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What Does It Really Mean to Be “Organic”?

In a previous post, we touched on the rise of the “conscious consumer,” or buyers who are thoughtful about where goods come from and the environmental and human impact. One area that’s experiencing tremendous growth from the conscious consumer is “organic goods.” In fact, sales from organic foods rose 8.4% last year in the U.S. alone. But what’s considered organic is a gray area, and dissecting these labels can be confusing. So, to help you navigate your next trip to the grocery store, here’s a breakdown of what it means to be organic and why it’s so important.

 

Put a label on it

“Organic” is a labeling term that is federally regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and indicates whether agriculture products–those derived from plant or livestock and have not been chemically tampered with–have been produced through approved methods. Becoming certified organic is a rigorous process and requires monitoring and auditing of every step of production. Any certified product will have one of these three labels:  

100% Organic

This label is typically seen with fresh produce or other single-ingredient products like dried mangos or shaved coconut. It means exactly what it says it does: all ingredients in the product must be certified organic. This includes ingredients for processing foods — such as agents to remove color from sugar. No ingredients prohibited from the National List (which we’ll cover later in this section) may be present.

Organic

This is a probably the most commonly seen label. To be advertised as “organic,” the product must be composed of 95% certified organic agriculture ingredients. The remaining 5% must be permitted by the National List.

“Made with” Organic

This label is popular for products that are transitioning to fully organic, which is becoming more common due to  consumer demands. For a product to claim “made with” organic, 70% of ingredients must be certified organic. The remainder of the agriculture products may be non-organic, but must be produced without excluded methods. Any non-agriculture ingredients must be permitted on the National List.

Ok, so what the heck is this National List? And wtf are excluded methods? The National List is a regulated list of allowed and prohibited substances. It includes synthetic substances that can be used (like vitamins) and natural substances that cannot be used (like pheromones) in organic crop and livestock production. The excluded methods list was created in response to the surge of genetically-engineered foods and ensures that organic foods are non-GMO.

 

Why should we give a hoot?

Before diving in, we want to emphasize that organic foods can be more expensive and aren’t an accessible option for everyone. For those who are on a tight budget but want to support organic farmers, we suggest checking if Imperfect Produce, a company that sells “ugly” produce at a much lower cost, is available in your area. If not, try reading this list of the “dirty dozen” (the top 12 most pesticide-ridden foods) to see if you can start by eliminating a few from there.

But, in general, why go through all this trouble to shop organically? There is a long-list of environmental and health impacts that come with use of pesticides, and if we tried to list them all, we’d be writing a novel. So, for the sake of brevity, we’ll cover the basics:

The Environmental Impact

The ecosystem is highly-connected and delicate, so when synthetic chemicals are added, it has far-reaching consequences. And pesticides don’t just hang out in the fields they’re applied to. They can travel far and wide through pathways such as wind, groundwater, rivers, and even rain. From the ground up, pesticides decrease biodiversity in the soil. Not using chemicals generally leads to higher-quality soil that is also known to retain more water (which can be game-changing during droughts), generating 20-40% better crop yields than conventional soil.  

In addition, pesticides also have negative impacts for wildlife of all sorts. It’s no secret that bees, which are central to our global food system, are in a crisis and pesticides (along with habitat loss and climate change) are playing a heavy role. But the impact extends further beyond that. Common pesticides are also unintentionally destroying large populations of insects, aquatic species, and birds. On top of that, a study conducted by the EPA found that two widely-used pesticides harm 97% of endangered species in the U.S. Yes, you read that correctly–97%!

The Health Impact

Conventional farming methods also wreak havoc on the health of humans and wildlife, particularly the endocrine system. The endocrine system is the body system that produces important hormones for things like metabolism, sexual function, sleep, mood, and reproduction. Many pesticides and insecticides are endocrine disruptors, which are chemicals that act on the endocrine system and interfere with these hormones. Agriculture chemicals, when introduced to the body, often cause too much or too little estrogen or testosterone (hormones produced by the endocrine system) in both wildlife and humans.

So why does this matter? At an environmental level, endocrine disruptors from pesticides compromise reproductive systems of wildlife, which leads to unhealthy biodiversity and animal suffering. At the human level, pesticides also disrupt reproductive and sexual development. These effects have been seen in those exposed both via diet and occupation. For instance, studies show that residents or labor workers in close proximity to agriculture have been have higher than normal levels of developmental abnormalities, learning disabilities, fetal death, and certain cancers.

 

Hopefully, this overview sheds light on why conventional farming is such a harmful practice. By tampering with individual species and environments, it dominoes into our larger ecosystem. As Luke Skywalker says in The Last Jedi, “It’s the energy between all things, a tension, a balance that binds the universe together.” While technically this is referring to The Force, we think Luke was onto something. All things in nature are interconnected and rely on the health of each other. So, thanks Luke, we couldn’t have said it better ourselves.


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