The last 20 years have seen a dramatic increase in the demand for organic foods. Diners and shoppers alike are scouring restaurant menus and grocery store shelves for foods with an organic label. Though it has not been proven conclusively, consumers perceive organic foods to be healthier than their conventional counterparts. This belief can be seen in the 2,200% increase in organic baby food sales that occurred between 1989 and 1995. In order to meet this increase in customer demand, many food service establishments are now offering organic menu items.
Though all foods are organic, an organic food label means that the food was produced through ecology-based farming and animal feeding methods. Organic farmers “emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.”
Organic Food Certification
In order to become certified organic, both meat and crop producers must meet requirements set forth and regulated by the USDA’s National Organic Program.
Growers. To be certified organic, growers cannot use any of the following:
- Conventional pesticides.
- Fertilizers with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge.
- Genetically modified crops.
Meat producers. Meat, poultry, egg and dairy products must come from animals that are not treated with antibiotics or growth hormones.
Additionally, every organic farm is required to submit yearly reports on its farming methods to ensure that they are still following the guidelines of organic production. The certification only lasts for five years, which an on-site inspection is then required and performed by the USDA’s National Organic Program in order to achieve certification renewal.
A recent Restaurant & Institutions Tastes of America survey showed that 24% of consumers said it was “very important” that a restaurant serve organic foods, and 51.2% said it was “somewhat important.”
Organic Food Labeling
- 100% Organic. These products must contain 100% organically produced ingredients, not including added salt and water.
- Organic. This label applies to products that contain at least 95% organic ingredients.
- Made with Organic Ingredients. These products must contain at least 70% organic ingredients and cannot contain any added sulfates.
- Has some organic ingredients. This label refers to products that contain less than 70% organic ingredients.
Source of the Controversy
Cost and healthfulness are the main sources of contention surrounding organic foods. Organic farming can actually hinder the ability of poorer countries and individuals to feed themselves, since organic foods are more expensive. This cost needs to be weighed against the possible long-term health affects of ingesting pesticides and GMOs.
Arguments for Organic Foods
- Organic growers do not use harmful pesticides. At the 1996 World Food Summit, The World Health Organization estimated that pesticides were responsible for 220,000 deaths and nearly three million severe poisoning cases worldwide each year.
- Organic farming helps restore environmental checks and balances. Genetic engineering and pesticide use are weakening natural barriers that exist between species. Organic farming seeks to restore healthy crops and animals by promoting natural selection.
- Organic foods are healthier than non-organic. If lack of pesticide residue is not enough, new research shows organic foods contain higher levels of important nutrients, like Vitamin C, than non-organic products.
- Organic foods reduce our dependence on oil. Many synthetic pesticides and fertilizers contain petroleum-based ingredients. Reducing pesticide use through organic farming is a way to decrease our dependency on dwindling oil supplies.
Arguments Against Organic Foods
- Organic foods cost more. Since organic farmers cannot use any of the technologies and chemicals readily available, their crops are subject to more pest damage, and organic farmers have to spend more time manually tending their crops. This leads to an increased cost of production and higher price on the store shelves.
- Organic foods are not necessarily healthier. Though pesticides and potentially harmful GMOs are not allowed in organic foods, candy, pastries and other fatty foods are still unhealthy, like their conventional counterparts.
- Animals can die needlessly under organic farming conditions. Since organic farmers are not allowed to use antibiotics, animals can die from simple bacterial infections. This can also contribute to the increased cost of organic foods.
- Organic farming requires more land than conventional methods. Organic farming produces about half as much as conventional farming.4 As a result, more forests have to be cleared to meet the increased demand for organic products.
What the Government Has To Say
As the regulatory agency behind organic foods, the USDA does not say one way or the other whether organic food is healthier for the consumer. The USDA does, however, acknowledge the increasing consumer demand for organic products. The agency also points out that there are a number of farmers turning to certified organic farming as a way to lower input cost, decrease reliance on nonrenewable resources and increase income by selling high-value products.
Regulating the Supply Chain: After organic foods leave the farm, all handlers, packers and markets thereafter must also be certified to handle organic foods to assure they do not come into contact with non-organic products.