(NaturalNews) Organic food is now the fastest growing segment of U.S. agriculture. In 2007, the value of retail sales from organic food was estimated at more than $20 billion. According to the Food Marketing Institute, more than half of Americans now buy some organic food product at least once a month. The industry is expected to grow at a rate of 18 percent per year until 2010, making organic food sales one of the fastest growing sectors in the generally sagging U.S. economy. Cutting organic food from their budgets is just not an option for many people who are struggling to make ends meet.
What does it mean to be organic?
According to the National Organic Standards Board:
"Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.
"The word organic is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.
"Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water.
"Organic food handlers, processors and retailers adhere to standards that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people."
This definition gently shades the meaning most people associate with the term, such as the use of non-chemical fertilizers and pesticides as the food is being grown. Canada`s recently instituted organic regulations specifically prohibit synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically-modified organisms (GMO).
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) puts it this way: "Organic crops are raised without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Animals raised on an organic operation must be fed organic feed and given access to the outdoors. They are given no antibiotics or growth hormones."
The USDA allows a sliding scale that reduces some of the rigors of their own definition. According to this scale, only goods that are made entirely of certified organic materials and methods are labeled as "100 percent organic", while those whose makeup is only 95 percent pure are labeled organic. Both categories provide a USDA seal. Salt and water are exempted from consideration as ingredients.
Then there is another category that permits the use of up to 30 percent non-organic materials and methods in production, but which may be legally labeled "made with organic ingredients". Products that are less than 70 percent organic are not allowed to call themselves organic in any way. However, organic ingredients may be listed as such.
Just reading these definitions and finding out what cannot be included in a product labeled as organic is a powerful inducement to buy only organic products.
Organic farming offers a difference
In the U.S. alone, more than one billion pounds of pesticides are released into the environment as a result of non-organic practices. Some of these are very persistent and remain in the environment long after application. Extensive pesticide residue testing by the USDA found that conventionally produced fruits and vegetables are three to over four times more likely to contain pesticide residues than organic produce, and these are eight to eleven times more likely to contain multiple residues and residues at levels three to ten times higher than corresponding residues found in organic samples.
A recent study reported in Environmental Health Perspectives found that by substituting organic fresh fruits and vegetables for corresponding conventional food items, the median urinary metabolite concentrations of malathion and chlorpyrifos pesticides could be reduced from a high level to a level of non-detected or close to non-detected.
Conventional agricultural methods can cause water contamination. Beginning in 1995, a network of environmental organizations, including the Environmental Working Group, began testing tap water for herbicides across the Corn Belt, and in Louisiana and Maryland. The results revealed widespread contamination of tap water with many different pesticides at levels that present serious health risks. In some cities, herbicides in tap water exceeded federal lifetime health standards for weeks or months at a time. The elimination of polluting chemicals and nitrogen leaching by the use of organic farming methods, in combination with soil building, works to prevent contamination and to protect and conserve water resources.
The term "natural" has no real meaning
The parameters of the word "organic" are fairly well defined and specified. Many other food producers wish to gain the appeal and higher price tag of organic foods without going through the rigors to obtain organic certification. Instead, they label their food products as "natural". This term does not in any way mean that the product meets the criteria met by organic products.
If it seems like there are more products labeled as natural, it is not your imagination. Almost everyone who is not an organic producer wants to cash in on American`s desire to eat healthier. One-third of all new U.S. food and beverage products in 2008 highlighted claims of being "natural" or otherwise healthy. But terms like these have nothing to do with the nutritive value of the final product. Even the term "organic" simply refers to how the product was grown or raised, and does not refer to the nutritional value of the product.
The USDA, the regulating body for meat and poultry, says those products can be labeled as "natural" if they do not contain any artificial ingredients or added color, and are only minimally processed (a vague requirement). But if the term is used, the label must also give an additional explanation, such as "no added colorings or artificial ingredients".
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows the term "natural" to be used on food labels when the food contains no added colors, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. This leaves a large gray area. When asked in 2005 to be more specific in its definition of "natural", the FDA declined. Soon after, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued Kraft Foods because of an "all natural" claim for its Capri Sun drinks. The suit was dropped when Kraft agreed to take the claim off the label. The makers of 7 Up tried to make the same claim but removed the term from its label under threat of court action.
Prices for organic foods reflect many of the same costs as conventional items in terms of growing, harvesting, transportation and storage. Organically produced foods must also meet stricter regulations governing all of these steps, resulting in a more labor and management intensive process. Organic farming is usually on a smaller scale. Mounting evidence shows that if all the indirect costs of conventional food production, like the cleanup of polluted water, replacement of eroded soils, costs of health care to farmers and farm workers, were factored into the price of food, organic foods would cost the same or even less than conventionally grown foods.
A July, 2008 survey found that among customers who reported buying organic products, 56 percent had household incomes of more than $100,000, and 36 percent had incomes of less than $25,000. This data shows that the decision to shop organically is a matter of priorities.
Although the organic industry is predicted to grow at 18 percent a year through 2010, the sagging economy may tempt some Americans to cut back on organic purchases they perceive as costing more. But in the long run this choice is clearly not cost effective considering the damage to health and productivity losses associated with a conventionally grown diet, as well as the hidden costs of buying conventional. And then, there`s the taste to think about.
Gregory McNamee, Just What Does Organic Mean, Anyway? Encyclopedia Britannica Blog.
Martha Filipic, Chow Line: `Natural`often means little on label, Ohio State University Extension.
About the author
Barbara is a school psychologist, a published author in the area of personal finance, a breast cancer survivor using "alternative" treatments, a born existentialist, and a student of nature and all things natural.