We’re midway through Organic Harvest Month, and the Whole Story editors asked me for a few of my personal favorite reasons to buy organic food and support organic agriculture. I work nearly constantly on organic standards, certification and advocacy, and the many, many reasons for growing food as naturally as possible are very close to my heart.
There are almost as many reasons to choose organic food as there are people who choose it, spanning from environmental benefits to avoiding pesticide residues to amazing flavor to certain nutritional advantages. In the interest of space I’ll focus on a few of the most important benefits, and exactly what we know “organic” means in the grocery store.
Since 2002, the USDA’s National Organic Standards have served as the Federal regulation that governs what foods can be sold as organic. This standard is managed by the National Organic Program
, which is advised by National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a 15-member board made up of organic stakeholders including farmers, ranchers, researchers, environmentalists and retailers. I serve as the retail representative on that board through 2015.
The USDA has strict requirements for all food sold as “organic” in the United States:
- Organic agriculture uses no potentially harmful persistent pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. A “National List” of allowed and prohibited substances, set by the NOSB, regulates substances used for crops, livestock and food processing.
- Growers and ranchers use earth-friendly methods that improve biodiversity and minimize environmental impact.
- Animals are allowed to fulfill their natural behaviors, are fed organically-grown feed, given fresh air and outdoor access, and no antibiotics or growth hormones.
- Organic products must be certified and contain at least 95% organic ingredients. Any ingredients used in the non-organic 5% must be from a short list of additives approved by the NOSB.
- No irradiation, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or synthetic preservatives are allowed in organic processed products.
- All organic producers must be certified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent. There are about 100 accredited certifiers, such as CCOF, QAI and Oregon Tilth.
The clear definition of organic set forth in these standards has built confidence in the organic label and helped substantially grow the number of acres of land farmed organically over the past ten years. And the new Canadian Organic Regulation
and the European Union (EU) Organic Regulation
contain very similar requirements.
Over the past few decades organic has grown from a small movement to a significant agricultural force in the US, with organic food now representing around 4% of US food sales. With that growth has come an increase in the amount of academic and governmental research on the environmental, nutritional and other benefits of organic. Here’s a short synopsis of what we know:
Organic Food has fewer synthetic pesticide residues.
In the US, 1.1 billion pounds of synthetic pesticides are applied to conventional crops each year. These substances, by law, cannot be applied to organic crops. The growth of organic food over the past decade is a testament to the fact that, for a variety of reasons, a growing number of food buyers are looking to avoid conventional agricultural chemicals, and the USDA Organic Standards (along with the Canadian Organic Regulation, the EU Organic Standards, and many others worldwide) provide a clearly defined and labeled alternative to conventionally grown food.
Organic farming is better for the environment.
Aside from not using persistent pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, organic farmers do a whole lot more to benefit the environment. The basic principles of organic agriculture – and the USDA Organic Standards – require growers to look at the soil as a living organism, and nurture the microorganisms, nutrients and minerals in the soils in environmentally beneficial ways. Where conventional farmers often rely on massive doses of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer to feed crops, organic farmers tend to nourish their crops by truly cultivating the living system of the soil. Through the use of compost, manure, and cover crops (crops like legumes and clover that are grown and plowed under), the organic farmer builds up natural sources of nitrogen in the soil. These practices result in stable, living soil systems that are naturally more resistant to erosion and avoids the harmful runoff of nitrogen fertilizers and persistent pesticides.
A growing body of evidence suggests organic food is more nutritious.
A growing body of research is beginning to support the idea that in many cases, organic food presents nutritional advantages over conventionally grown foods. The team at The Organic Center
has worked for many years to track, interpret and communicate this research on the advantages of organic, and you can find a number of very good summaries on their website. For example, the Organic Center conducted a 2008 meta-analysis (a review of hundreds of other studies) – to look at the differences between organic and conventional that had been discovered so far. From the hundreds of studies, they identified 236 scientifically valid “matched pairs” of organic and conventional foods, and found the organic foods were nutritionally superior in 67% of the cases, vs. 37% for conventional. In general, the organic samples contained higher levels of antioxidants and polyphenols (in nearly 75% of the pairs for which those substances were measured). Over the whole set of pairs, the nutritional premium of organic averaged 25%. Keep in mind that the several hundred studies used here are a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands done on conventional food, and recent research has been even more compelling.
This small body of research will continue to grow as consumer, government and academic interest in organic agriculture increases. I’m very optimistic that science will support what so many of us already suspect: that plants grown slowly and naturally in healthy, rich soil will produce healthy, nutrient-rich vegetables.
For more information:
What are some of your reasons for supporting organic agriculture?