I’ve been curious about organic food for a while. To be honest, I don’t have great access to it. Where are all these farmers’ markets people keep talking about? Markets where you can buy fresh, organic, local produce? Truly. I don’t see them. I have a few natural food stores in my area but their lettuce, kale, and other greens are often wilted and brown around the edges. The price for those greens is double or triple what I’d pay for their conventional versions at a supermarket. One natural food store was selling a bag of organic apples for $14.99 and a bag of small oranges for $16.99. That’s a lot if you ask me. And those apples and oranges … and lemons and mangoes and grapes, etc., weren’t locally grown.
My grocery store sells what I’ll call “industrial organic,” foods grown in large, monocropped fields and shipped in from other states and even other countries. The price is always higher than conventional but a little better than my natural food store, probably because they can buy in bulk. They also have better turnover so it’s fresher.
The way organic food is marketed, I feel I should go out of my way to buy old, wilted kale and moldy sweet potatoes, albeit organic. It’s good for the environment and good for my health. Should I? Given the cost – the price plus the driving around – that decision often makes itself. What about industrial organic? Just how organic is it? And what, exactly, is meant by “organic”? That term didn’t even exist when I was growing up. Was food just naturally organic back then? So many questions…
Here’s a report from the USDA that had some answers:
USDA: Guide For Organic Producers (pdf), Pamela Coleman, November 2012
Coleman says that organic farming began across Europe in the 1920s-1950s in response to increasing use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. It gained traction a few years later here in the US:
The 1960s and 1970s brought more visibility to organic farming in the United States, as public concern over pesticide use increased.
Organic farming, known as humus farming when it began, was about “feeding the soil”:
Humus farming was typified by mixed farms that included livestock, food crops, feed crops, and green manures. Humus farming made little or no use of soluble commercial fertilizers or pesticides, in part because the health of the soil rendered them unnecessary.
Organic farms grew in both size and number during the 1980s. But farming practices varied among farms. That gave rise to third-party certifiers. But since some certifiers didn’t accept the certification of other certifiers, Congress stepped in to create national standards with the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990. It wasn’t until 1995 that the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP)/National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) defined organic agriculture. I think this is the most recent definition:
In 2002, the NOP defined organic agriculture: “Organic production [is] a production system that…respond[s] to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biological diversity”
That definition only describes the mere 1-2% of crop production that’s organic.
Anyway … Look at those verbs … foster, promote, conserve. There’s a lot of grey area there. What about specifics? Does the USDA allow synthetic pesticides in organic farming? (They say synthetic fertilizers are prohibited.) In fact, it does. And a whole lot more that I would never think would be used in organic farming, like…
Manures from conventional systems are allowed in organic production, including manure from livestock grown in confinement and from those that have been fed genetically engineered feeds. Manure sources containing excessive levels of pesticides, heavy metals, or other contaminants may be prohibited from use. Such contamination is likely present in manure obtained from industrial-scale feedlots and other confinement facilities.
Herbicide residues have been found in manures and manure-based composts.
Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is the most widely used herbicide in conventional farming. And there it is in manure used to grow organic produce.
Raw, uncomposted manure contains bacteria and other pathogens that are harmful to humans, other animals, and plants. This report says raw, uncomposted manure can be used if it is:
1. Incorporated into the soil a minimum of 120 days prior to harvest when the edible portion of the crop has soil contact; OR
2. Incorporated into the soil a minimum of 90 days prior to harvest of all other food crops.
But! You can do away with those 90- and 120-day restrictions by composting that manure, a process that requires the temperature be held at 131-170 °F for 3 days when a “static-aerated-pile system is used.” You can get it down to an hour by processing it:
To be considered processed, the manure must be heated to 150 °F for 1 hour and dried to 12 percent moisture or less.
Heating manure doesn’t do away with contaminants like lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, pesticides, herbicides (as we saw above), pharmaceutical drugs, and other environmental pollutants, many of which, like BPA and phthalates, act as endocrine disruptors. It might break them down, but the metabolites can be just as harmful. Heating just kills microorganisms.
So, maybe the soil isn’t what I imagined it to be. What about the seeds and other planting stock like roots and cuttings? Organic? Not necessarily:
When an equivalent organic variety is not commercially available, conventionally grown seed may be used.
That term “commercially available” gives organic farmers flexibility, but can be a loophole for unethical producers. If the farmer thinks that commercially available organic seed is substandard, say, has low germination rates, he can reject it for lower-cost, higher-yielding conventional seed. That conventional seed isn’t allowed to be of GMO stock. However, as more crops become GMO, there is a greater chance for contamination of non-GMO crops. And there is a lot more GMO out there:
GM crops that are now being planted or will soon be available include alfalfa, beets, corn, soybeans, papaya, plum, rapeseed, tobacco, potato, tomato, squash, cotton, and rice.
Pollen from GM crops has been contaminating organic crops with increasing frequency.
So, there is an added cost to the farmer to research the history of seed (or have someone do this) and document its non-GMO status. Some companies that provide organic seed have taken the Safe Seed Pledge, which says in part:
We feel that genetically engineered varieties have been insufficiently tested prior to public release. More research and testing is necessary to further assess the potential risks of genetically engineered seeds.
I’m really surprised to see that in a USDA document!
Cover crop seeds should be organic too, but:
If a nearby neighbor grows conventional cover crop seeds and you wish to plant them because they are locally adapted, you may claim that organic seeds of that variety are not commercially available.
So you may lie?
Seedlings should be organic too, but:
A variance to use conventional seedlings to grow an organic crop may be granted only if the original transplants were destroyed through “…drought, wind, flood, excessive moisture, hail, tornado, earthquake, fire or other business interruption…”
Plantings (like garlic and potatoes) should be organic too, but:
At the time of this writing (November 2012), many plant varieties are not commercially available in sufficient quantity, which may require the use of nonorganic planting stock.
You aren’t allowed to treat your organic plants with “prohibited substances” but:
Treatment with prohibited substances is allowed when the application of those substances is a requirement of Federal or State phytosanitary regulations. For example, strawberry crowns may be required to be treated with fungicides prior to interstate shipments.
And there’s a whole lot of synthetic pesticides* and other substances that are allowed:
Synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production: … The list includes algaecides, disinfectants, sanitizers, irrigation system cleaners, herbicides, animal repellents, insecticides, miticides, pheromones, rodenticides, slug baits, plant disease controls, soil amendments, and plant growth regulators.
Compare that list to the description of the original organic or humus farm up top:
Humus farming made little or no use of soluble commercial fertilizers or pesticides.
The USDA organic regulations have very little to say about irrigation and irrigation water quality.
Water treatment plants have a hard enough time keeping cattle growth hormones and pharmaceutical drugs out of our drinking water. I imagine water used for irrigation is a step below tap water in priorities. Ultimately, it’s up to the farmer to care, to make sure water that quenches his crops is clean.
One last point. It says that farmers are exempt from these rules if they sell less than $5,000 of organic produce per year. So, a small local farmer might be selling organic produce that’s grown with more rigorous standards than USDA’s, or less rigorous. Farmers’ market produce could be even more laden with chemicals than conventional. You don’t really know.
Do you see whats going on here? I get the sense that industry had input in these regulations; there are so many loopholes, so many places where an unscrupulous grower could use lower-cost, less-than-organic methods, and still sell for a premium organic price.
Something else … If this is how we’re growing organic, how are we growing conventional? This report, and some other USDA websites said organic farmers should not use “sewage sludge.” As if? I mean, is that the convention?
What I learned from this is that food labeled “organic” is not chemical-free, not by a long shot. Perhaps this Is what should be expected as we scale up organic production, as we industrialize it.
* Organic pesticides also carry risk:
Organic Pesticides: Not An Oxymoron, NPR, June 2011
Are Lower Pesticide Residues A Good Reason To Buy Organic? Probably Not., Scientific American, September 2012