In terms of pure chemistry, any food item (even Cheese Whiz) is invariably “organic” because they contain carbon as part of carbohydrates, proteins, or lipids. But the kind of “organic” we’re talking about when it comes to groceries is quite a bit different. The USDA now has special regulations defining “organic” foods. (Canadian standards are similar.)
Organic foods must be grown, harvested, and packaged without the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, or preservatives.
Organic produce is produced in such a way that maintains the integrity of the soil, prevents erosion, and prevents contamination of drinking water.
Organic produce must not be grown with fertilizer made from slewer sludge (standard practice on conventional farms…yum)
Organic meats, eggs, and dairy are derived from livestock which are fed organic feed, and not given artificial hormones or antibiotics (included rBGH), although they may be given standard vaccines in order to prevent disease. (Animals on organic farms who do fall ill may be treated with antibiotics, but legally their flesh, eggs, and dairy may not then be sold as “organic.”)
Organic meats come from animals who are fed a natural diet, i.e., cattle are raised on grass or corn, not other cattle (which is how the whole “mad cow” thing came about and spread like wildfire).
Organic foods must not be genetically engineered or contain any GE ingredients, and must not be irradiated.
How can you farm without pesticides or synthetic fertilizer? Farmers generally use crop rotation, cultivation, mulching and composting, soil enrichment, and “encouragement” of predators and microorganisms which naturally keep pests away (such as ladybugs who enjoy feasting on aphids.)
Is organic worth it?
Organic food tends to have a higher price tag than conventional food. But, especially with the new guidelines which ensure that you really are getting the organic food you’re paying for, the benefits in many cases may well outweight the cost:
Many studies show that organically grown produce is nutritionally superior to conventionally grown, in both micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and phytonutrients (the cancer-fighting components of plant foods).
With all the genetically engineered foods running rampant in the fields and grocery stores, sometimes buying organic is the only way to keep GMO’s out of your kitchen. (For more information on GMO’s, visit safe-food.org or go to the sidebars page for additional links.
Significant amounts of pesticide residue may remain on many varieties of conventionally grown produce, even after thorough washing. (Due to runoff from conventional farms, there may be trace amounts of pesticides on organic produce, but in much smaller amounts which are more easily washed off. For more information, visit foodnews.org.)
Livestock raised in “conventional” manner must suffer severe health consequences from the slew of antibiotics and hormones given to them. Buying organic meats, eggs, and dairy supports farmers who care about the health of their livestock.*
Antibiotics and hormones given to conventional livestock have a tendency to show up in the products derived therefrom, including the flesh (i.e. meat), milk, milk derivatives (e.g. butter, cheese), and eggs. No studies have been done on the long-term, cumulative effect of these hormones in humans who consume these products.
Organic grass-fed beef is higher in essential fatty acids (yet lower in total fat content) than grain-fed factory farm cattle. Organic eggs from free-range chickens have this same benefit over their conventional counterparts.
Free-range animals have a better diet and less diet-related health problems than their factory farm counterparts.
Many people claim they can taste the difference between conventional and organic foods, and the results are always in favor of the organic! (Even if they don’t always win beauty pageants.)
Organic agriculture is inherently more friendly toward the environment. Organic productions support natural ecosystems by using long-term farming solutions which don’t deplete topsoil, don’t subject farm workers to toxic pesticide exposure, don’t pollute water and air supplies, and are more sustainable long-term. You could almost say that you’re buying futures in the Earth by going organic.
Organic farming is also less reliant on nonrenewable energy sources, and respects biological diversity within the environment, including protection of plant and wildlife habitats.
So is it worth it? If you are concerned about sustainable agriculture, then the answer would have to be an unequivocal yes. If you are in it mostly for the health benefits, then it’s about your own arbitrary choices. The best advice I can give is to educate yourself on which of your favorite foodstuffs are most mikely to be contaminated by pesticide residue (especially after washing), hormones or antibiotics, genetically modified ingredients, and other substances you are trying to avoid.
If you can’t always buy organic (I know my wallet won’t allow for 100% organics!):
Do some research and find out which agricultural products are more likely to be highly contaminated.
Try to eat a variety of produce to ensure that you are not repeatedly exposing yourself to the same toxins and pesticides.
Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly to clean off as much of the pesticide residue as possible.
If you do buy organic, well, bravo! But always keep in mind that organic does not always necessarily mean it’s “good for you.” You could buy organic lard if you really wanted to; that doesn’t make it healthy!