Pheew! At last, you have landed here. After filling the brain with all the scientific jargon on the web searching for the perfect meaning of organic food, you have now arrived in a platform where food complexities are dissected and simplified.
It is no doubt that the organic food industry has been on an upward trajectory.
With more consumers preferring healthy living options, the industry has grown to be worth more than $50 billion.
This sudden appeal for organic foods among contemporary shoppers and the contrasting information being thrown around can be confusing.
As a food consumer, it is a disservice to be drawn into an artificial confusion on important things such as food.
So, here is what I have deduced and simplified about the organic food craze.
What is Organic Food?
Based on various government and non-governmental regulatory organizations’ definitions, I have narrowed down the meaning of organic food as food products that are produced with minimal human modification, especially on the use of synthetic chemical substances.
This means you cannot use synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, and preservatives in the entire production cycle of organic foods.
Don’t even mention GMOs in front of an organic enthusiast because GMOs are found on the other extreme of organics as discussed earlier in this article here.
As you can see from the above description, foods get their organic tag based on the way they are grown.
The soil and farming environment should be as natural as possible for the food to achieve the required organic specifications.
I say as natural as possible because it is not entirely possible to practice agriculture with completely zero human intervention. If humans never had interventions that led to the domestication of crops and animals, we wouldn’t be having agriculture; right?
The above statement is usually the source of controversy within the organic food circles. That is why a point of reference was important in categorizing organic foods.
What Food Industry Regulators Say About Organic Foods
As simple as the above description of the meaning of organic foods may sound, regulators and industry players are still having a hard time classifying organic food products in the market.
This is because natural environments are almost inexistent on earth’s habitable areas.
Actually, almost every habitable space on earth is contaminated by synthetic substances either through air pollution, water pollution, or even biological processes such as cross-pollination.
This is why regulators have devised rules and regulations on the allowed and prohibited synthetic substances to be used in organic farming and the environmental requirements for the same.
For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a national list of the substances allowed and prohibited in organic farming.
As I said above, organic has nothing to do with the food itself but by the way the food is grown, processed, and handled.
That is why this list is not a list of organic foods, but rather prescribes both synthetic and some artificial substances allowed in growing and rearing organic foods.
There is a general rule of thumb about the substances used in organic farming. The USDA simply puts it this way:
Organic regulators such as the USDA, EPA, and FDA have all approved the use of some artificial pesticides and herbicides in organic farming where no evidence of health effects has occurred as a result of consuming the residues on the final product.
Both critics and I hope that these regulators are right about these exemptions because I have previously aired some concerns about similar issues before here.
Organic Agriculture in the Socio-environmental Context
I actually like the simplified definition of the meaning of organic food by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
They describe it as an environmentally and socially sensitive food supply system. Simply put, it is an agrarian ethic on the integrity of food.
This means that other than the agronomic and economic benefits, organic foods should also have positive impacts on the environment and the society.
In this context, the meaning of organic foods is seen as a matter of sustainability as opposed to commercialization.
The methods used in organic food production are specifically meant to increase long-term soil fertility and prevent pests and diseases in a sustainable manner.
Only biological, mechanical, and agronomic methods are allowed where possible in the entire value chain system.
This means that organic farming should aim at preserving natural resources and incorporate rigorous animal welfare standards.
Some Examples of Organically Produced Foods
With the descriptions given above, we can classify organic foods into two major categories based on the farming methods.
- Pure organically produced foods
- Integrated organically produced foods
Pure organically produced foods are foods produced and handled within a food production system that completely avoids synthetic or artificial substances.
An example of a purely produced organic food is a tomato grown on a freshly cultivated land, preferably one that has never been cultivated before.
Although still controversial, organic crops should be planted in soil. Hydroponics, though sometimes allowed by regulators as organic-fit have met stiff resistance from a section of organic farmers and consumers.
The seeds should be certified by regulators. No GMO seeds allowed here.
This land should be far away from any nearby non-organic tomato farms. (There are specific standards for this). This prevents instances of cross-pollination by wind, insects, or birds.
Only compost manure and bio-pesticides (preferably from organically kept livestock) should be used in the entire production process.
Biological herbicides or mechanical weeding are the only practices allowed in pure organic agriculture.
Rainwater is the preferred source of water in the production of the tomatoes since groundwater could be contaminated with chemicals.
If the tomato is to be processed, say into tomato paste, the processing facility should also be organic compliant (standards for this also available).
There should be no use of preservatives or any synthetic chemicals in the processing. The final product should thus reach the consumer in its most natural form.
This process, of course, has questionable gaps here and there that may render the word “pure” unsatisfactory to critics.
For instance, we cannot say rainwater is completely pure, since we know acid rain is a thing. We cannot also entirely keep birds and insects away from a farm.
That is why regulators and farmers accept integrated organic farming as an acceptable way of producing organic foods.
Integrated organically produced foods allows the blending of the pure organic farming methods described above with some approved artificial chemical substances.
For instance, in organic livestock rearing, approved synthetic chemicals are allowed in pest control and some practices.
The animal feeds should be chemical-free and as natural as possible. This means animals should be let free to graze but in a restricted area.
Animal welfare is also a big part of organic farming from their habitat to the breeding process.
Are Organic Foods Beneficial?
Now that you know what that label on organic foods means, you may be wondering if there are any benefits in consuming organic food products.
Yes; there are benefits in going organic. However, most of these benefits have very little to do with nutritional value.
Many studies such as these show very minimal nutritional differences between organic and conventional foods.
A few other studies have shown that foods grown organically have significantly higher levels of antioxidants that make them tastier than conventionally grown foods.
Other than the taste, you only benefit from organic foods by avoiding artificial chemical residues that are mostly found in conventional foods.
This to me is a big deal since most of the health problems in the world arise from too much consumption of artificial chemical residues in food. The more you can avoid them, the better.
Studies such as this on the health benefits of organic foods have also suggested that consuming organic foods lowers cancer risk.
With the current cancer menace in the world, who wants to say no to anything that has been proven to reduce the risks of cancer?
Perhaps the most well-known benefits of organic foods are related to social and economic factors along the production value chain.
Most of the organic products in the market fetch premium prices (some as much as twice the conventional products) due to the costly intensive production practices involved.
Crop yields are thus lower in organic farming than in conventional farming. This is due to the increased workload on organic farmers to meet the set standards.
To the few farmers who have dedicated their time and efforts to organic farming, the premium prices paid by consumers have benefited them and encouraged them to produce more organic products.
The environment also benefits from organic farming in a big way. With the restricted use of artificial pesticides and chemicals in organic farming, there are reduced effects on biodiversity in our already strained ecosystem.
Moreover, the good agricultural practices required in organic farming such as crop rotation are important in keeping the soil healthy for sustainable farming.
How do You Know the Food is Organic?
So, how do you know you are picking an organic food product on the supermarket shelf? like I have said before in this article here, the answer lies in reading food labels while shopping.
Not just reading, but also finding out the meaning of some codes on those labels. For instance, certified organic products are mostly labeled “certified organic” or “USDA organic.”
The USDA standards for foods labeled “organic” require the product to meet 95% of the organic production requirements. It is mandatory to have the official USDA seal accompanying this claim.
If the label reads “made with organic,” the product must have at least 70% certified organic content. If less than 70%, the manufacturer must identify the specific organic ingredients in the product.
This is well explained in the simplified organic labels chart below.
The universal way of telling organic foods from conventional foods is in the Price Look Up (PLU) sticker codes.
These are global standardized four or five-digit codes regulated by the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS).
Organic food products usually have 5 digits and the first digit is always 9 as shown in the diagram below.
These digits have different meanings. You can refer to the meaning of the other numbers in the PLU stickers in my previous post here.
Needless to say, restaurants and food outlets with claims of selling organic products must also adhere to the standards mentioned earlier here and be certified by legitimate regulators.
The paperwork for such entities should be provided on request. That should inform your choice if you are looking for an only organic diet.
So, after knowing the meaning of organic food, are you advocating for them or you still have your reservations?
Do you believe the future of agriculture and food production is organic? You can continue with the raging debate here in the comments.