Today the word organic is all around us. But what does it really mean? We usually see the Certified Organic USDA label in our grocery stores, but few of us know the details of what makes an agricultural product Certified Organic. What exactly are they doing, or not doing to our food in order to get that seal printed on the label? Just about everyone knows that organic food is more expensive, but why? And more importantly - is it even worth it? Our final conclusion might surprise you.
When did the whole "organic" thing start?
Organic growing started in the 1940's when people began to evaluate why the earth became less productive in areas where crops were grown despite adding fertilizer to the soil. Over time they found that the problem was the loss of nutrients and organic material to hold these nutrients in the soil. By adding organic matter such as compost or mulch, you are providing the soil with the material it needs to make the ground a healthy place for plants.
The organic movement started to gain momentum in the 1970's and consisted of a general agreement on philosophical approaches, but no standards or regulations existed defining organic agriculture. The first certification programs were created on the state level, giving each state or certifying agent their own standards based on production practices and constraints in their region. Because of this state to state approach, there was a lack of clarity about what "organic" meant and so a movement grew to develop national standards.
Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990. OFPA mandated that USDA develop and write regulations to explain the law to producers, handlers and certifiers. They also called for an advisory National Organic Standards Board to make recommendations regarding the substances that could be used in organic production and handling and to help USDA write the regulations. After years of work, final rules were written and implemented in fall 2002.
Organic Standards Definition
Certified Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through federally approved methods. The organic standards describe the specific requirements that must be documented by the farmer and verified every year by a USDA-accredited certifying agent before products can be labeled USDA Certified Organic. This includes seed sources, soil and water quality, crop health, and pest and weed control. Overall, organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, promoting ecological balance, and using only approved substances that have been examined for it's effects on human health and the environment. Prohibited substances include most (with some exception) synthetic fertilizers and pesticides as well as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).
When it comes to packaged foods, only a label that says “100 percent organic” indicates a product made solely with organic ingredients. “Organic,” on the other hand, means 95 percent of the ingredients are organic, while “made with organic ingredients” is reserved for products with at least 70 percent certified organic ingredients.
Wait, I thought organic meant no pesticides?
A common misconception among people who eat organic food is that pesticides are never used. Or at the very least they are only using all natural remedies as a last resort when all else fails. It is true that organic farmers are usually very hesitant to apply pesticides unless they have to, but then so are producers who use synthetic chemicals. Spraying pesticides isn't cheap and if growers don't have to apply a chemical they won't. For many pests, producers can watch the population growing and not apply any chemicals until the pest reaches a specific concentration, but for others it makes more sense to apply pesticides before seeing pests on a crop. That means that while it is true that they probably only apply these chemicals because they have to in order to produce a satisfactory crop, it's a mistake to believe that they're applying pesticides only when they observe pest activity. The fact is, organic producers are using as many pesticides as their non-organic counterparts. They are just more limited in which ones they can choose from.
What is a pesticide exactly?
We're used to thinking of pesticides as the stuff we spray on plants or around our house to get rid of bugs. But the term pesticide is much broader than that; it's any substance that gets rid of or repels a pest. The term encompasses many different -cides; herbicides (to get rid of plants), fungicides (to get rid of fungi), insecticides (to get rid of insects), and the list goes on. There are two types of pesticides; organic and synthetic. Organic pesticides are ones that are found on the earth made by nature such as Neem oil which is a vegetable oil pressed from the fruits and seeds of a neem tree found in tropical areas. Synthetic pesticides are man-made compounds and not produced by nature.
Organic is definitely better than Synthetic, right?
Many studies have been done showing how damaging some synthetic pesticides can be to people and to the environment. As a result, pesticides both organic and synthetic are now subjected to much more rigorous testing than was the case 20 years ago. The results? Most organic pesticides that have been examined extensively have relatively few effects on humans at low doses. But the surprising fact is that low doses of synthetic chemicals also have few effects on humans.
USDA Pesticide Data Program
The most comprehensive pesticide residue testing started in 1991 and is done annually by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to collect data on pesticide in food, particularly foods most likely to be consumed by infants and children. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) sets limits on how much of a pesticide may be used on food during growing, processing, and storage, and how much can remain on the food that reaches the consumer. In setting the tolerance, EPA makes a safety finding that the pesticide can be used with a reasonable certainty of no harm by considering the toxicity of the pesticide, how much is applied and how often, how much remains on or in the food, and all possible routes of exposure. Government inspectors monitor food to ensure that these limits are not exceeded. EPA also sets standards to protect the workers from exposure to pesticides on the job.
PDP (Pesticide Data Program) commodity sampling is based on a rigorous statistical design that ensures the data is reliable for use in exposure assessments and can be used to draw various conclusions about the Nation's food supply. The pesticides and commodities to be included each year in the sampling are selected based on EPA data needs and take into account the types and amounts of food consumed by infants and children. The number of samples collected by the States is apportioned according to that State's population. Samples are randomly chosen close to the time and point of consumption (i.e. distribution centers rather than at the farm gate) and reflect what is typically available to the consumer throughout the year. Samples are selected without regard to country of origin, variety, growing season, or organic labeling.
Fresh and processed fruit and vegetables accounted for 83.1 percent of the total 10,541 samples collected in 2017. Other samples collected included honey (3.0 percent), milk (6.7 percent), and bottled water (7.2 percent). Fresh and processed fruit and vegetables tested during 2017 were; applesauce, asparagus, cabbage, cranberries (fresh and frozen), cucumbers, garbanzo beans (canned), grapefruit, kale, lettuce, mangoes, olives (canned), onions, pineapple (canned), plums (dried/prunes), snap peas, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes (canned). Domestic samples accounted for 72.4 percent of the samples, while 26.0 percent were imports, 1.1 percent were of mixed origin, and .5 percent were of unknown origin.
In 2017, over 99 percent of all the samples tested (including both organic and non organic samples) had residues well below the tolerances established by the EPA with 53 percent having no detectable pesticide residue. Although pesticide residual levels are low in foods and the USDA and EPA say that you shouldn't be concerned about them, not everyone has faith in those assessments. Skeptics often point to the fact that our government agencies haven't done the kind of testing that can predict the potential danger from the long-range, low-level risk from a mix of many chemicals. Another shortcoming of the USDA Pesticide Residue testing is that some of the most used chemicals in both conventional and organic farming are not tested for. The vast majority of the substances tested by the USDA are only used in conventional agriculture, so it's not surprising that conventional foods were found to have more residues per sample than organic.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) points out that most of the natural pesticides we use are things that we are likely to come into contact with regardless of whether we spray it as a pesticide or not. But they fail to recognize that the dose makes the poison. Almost anything can be poisonous at a high enough dose and almost anything is safe at a low enough dose. It's convenient to say that because a pesticide is naturally occurring that we can't avoid it anyway, but how many of us will have the opportunity to rub up against a tropical tree from which neem is derived? Even if you did have the opportunity to encounter them in nature, would you be exposed to the same amount of these chemicals as when you spray them on your plants? The answer is no.
You may have also seen "dirty" food lists that are published to show the crops that are most likely to be treated with pesticides (image below). The lists are intended to demonstrate to the consumer that the foods listed are best not purchased unless they've been organically grown. But in fact, the same foods that conventional producers must apply high doses of pesticides to must also be treated with high doses of pesticides by the organic farmer. Sure organic producers use more earth friendly methods such as traps and baits, but these methods are unlikely to completely eliminate the problem by themselves. In fact when looking at apple orchards, scientists found that because of the modest effectiveness and short residual activity of most of the organic pesticides, frequent reapplications of these chemicals are often necessary, leading to environmental consequences that may be worse than if conventional pesticides were applied.
So why would I ever buy organic?
The available information points to the inescapable conclusion that both conventional and organic produce contain some form of pesticide residues. The great news is that the annual pesticide residue testing performed by the USDA shows us that our vegetables and fruits, organic and conventional, are safe to eat and not only that but we should be eating lots of them.
There is something to be said however about the USDA Organic Guidelines surrounding their overall protection of the environment. As stated previously, organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, promoting ecological balance, and using approved substances that have been examined for it's effects on the environment. Many organic farmers are now making it a priority to improve soil health and this in and of itself might be the main reason to buy organic. Soil is the foundation of basic ecosystem function. Soil filters our water, provides essential nutrients to our forests and crops, and helps regulate the Earth's temperature as well as many important greenhouse gases.
It really becomes a matter of personal choice and what feels right to you. Why pay $2.60 for the organic apple in the picture when you can get the same thing for $0.35? We do it because we feel that when presented with an option of all-natural vs. man made, we always choose the all-natural, no matter what it is. But all the "science" claiming organic foods are safer for us, taste better, or are better for the environment is for the most part biased or anecdotal research. There may be no perfect solution to growing food for the masses, but the great news is we can grow our own pesticide free food which is better for us and the environment.
Where can I find produce that uses NO pesticides?
Come on over to our house! No, actually, please don't. But that's really the only answer to, "How can I be sure my food was not sprayed with anything?", organic or otherwise - grow it yourself. As a backyard gardener we are the ones that decide how "organic" we want to be and what we think is appropriate to use in our own gardens, from soil to seed selection to fertilizers and pesticides. Here at Growing Ambition, we grow all of our fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers with ZERO pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or synthetic fertilizers - including organic options. Gardening without chemicals ensures that the food we grow is completely safe to us and any pollinators or anything else that come into contact with it. That is something I feel great about and you can too just by following our easy organic gardening methods.
Always remember that these plants existed long before people started gardening. More effective than any pesticide is a healthy plant. Just like a lion on the plains of Africa, harmful insects and fungi attack the weak ones. Believe it or not plants can actually regulate their own internal chemicals (natural pesticides) as a defense mechanism against pests trying to attack it. Provide your plant with good soil, plenty of water and sunlight, and the plant will grow up strong enough to fight it's own battles. In our opinion the safest pesticide to use on your garden fruits and vegetables is letting the plant makes it's own. Might it still need your help? It almost definitely will. But there are many ways to go about ridding your plants of pests other than spraying them with a chemical.
Never tried growing your own food before? It's not as hard as you might think. Check out our Garden section to get started and see how easy it really can be.