Here's what the USDA - the outfit that regulates all products being "certified" - considers to be organic:
CROPS - are raised without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers (read: human wastes. For the record, human wastes are not allowed on ANY salable crops in the US, period.)
LIVESTOCK - must be fed organic feed and given access to the outdoors (there is NO ruling on what this means. More on this later), animals may not be given antibiotics or growth hormones.
Also, both are not allowed the use of genetic engineering (boy, does this upset me - feel free to ask why) nor are they allowed ionized radiation in the handling/growth of their products.
Sounds great, right? Clean, pure, just like great-grandpa on the farm raised. The problem is, there are NINE PEOPLE insuring this in the United States. Nine. There are nine employees that work for the USDA, that oversee organics. There are 2.2 million acres of land in the US alone that are listed as "organic." And how did they get this listing? Trust. There are "certifiers" who report to these nine people and presents their list of stamps: Farmer A, B, and D say they are organic, and that's that. The NOSB (National Organics Standard Board) is made up of 15 VOLUNTEERS, and their responsibility is to GIVE SUGGESTIONS TO THE USDA for regulations. This is who is telling the country what is and isn't "organic.[ref]"
There is no testing. There is no proof, other than a quick tour of the entrance to a facility, and a shake of a hand that the processes on that farm are truly "organic." You need to know that, first and foremost. You also should know that while the USDA has pulled their certification from a handful of outfits that claimed to be organic but weren't, no organic producer has ever been fined for failing to comply to the very loose regulations.
You should also know that China provides 40% of our nation's "organic" produce and meat. So, if your intent is to "buy American," well. Probably not. The reason this should concern you, is that China has VASTLY different regulations as far as what can be put on crops. Human waste is acceptable. Your organic soy milk, tofu, etc. that comes from China, was most likely fertilized with human waste. The auditors that stamp "organic certified" on those crates bound for your grocery stores are not from here. They do not check the farms. They do not interview the workers. They've just always worked with so and so, and they said they're organic, and so: stamp.
As far as livestock: you buy free-range chicken or beef, because you have issues with the abhorrent conditions of most feed lots. Me, too. The idea of a large swath of field with cows happily munching clover, or hens pecking at bugs in a swept yard, others roosting on clean hen houses is appealing. But organic livestock farms look similar to the feed-lots you worry about. This is due to the complete lack of definition of "access to the outdoors," as instructed by the Organic Food Production Act (1990). The walk from semi-truck trailer to pen can qualify as "access to the outdoors." So can large barn doors on either side of a pig barn, where all of the pigs are encased in 4 foot by 2 foot pens, tethered. They have access, you see. There's nothing to say they have to BE out there. Just "access." So unless you know the farm, say it's an outfit in your town that you know, see, etc., you can't be sure that your steak came from a cow that died of natural causes on a hillside of clover, her loved ones all around her, mooing softly as she moved beyond the veil.
Sound cynical? You bet I am. The industry of organics pulled in a profit of 1 BILLION dollars in 1990. Guess how much they brought in 2005? 14.5 BILLION. The NOP (National Organics Program) was created as a marketing program housed within the USDA. There are NO REGULATIONS that address food safety, or differences in nutritional value or organically produced agriculture. [ref] That nutritional value bit should interest you a lot, since most of Americans (75%, to be exact) say that organically produced food is HEALTHIER than commercially produced food. More on that later, as it's a biggie.
The choice to go "organic" in your home is prompted by fear: fear that you are being posioned, that you are poisoning the earth, contaminating our water supplies, and so on. Most of the statistics that are used to illustrate how deadly pesticides and "chemicals" used in crop production are based on reports from a post WWII agriculture, which was when commercial use of insecticides began, and testing of harm was lax. And what do we think of as the worst of these? DDT, right? Guess what: DDT is ORGANIC. It also was responsible for fish kills, the thinning of bird's egg shells, which limited reproduction, and persists in the soil with a half-life of 2-15 years. It also stemmed the tide of millions of people a year dying of malaria and typhus, which was all but eradicated due to the spraying of DDT. It has been banned, although it was an incredibly effective anti-malarial agent that saved lives, mostly children in undeveloped countries. All of the negative effects resided in animals of various sorts - no traces were detected in humans. (For the record, as a bird lover, I have no issues with the ban of DDT. DDT was incredibly damaging to raptors reproduction numbers, who feed on smaller creatures that carried the chemicals in their bodies for long periods of time. Also, be sure to read further on the reference link provided re: breast cancer and DDT/E. Multiple studies have been done to find a link between these two, and have come back inconclusive, both in human tests and primates.)
And I get the desire to protect the environment. That's a choice I make as a gardener and as a consumer. But you should make an INFORMED choice. Just because you buy something with a stamp on it that claims to be "organically" produced, is it? And what makes that product inherently better than something without that label? Lack of cruelty? Death? Poisons applied to the soil? Let's go back to that "certified organic farm" for raising crops. The USDA requires that three years prior, that soil must not have had any synthetic chemicals applied to it. Because everything from the earth is beneficial to the soil, and things created in labs are Bad. I would like to remind everyone that crude oil comes... from the earth. As does plutonium and uranium. The vaccine to prevent polio is created in a lab. Ahem.
You should be aware that the application of pesticides (herbicides, insecticides, rodentcides, miticides, etc.) is one of the most heavily regulated aspects of agriculture[ref]. You cannot purchase most large scale -cides without a) being registered with the Department of Agriculture (which is how they tracked down Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma Fed. building bomber), b) logging each and every use to be submitted BEFORE application, c) logging each worker that applies, comes in contact with said pesticide, d) providing this information BEFORE SALE of your products. Also, if the application isn't done on a schedule, ie: x # of days before consumption, your product cannot be sold to the public. Pesticides used for commerical crops are labled with a "days to harvest" regulation that is strictly adhered to.
Ah, but people can fudge these documents that are presented at point of sale, right? That's pretty difficult, as there are huge staffs of people from various organizations that monitor all of these details and forms that must be filed[ref 1] [ref 2]. Remember the NINE PEOPLE that run the USDA's organic outfit? To its credit, Whole Foods has taken steps on its own to require companies that sell them products have additional documents that back up their claims to follow the basic regulations or organic certification - which we've established to be easily interpreted by the grower to suit their needs.
The synthetic vs. non-synthetic is the big issue. People who want to go "natural" want non-synthetic. They don't want their animals vaccinated against disease, or given growth hormones. I agree with the latter, but not the former. People who want to be "natural" don't want "chemicals" applied to the vegetables and fruit they'll consume. First off, the term "chemical" is a complete waste of time. Everything is chemical, from your saliva and tears, to water, to malathion. Synthetic vs. non-synthetic is a more accurate, albeit nebulous term.
Has everyone heard of pectin? This is what grandma added to fruit to make jams and jellies. Pectin occurs naturally in fruit. The pectin you buy has been synthetically created - and is COMPLETELY IDENTICAL IN ITS MOLECULAR STRUCTURE TO WHAT IS IN AN APPLE, there's just more of it in that cello-package - so you can buy it in a powdered form and reduce the time in the kitchen when making jelly. But this is a product that is not allowed in "organics." There is an emotional reaction in our society (since the book "Silent Spring" was published and started the environmental movement in the '60s) that things created by Scientists are Bad. They are harmful and damaging and will give us all cancer. Now, while I agree that dumping a bunch of pesticides on my lawn is probably not the way to go (I would say that it is DEFINITELY not beneficial), the use of a pesticide while FOLLOWING THE DIRECTIONS is probably okay. But most people don't follow the directions on the label.
And here's the rub: most contamination of water sources and soil are NOT from big farming/livestock outifts, but by HOMEOWNERS. To the tune of 10 times more applications of pesticides than commercial growers.[ref] Homeowners who believe in their heart of hearts that a little of something is good, a lot must be better. Instead of following the instructions for the application of Weed -n- Feed (a product I abhor, but for reasons that it a) is unselective in killing and b) fertilization and herbicides shouldn't be applied at the same time and c) there isn't a rate of application control with multiple products in a bag, such as that product is packaged), and taking the time to measure out the appropriate amount for their yard, they put the whole bag in the hopper and away they go. And then put more down next week, because they didn't get "fast enough results." Oh, but YOU don't put "chemicals" on YOUR lawn or flowers.
Rotenone[ref], made of crushed chrysanthemums, is a very popular NATURAL and ORGANIC pesticide for the control of lice, fleas, and other insects for the home garden.[ref] "Rotenone is perfect for the organic gardener!"[ref] Quick definition of terms: LD50 refers to the Lethal Dose of a product. How much (mg) will kill 50% of the population (kg), to be exact, typically measured in female white mice. The lower the number, the more toxic the product, as it takes LESS to kill 50%. Rotenone has an LD50 of 39mg/kg. Malathion? Who hasn't been warned against the dangers of Malathion? That has an LD50 of 1375 mg/kg.[ref] VASTLY different toxicology there, to the tune of the "Organic and Natural" Rotenone being 35 TIMES MORE TOXIC than the "synthetic" Malathion. Try going to your local organic nursery and buying malathion. But you will most certainly be able to purchase rotenone. Also, there is no first aid that can be administered for this product. You must go straight to the emergency room. It's now being linked to PARKINSON'S DISEASE. Yeah, sounds like a super product.
This all feeds into the mythos that natural is better. Mother Earth will not harm us. Science wants us dead. Now, I prefer natural methods of control in my garden (planting native plants, encouraging good bugs/birds, proper watering practices), and I advocate for the same with those I help through the Extension Agency. If I have an infestation of mites, and other methods fail me, I have no compunction about following the directions for use on an approved miticide in my garden. This idea that somehow organic products are more sound and more importantly, HEALTHIER for your body isn't based on any scientific evidence. Organic producers TELL YOU it's more nutritional, because they don't add pesticides to their foods. But again, there is no evidence that all organic producers are NOT using pesticides. And this doesn't mean that an organic apple has more vitamin C than a commercially produced apple. Most of the studies that have "proven" that organic has "90% more nutrients" than commercially grown DID NOT STUDY COMMERCIALLY GROWN FOOD. What was studied were foods produced in varying SOIL TYPES. Mineral rich soil resulted in higher mineral content of food.[ref]
Now, when farmers use sound farming practices such as crop rotation, amending the soil with organic matter (leaves, compost, vegetable matter) and apply proper nutrients to the soil (as outlined by a soil analysis, which I can't stress enough), they produced better, healthier food. REGARDLESS OF COMMERCIALLY OR ORGANICALLY PRODUCED. The problem is, these practices aren't widespread. I would like them to be! I would like better regulation on BOTH commercial and organic farms, instead of relying on handshakes and trust in the case of organic farms, and the lack of crop rotation and implementation of IPM on commercial farms.
In a nutshell, just because they say it's so, don't make it so. Your organic bananas are harvested before they ripen and before the application of various miticides, then stuck in a metal tank, and pumped full of methane gas to hasten their ripening. Just like grandma did. Don't make a knee jerk reaction to "be organic" because you worry about poisoning the earth, yourself, your animals. Just because something comes from a big commercial outfit, doesn't make it unhealthy. (Now, I avoid Con-Agra foods because of their hiring practices, and their slaughterhouse practices. I have more respect for people who make decisions such as this, than a blanket statement of "chemicals are bad for you, so I spend twice as much on apples to be healthier." That's a ridiculous statement to me.
Some of the few violators of NOS regulations: (and just try finding these - very few out there, although statistically, there are far more violations happening. There's just no STAFF to find them!)
- California seed company listed as organic, using synthetic fungicides on seed
- Berkely brewery claiming organic beer, using non-organic hops
- Michigan beef farm claiming organic beef, using non-organic processing plants
- Florida company claiming organically grown shrimp and fish. SEAFOOD IS NOT ALLOWED TO CARRY AN ORGANIC LABEL OF ANY KIND.
For the record: I use IPM, integrated pest management, to control biological/ecological problems in my garden. This means I grow healthy plants from the start, have good, healthy soil, don't over-water, and use natural methods FIRST to control bugs and disease. Failing this, I turn to approved and SPECIFIC pesticides to control issues. And I rarely have to turn to "chemicals." I buy from local growers to support small farms, and try to buy from local livestock facilities for the same purpose. Farms that I pass and see huge fields of grazing cattle. Or you know... I don't eat meat. It's all about being informed. I think most people have knee-jerk reactions, emotional responses without questioning WHO is telling them this, what their agenda is, and most importantly (to me) where's the proof? Where's the scientific evidence to support the claim?
Just... don't tell me you're "all natural." You're "green." And then drink a soda from a can. Or, that you are vegetarian because of the cruelty to animals, and then buy French fries from McDonalds. (Cooked in animal fats, probably acquired from ConAgra, the evil empire.) If you can be 100% (or, heck, 65%) certain that the grower supplying your fruits and vegetables and meat is strictly following the smart idea of IPM, soil building, and crop rotation to reduce pesticides and crop loss (oh, and not wasting our most precious resource: water), and purchase food at twice the cost of normal commercially grown food, then I commend you, and would probably load up at that farmer's market, too. But you can't be. You can't be certain. You can't convince me that your "organic" vitamins you bought at the
Which is why you need to pay attention to legislation, regulations, and have a stronger presence in your local government. In other words, give those who tell us "facts" a reason to have a conscience. Don't just give growers an idea in how to make a bigger buck, because "organics" are known to cost more (because more crops are lost, due to ineffectual farming practices.)
And... rant over. If you made it this far, thanks.
Thanks to the Dallas Morning News for their excellent article this morning on Organic Farming, and for their resources. And for pushing me to write this. If only for myself...