Organics 101 Article -
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Organics 101

Organic food has grown into a multi-billion dollar market that represents the fastest-growing segment of the grocery industry.

Heady stuff for a movement that champions small-scale, sustainable food production.

A Movement Gets a Makeover

How did a counterculture movement that began by emphasizing the virtue of small and sustainable grow so big and comfortably mainstream?

More and more consumers began asking questions about the foods they eat:

  • Where does it come from? Is it local or trucked in over vast distances?
  • How is it grown? Is it part of a system that works in harmony with nature, or is it grown with synthetic chemicals and fertilizers?
  • Is production sustainable? Do the conditions in which livestock are raised reflect a measure of respect for the animals' natural instincts and well-being or are speed, efficiency, and the profit margin the primary concerns?
  • And last but not least, how does it taste? Is it bred for best flavor or primarily for uniformity of size and color and increased yield?

    The answers to these questions led many people to choose organics.

    Health and Food Safety

    Concerns about the long-term health effects of the pesticides, chemicals, growth hormones, and antibiotics used in conventional farming convinced many people to seek out alternatives. Meanwhile, outbreaks of "mad cow" disease and E-coli raised consumer awareness about the conditions in factory feedlots, inspiring some buyers to turn to organic and grass-fed meats and poultry in an effort to buy "safer" foods.

    Many people believe organic food is just plain healthier. A 2003 study from the University of California at Davis found that organic produce includes significantly higher levels of vitamin C and a greater variety of micro-nutrients than conventional produce. A Danish study released in 2005 concluded organic milk contained significantly higher levels of vitamin E, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids. Other studies have shown that grass-fed animals produce meats, milk, and eggs with more vitamin E, folic acid, beta-carotene, and omega-3 fatty acids and less saturated fat and cholesterol than corn-fed animals.

      Environmental and Social Issues

      Some consumers have turned to organics because they are concerned about the environmental impact of industrial farming practices that degrade soils, contaminate waterways, increase greenhouse-gas emissions, contribute to a dependency on fossil fuels, and encourage bacterial resistance to antibiotics. Still others bemoan the loss of independent family farmers and the effect that agricultural consolidation has had on rural economies and the rural landscape, shifting it from one of biological diversity to a monoculture.

      Taken together, these concerns represent the "hidden costs" of cheap industrial food.

        Are There Two Organics?

        As organic food began to appeal more and more to the mainstream, it was only natural that big agribusiness should take notice. Indeed, today there is something called "industrial organic." To the original, smaller-is-better organic crowd, the phrase "industrial organic" might sound as oxymoronic as "jumbo shrimp." But if the word "organic" evokes placid pastoral images of cows grazing languidly over lush green pastures, of clucking chickens scratching at the earth and plump pigs rooting about in the mud, then the rise of factory organic farms has created a competing vision, one that mimics large-scale conventional agriculture's emphases on efficiency, speed, and reliance on monoculture.

        Yet for all the knocks against it, industrial organic production puts increasing amounts of land under organic cultivation, reducing the amount of chemicals being unleashed on the environment and limiting the quantity of antibiotics and growth hormones given to livestock.

          Pinning a Label on It

          The USDA currently defines organic this way:

          "Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation."

          These foods receive the official USDA seal of approval:

          • Food labeled 100% organic is entirely organic whole food or is processed from entirely organic foods.
          • Food labeled organic describes food that is no less than 95% organic (an organic soup, for instance, might include a small portion of non-organic ingredients).
          • Food labeled "made with organic..." indicates that a specific organic ingredient is included in the processed food. (Tortilla chips might say "made with organic corn," for example.) In this category, the product must contain 70% organically grown ingredients to receive the coveted USDA seal.

            Organic Bones of Contention

            USDA decisions have proved fertile ground for critics, who contend that USDA regulations and rulings are watering down the meaning of organic. Some argue allowing processed food (including TV dinners) to be called organic strips the word of any real significance. Critics also contend that it is difficult for smaller organic farmers to wade through new paperwork, inspection requirements, and other regulations and fees necessary to receive the distinction "certified organic." Many smaller-scale farmers have opted out of the program, even though their farming methods are organic and might be even more sustainable than those certified as organic.

              Going Beyond Organic

              In the wake of these developments, some producers and consumers look to go "beyond organic," to reclaim what they consider organic's original intent by emphasizing such virtues as "local," "small-scale," "pastoral," and "sustainable." The increasing popularity of farmers' markets suggests a trend in this direction.

              A Few Suggestions from the Editors

              • Pick and choose Organic foods can put a real dent in the grocery budget. If you choose organics to limit pesticides in your family's diet but are concerned about cost, know that USDA testing reveals some conventionally grown produce contains more pesticide residue than others: spinach, pears, nectarines, peaches, apples, strawberries, raspberries and potatoes contain high levels of residue. Produce that is typically “unwrapped” before being eaten--bananas, corn, onions, mangos, avocados--has lower levels of residual pesticide. Try choosing organic for those foods at highest risk of containing pesticides (like spinach and strawberries) and stick to less-expensive conventional foods for others.
              • Put local ahead of organic The average food item travels 1,500 miles from source to table--and about 20 percent of our daily gas output is burned moving food around the country. As a result, many people seek alternatives closer to home. Consumers interested in locally produced, organic whole foods and meats derived from pastured animals can explore their local farmers' markets. Many farmers are eager to discuss their philosophies and farming practices. They may also provide fresh food subscriptions during the market off-season.
              • Consider grass-fed beef Corn feeds conventionally-raised cattle. But grass, a cow's natural food source, contains valuable nutrients that corn lacks, such as vitamin E, beta-carotene, and folic acid. Meats from grass-fed animals contain more of these nutrients, too. Grass-fed beef also includes higher levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, fewer calories, and less saturated fat and cholesterol than grain-fed cattle. What's more, because cattle's complex digestive systems did not evolve to eat corn, many corn-fed cattle develop serious digestive problems and infections, which in turn require treatment with antibiotics. Grass-fed cattle also have been shown to have far fewer E-coli bacteria in their digestive systems, and those that are there are less likely to be dangerous to humans.

              Jul. 11, 2009 3:33 pm
              This is a very interesting article, as according this the start up of our farm, we meet the criteria, and we are able to sell more vegetables and fruits below grocery store and farmers market prices. From the use of recycling the wood from an Broken Arrow Apartment complex, used but good wood, which is the cleaning and staging area of family operated business to the scrap wood we got from the cabinet maker to stake our plants, to buidling a large Long Bean Trellis. Nieghbors with horses, and time to burn, it is a lifestyle. No need to soak the plants weekly with insecticides, but two well timed sprays goes in for the kill of the right pest. Now we will start our pansys for fall in the landscape flats they bought thier spring flowers in. To sell back to them in the fall, to be returned. This keeps the cost to the landscaper down and less need to clutter landfills. To think people in the local grocery pays a $1 or more for this "organic" Farmer greed while his cost are much lower than th
              Oct. 17, 2009 2:03 pm
              This summer, for the first time, I have been receiving a box a week of veggies delivered to my door from a local organic farm. What an unbelievable difference to store bought produce. The carrots didn't even taste like the same vegetable and the garlic was out of this world. If you don't have this option, the best place to shop is the local farmer's market. Last week was my last box of the summer and it will seem like a long time till June :(
              Nov. 20, 2009 9:44 am
              I recently switched to organic meats and I cannot believe the difference! The flavor and texture of the meat is distinctly different. Grass fed beef may take a little getting used to but the chicken will sell you on the first bite. The chicken meat is far juicier and flavorful. Chicken breasts are not as big as commercial but it goes to show how growth hormones affect the meat. What do you think happens when your body digests hormones designed to make you pack on weight? Maybe, just maybe, this is a partial cause of obesity and hormonal imbalances in the US.
              Dec. 28, 2009 6:30 am
              Having just viewed "Food Inc.", a sequel to "Fast Food Nation" we are very mindful of the need to NOT support industrial farming methods -which degrade a/o harm ALL parties of the process other than shareholders. The consumer rules this society - make wise choices & reap the rewards.
              Jan. 22, 2010 5:39 pm
              organic milk tastes great there is a big dirffaince in it i swicted to organic milk two years ago because i was gaging weight from drinking regaual milk i have tried veggies fruits meats and cheeses too
              Feb. 28, 2010 11:21 am
              The pesticides are reason enough to switch! My husband and I have bought organics as much as possible although it is pricier than regular stocked foods. Healthy eating is a common factor for those who tend to buy organic.
              Apr. 26, 2010 5:25 pm
              I used to be afraid of the word organic (not knowing what is really meant). But now in my 3/4 acre garden, I only use my compost and an organic fertilizer on it. I have come to know organic is really a good thing. I don't want to eat pestisides and who knows what else. That is why I grow my own!
              May 14, 2010 9:12 am
              For several years I ate primarily organic foods. As my family grew I could afford organics less and less. As our schedules increased so did our trips to the drive thru, which were limited to less than once a month then increased to once a week. For the past 5 years I had multiple medical problems arise one after the other. Within a year I was on a high blood pressure medication and my cholestoral was being monitored. I focused on my family rather than investigate why my body had changed. By the end of the fifth year I was on 9 different types of medication and 70 pounds bigger. Blood pressure, cholestoral, allergy, daily hives, GI, acne, chronic pain, fatigue and anxiety medications taken daily! Then finally, I had that wake up call after watching Food, Inc. I gave away everything processed or treated. I went to the co-op and farmer's market to replenish our food supply with sustainable, grass fed, humane, local, organic products. Literally, one month later my entire family lost 10 pou
              Aug. 22, 2010 4:52 pm
              What an inspiring story above. Thank you Sage for sharing your family's transformation.
              Sep. 27, 2010 5:15 pm
              Sage, I have had almost the same experience. I have had some horrible health problems for the past few years including: chronic pain and fatigue, allergies, constantly being sick with a cold or flu that always seemed to end in bronchitis or pneumonia, I had pre-eclampsia during my first two pregnancies, etc... My wake-up call came when I suddenly began to have anaphylactic reactions to something (we couldn't figure out what). We changed our life style and eating habits and I have lost 50 lbs since March. I have not been exercising or being more active. I have tons more energy. I no longer end up with bronchitis or pneumonia every time I get sick. I do not hurt and most importantly, I am not having allergic reactions all of the time. We don't seem to realize how much impact eating properly can have. At first it was hard, especially when it came to simply understanding how eating right really looked, but six months later it's not hard at all! It's easy and it's a way of li
              Oct. 7, 2010 3:33 pm
              Sage, if anyone has convinced me to eat better and to consider the long term health benefits a change of diet can make (as opposed to the economics of penny-pinching), it's you. Thank you for sharing your story!
              Oct. 9, 2010 1:00 pm
              I went to the grocery store today and bought organic pears (and other food), as I typically do. Today I noticed the large price difference with the pears. This article reinforced my decision on paying more. As for the comments: Wow! Sage and blessedbirthdoula, wonderful stories. Thank you for sharing and inspiring others, including me.
              Feb. 25, 2011 9:18 am
              Sage, Our house could be yours from the similarities. I was even told by several Dr.'s that I had MS. Did total diet and lifestyle change and cannot even describe the difference it has made. We get deliveries now from 2 local CSA- community supported agriculture. In our area, it is less than if we purchased at grocery store. I found them using
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