite information sites!!!

  • Cherylie Mar 6, 2014, 2:56 am

    With so much “content” available at the click of a button, it is difficult to know if info has been properly researched, is repetition of old wives’ tales, or merely an author’s uninformed opinion.  Thanks for allowing Oz to share his knowledge – there’s always something to be learned from open dialogue.  

    This is one of my favorite sites for information exchange, and it just got a whole lot better!

  • Melissa Mar 8, 2014, 5:31 am

    Thank you, Kris, for creating the foundation for this post.

    Thank you, Oz, for your perspective and wisdom.  We are too often blinded by the shiny package placed in front of us and take for granted what we are told instead of searching out the information ourselves.  I have been guilty of this myself and am slowly learning to think outside of the box and make small changes in my own life that I intend to have a positive impact on myself, my family and my community.  My hope is that “organics” are just a stepping stone on our path back to a fully intentional and truly sustainable way of eating *and living.  Cheers!

  • Jo Rellime Mar 9, 2014, 12:00 pm

    Wow! I am impressed. Nicely written, informative, rational, and useful! Thanks. And yes, I would like to see more from Oz too!

  • [email protected] Talk Mar 29, 2014, 5:09 am

    I grow a lot of my own food and I will tell you it is downright impossible to fight some pests.  I marvel at the organic farmers who bring vegetables to the market without chewy holes.  I honestly can’t figure out how they do this without spraying something.  I am not saying it is right but it is hard out there to make a living as a farmer and the public’s demand what they will buy.

    My apples from my trees look horrible but they make good applesauce.  No one would buy them.  So it is a double edge sword for some growers.  

    I do believe ask your local farmer but they generally say they only spray when they need to.  But what does that mean?  Is that better than large scale organic farms?  I honestly don’t know.  Oz?

    • Kris Bordessa Mar 29, 2014, 6:15 am

      Perhaps the bigger problem is that consumers have been trained to expect perfect looking produce, no? 

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