As more and more supermarkets across North America respond to the growing consumer demand for healthy foods, foods grown organically will become even more affordable and accessible to the average supermarket shopper. If you're still unsure about all the hype over going organic, here are some answers to the common questions about organic food.
What does the term "organic" food really mean?
The definition for organic food is not as simple as you might expect. In everyday popular language, it refers to food that has been produced "naturally," without artificial (synthetic) pesticides, herbicides or genetically modified organisms. This can apply to food bought in a supermarket, food grown at home, or food that has been hunted or gathered in the wild.
Since 2003, in the United States the legal definition of "organic food" applies to foods that have been certified organic. This means the food has been guaranteed by a USDA-approved independent agency to meet specific guidelines. In the United States, those guidelines are as follows:
- Food must be grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or sewage sludge for 3 years prior to becoming certified (and continuously thereafter for duration of certification).
- Food cannot be produced using genetically modified organisms or be irradiated.
- Positive soil building, conservation, manure management and crop rotation practices must be employed
- Livestock intended for consumption must have access to outdoor pasture
- The use of antibiotics and hormones in animals must be refrained
- Animals must be fed 100% organic feed
- Measures to avoid contamination during processing must be taken
- Thorough records of farming operations must be kept.
Unfortunately, recently congress voted to weaken organic certification criteria in the United States, including the decision to allow several synthetic food additives and processing aids to be added to foods without notifying the public, and allowing some animals to be treated with hormones and fed genetically engineered feed prior to being converted to organic production. Many organic organizations are currently fighting to have these decisions reversed.
Are organic foods completely free from chemical residues?
No. Uses of certain natural pesticides are permitted (with restrictions) when farmers are threatened with total crop failure. To avoid this, organic farming methods stress the use of soil building, crop rotation and biological controls (the use of beneficial insects) to keep ideal production conditions in balance. That said, synthetic residues may be carried to organic fields from nearby fields using chemicals, and crops are still subject to any air born pollutants present in the environment. All fruit and produce, whether organically or conventionally grown, should be thoroughly washed before consuming.
Is organic food better for you?
Organically grown food may not be any more nutritious than conventionally grown food, but it is grown without the use of potentially harmful synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers. The EPA currently lists 60% of all herbicides, 90% of all fungicides and 30% of all insecticides as potentially cancer causing.
Why are organic foods more expensive?
The reasons organic foods are more expensive than conventionally grown foods are complex. One reason is that growing foods without the use of agro-chemicals requires organic farmers to use more intense labor practices. Synthetic chemicals are designed to help farmers save time and money by controlling growing conditions chemically in order to produce the biggest yields for the smallest amount of money.
A second reason is that organic farming encourages soil-building practices. This means that instead of continuously growing only the crops with a high profit margin, farmers must keep rotating the crops they grow in order to build healthy soil.
A third reason contributing to the high price of organic foods is government subsidies. If food grown using conventional methods reflected the true costs of growing, harvesting, transportation and storage costs, organic foods would cost closer to the same, maybe even less, than conventionally grown foods.
How can I buy organic food more inexpensively?
There are several strategies for making organic food more affordable. First of all, take advantage of seasonal foods by buying in bulk and freezing the excess for use during the off-season. An alternative is to buy preserved foods when not in season.
Consider joining a co-op or teaming up with a friend to buy a share in a community-supported agriculture program.
Shop around. Compare prices among farmer's markets, specialty stores and larger supermarket chains. Certain products may be cheaper at certain stores. Be flexible and willing to shop among several stores to get the best deal. Be sure to ask about available coupons or special offers.
If you have the space, consider growing your own. Nothing is more rewarding than sitting down to a meal that you have prepared with fresh food you have grown yourself.
Where can I find more information on organic foods?
Visit the organic Consumer's Association at www.organicconsumers.org