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Organic foods are not specific foods, but are any foods that are grown and handled after harvesting in a particular way. In the United States, organic foods are crops that are raised without using synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or sewage sludge fertilizer, and they have not been altered by genetic engineering. Organic animal products come from animals that have been fed 100% organic feed and raised without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics in an environment where they have access to the outdoors. Standards for organic foods vary from country to country. The requirements in Canada and Western Europe are similar to those in the United States. Many developing countries have no standards for certifying food as “organic.”
The organic food movement has the following goals:
Organic farming is the oldest method of farming. Before the 1940s, what is today called organic farming was the standard method of raising crops and animals. World War II accelerated research into new chemicals that could be used either in fighting the war or as replacements for resources that were in short supply because of their usefulness to the military. After the war ended, many of the new technological discoveries were applied to civilian uses and synthetic fertilizers, new insecticides, and herbicides became available. Fertilizers increased the yield per acre and pesticides encouraged the development of single-crop mega-farms, resulting in the consolidation of agricultural land and the decline of the family farm.
Organic farming, although only a tiny part of American agriculture, originally offered aniche(Illustration by GGS Information Services/Thomson Gale.)
market for smaller, family-style farms. In the early 1980s this method of food production began to gain popularity, especially in California, Oregon, and Washington. The first commercial organic crops were vegetables that were usually sold locally at farmers’ markets and health food stores.
By the late 1980s interest in organic food had reached a level of public awareness high enough that the United States Congress took action and passed the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. This act established the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). NOSB has developed regulations and enforcement procedures for the growing and handling of all agricultural products that are labeled “organic.”These regulations went into effect on October 21, 2002.
Since the 1990s, the market for organic food has expanded from primarily fruits and vegetables to eggs, dairy products, meat, poultry, and commercially processed frozen and canned foods. In 2000, for the first time, more organic food was purchased in mainstream supermarkets than in specialty food outlets. By 2005, every state had some farmland that was certified organic, and some supermarket chains had begun selling their own brand-name organic foods. The demand for organic food is expected to continue to grow rapidly through at least 2010.
Organic certification is voluntary and applies to anyone who sells more than $5,000 worth of organic produce annually. (This exempts most small farmers who sell organic produce from their own farm stands). If a product carries the USDA Organic Seal indicating that it is ‘‘certified organic’’ it must meet the following conditions:
To meet these requirements, organic farmers use natural fertilizers such as composted manure to add nutrients to the soil. They control pests by crop rotation and interplanting. Interplanting is growing several different species of plants in an alternating pattern in the same field to slow the spread of disease. Pest control is also achieved by using natural insect predators, traps, and physical barriers. If these methods do not control pests, organic farmers may apply certain non-synthetic pesticides made from substances that occur naturally in plants. Weed control is achieved by mulching, hand or mechanical weeding, the use of cover crops, and selective burning.
The USDA allows three label statements to help consumers determine if a food is organic.
Consumers may be bewildered by other words on food labels such as “natural”or “grass-fed”that may be confused with organic. Natural and organic are not interchangeable. “Natural”foods are minimally processed foods but, they are not necessarily grown or raised under the strict conditions of organic foods. “Grass-fed”indicates that the livestock were fed natural forage (“grass”), but not necessarily in open pasture or for their entire lives.
Debate continues about the exact requirements to label animal products “cage-free,”“free-range,”or “open pasture.” Cage-free simply means the animals were not kept caged, but does not necessarily mean that they were raised outdoors or allowed to roam freely. There is no certification process for the designation “cage-free.”Animals can spend as little as five minutes per day outdoors and still be considered “free-range.”Animal rights organizations are working to clarify these designations and improve the conditions under which all animals, are raised.
Certified organic food requires more labor to produce, which generally makes it more expensive than non-certified food. Some consumers buy organic food primarily because the way it is raised benefits the environment. Others believe absolutely in the health benefits of organic food. A larger group of consumers are uncertain if organic food offers enough health benefits to justify the additional cost.
Discussions of the health benefits of organic food can become quite heated and emotional. Advocates of buying organic foods firmly believe that they are preserving their health by preventing their bodies from becoming receptacles for poisonous chemicals that can cause cancer, asthma, and other chronic diseases. Non-organic food buyers take the position that the level pesticide and fertilizer residue in non-organic food is small and harmless. Neither side is likely to change the other’s view. However, below are some conclusions from studies done comparing organic and non-organic foods.
Individuals should be informed about food labeling requirements and read food labels carefully so that they can make informed decisions about their purchases.
Organic food does not interact with drugs or other foods in a way that is different from non-organic foods.
No complications are expected from eating organic food.
Chemicals found in foods may have a greater effect on the growth and development of younger children than older ones. Young children are rapidly growing while still developing their nervous system, immune system, and other organs. Chemicals may have a greater effect on these developing tissues than on adult tissues.
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Goodman, Myra, with Linday Holland, and Pamela McKinstry, Pamela. Food to Live By: The Earthbound Farm Organic Cookbook New York: Workman Pub.,2006.
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Helen M. Davidson