By Marc Courtiol
With the rise of the organic food movement over the last decade, the decision-making process at the grocery store has become more complicated than ever. In the produce section, we face a choice between fruits and vegetables grown in a conventional manner and those that have been labeled “USDA Organic.” They usually look roughly the same, but the price tag on organic produce is usually a little higher. There are some major differences between organic and non-organic produce, but the distinctions are not so clear-cut as the advocates on each side would like us to think.
Organic vs. conventional farming
We tend to call non-organic farming practices “conventional,” and although they have been around for a long time now, they’re not actually traditional. Most conventional produce is grown using factory-farming techniques that, according to environmentalists, are bad for the soil, air, water, and surrounding plants and animals. For example, the use of chemical fertilizers, spray insecticides, herbicides, and animal antibiotics has been going on for less than a century, but these practices now dominate agriculture in the U.S. and elsewhere in the developed world.
Organic farming, rather than being a new development, is actually a back-to-the-basics approach that emphasizes traditional farming methods that do not rely on chemicals or genetic modification. Organically grown plants are given only a very limited amount of pesticides, and livestock raised organically is not given artificial hormones or antibiotics.
It would be nice if these environmentally friendly farming practices resulted in more nutritious produce, but research has indicated that this just is not the case. One 2010 study commissioned by the British Food Standards Agency found that “there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organic over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority,” and other studies have come to similar conclusions.
However, nutrition aside, organic food advocates often note that foods raised organically have a better flavor and are more ripe than their counterparts. While this may not be true in all cases, it is true that non-organic foods are often chemically enhanced to appear more ripe than they are (mainly to shorten the growing cycle and enhance profits). Plus, many people believe that pesticides can permeate certain fruits and vegetables and give them a chemical taste.
Identifying organic foods
In the U.S., foods must meet fairly rigid criteria in order to be certified organic by the USDA. There are three levels of certification: products made of at least 70% organic ingredients can be labeled as having organic ingredients; products with at least 95% organic ingredients may be labeled as “USDA Organic”; and the highest level is 100% organic for products with no non-organic ingredients.
However, if you want to make an effort to buy organic foods, it is important to understand that there is no law against non-organic food labels containing terms such as “all-natural” or “free range.” Products cannot contain false advertising, but there are no technical definitions for these terms, so if it is not certified organic, you can’t know how natural a product actually is.