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Understanding Organics

Jennifer Harmening

Since the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program went into effect in October 2002, organic foods have become available at an increasing number of locations, and more people are intentionally choosing to buy, grow, and eat organic foods. Why? Weighing your food options today isn’t just about considering financial costs and finding the best bargain; it’s also about considering the costs and benefits to your personal health, the natural environment, and the local community.

Organic agricultural products are cultivated using methods that minimize harm to human communities and the natural environment. Organic farmers forgo using the antibiotics, growth hormones, and chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Keeping these synthetics off the farm consequently keeps them off our dinner plates and out of our bodies. Instead, organic farms rely on methods such as crop rotation, fertilizing with compost or manure, controlled grazing, and companion planting to prevent disease, to control pests, or to enhance the growth of their crops and livestock. These organic methods not only reduce pollution, but can also improve ecological biodiversity and soil and water quality over time.

While many farmers have been using organic methods to grow crops and raise livestock for generations, the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) was established to ensure that all organically labeled foods meet consistent national standards. The NOP effectively oversees the production of fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, fibers, and dairy products on American farms. According to the NOP website, “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.” Furthermore, “the NOP regulations prohibit the use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge in organic production and handling.” When food is labeled “USDA Certified Organic” at least 95 percent of its ingredients must be produced according to these organic standards.

Some would argue that while the standards behind the USDA Certified Organic label are a step in the right direction, they are imperfect. The standards do not, for instance, mandate crop biodiversity, limit the scale of an agricultural operation, or require fair farm labor practices. Some organic foods advocates, including the well-respected Organic Consumers Association, fear the NOP is in need of additional monitoring and peer review systems. Despite these important concerns, the USDA label has certainly proved to be a valuable guide for consumers thus far.

It is essential to know however, that not everything at the grocery store falls under USDA jurisdiction. Surprisingly, fish and seafood are not currently covered under the NOP regulations. Cosmetics, personal care products, and body care products are also unregulated by these standards. Their packaging may also use language that suggests the use of natural and environmentally-friendly ingredients or production methods. Read the labels of these products carefully so that you know what you’re really getting before you make a purchase.

Whenever you can, take the time to learn more about where your food comes from. Some farmers may be undergoing a transition from conventional to organic growing methods, or may be farming sustainably but are unable to afford USDA organic certification. Some farmers may consistently exceed the standards currently required by the USDA National Organic Program. Buying locally grown foods from a farmers market or a community-supported agriculture (CSA) share are great ways to get to know the farms and farmers in your area. You can also ask the staff at your natural foods cooperative or grocery store about where and how the foods they stock are produced. Request more organic options if they aren’t currently available!

Read Up

Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating by Jane Goodall. Warner Books 2005.

The Omnivores Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Penguin 2007.

Fatal Harvest edited by Andrew Kimbrell. Foundation for Deep Ecology 2002.

Sustainable Food by Elise McDonough. Chelsea Green Publishing 2009.

Act Locally

Minnesota Grown Pick up their farmer’s market directory, 800-657-3878 www3.mda.state.mn.us/mngrown

Understanding Organics

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