What Does Organic Food Really Mean?
What does Organic food really mean?

We’ve all seen it. Organic here, organic there, organic everywhere!

Organic Hot Sauce

These days, it seems as though it’s hard to find a product that doesn’t have the USDA Organic label sealed someone amongst nutrition facts, ingredients lists, and dietary claims on food packages these days. With nearly 28,000 USDA certified organic operations in the United States alone, organic practices are certainly trending but why? Of course, it sounds nice, but what does organic really mean?

What Makes Food Organic?

Well there are many ways to look at it. A good place to start could be the always reliable Merriam-Webster which defines organic as:

‘of, relating to, yielding, or involving the use of food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides’

Not bad, Merriam-Webster, not bad.

Generally speaking, food is considered organic when it is produced by methods that comply with the standards of organic farming.

What is Organic Farming?

Organic Farming

Of course, the standards vary from country to country, but organic farming normally features practices that cycle resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Organizations regulating organic products may restrict the use of certain pesticides and fertilizers in the farming methods used to produce such products. Organic foods typically are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or synthetic food additives. 

Who Inspects Our Food?

Two government agencies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, share most of the responsibility of food safety inspection. The rules that determine which agency is responsible for which food can be complex, and sometimes the division of labor defies categorization altogether.

Food and Drug Association

Food and Drug Association

Take eggs, for example. The FDA inspects shelled eggs, while the USDA is responsible for egg products, including liquid, frozen and dehydrated eggs.  The FDA regulates the feed chickens eat, but the laying facility falls under USDA jurisdiction. Therefore, In the United States, the USDA is the regulatory body that determines whether a food is ‘officially organic’ or not.

Certified by the USDA… means?

According to the USDA, “Certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible.

Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest.

What are prohibited substances?

Virtually any synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. In instances when a grower has to use a synthetic substance to achieve a specific purpose, the substance must first be approved according to criteria that examine its effects on human health and the environment.

Here is the official list, compiled by the The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), made up of dedicated public volunteers appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, board members include organic growers, handlers, retailers, environmentalists, scientists and consumer advocates.

synthetic fertilizers and pesticides

Dangers of Synthetic Fertilizers…

Fertilizers are of two types: organic, or natural, and inorganic, or synthetic. Organic fertilizers are naturally occurring substances and include biofertilizers, green manure, organic manure and compost. They slowly leach essential nutrients into the soil and improve its overall vitality with time. Synthetic fertilizers are man-made combinations of chemicals and inorganic substances. They typically combine nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium and other elements in different ratios. Synthetic fertilizers, unlike their organic counterparts, immediately supply essential nutrients to soil.

Synthetic fertilizers have long-term negative effects such as beneficial microorganisms in the soil that convert dead human and plant remains into nutrient-rich organic matter, increasing groundwater toxicity, increasing the nitrate levels of soil.

& Synthetic Pesticides…

Well first, some of you may be wondering,”Do organic foods have pesticides?” The answer is yes, but these pesticides come from natural sources, such as certain types of plants, and they do not use synthetic pesticides. Organic farmers also tend to spray less pesticides on their produce than other farmers, and the pesticides are less dangerous for the environment.

Not only are pesticides dangerous to the environment, but they are also hazardous to a person’s health. Pesticides are stored in your colon, where they slowly but surely poison the body. You may not realize this, but when you are eating a non-organic apple, you are also eating over 30 different pesticides that have been sprayed on the apple. Even if you wash a piece of fruit, such as an apple, there are still many pesticides lingering on it and they could have seeped into the fruit or vegetable.

How Do American Standards Differ From Other Countries?

Organic Certified Seal for European Organic Foods

Organic Certified Seal for European Organic Foods

European regulations against additives in food products are generally stricter than in the U.S. This difference is due mostly to the fact that Europe has chosen a precautionary approach in regulating, while the U.S. governing bodies tend to be more reactive. In other words, in the United States, food additives are innocent until proven guilty, while in Europe, only those additives proven not to be harmful are approved for use.

As a result, there many petrochemical-based food colorings and other artificial ingredients like brominated vegetable oil (BVO) and rBHG that are banned in Europe, but these and other additives are approved for use in the USA.

How about our organic standards compared to that of our trusty neighbor to the north?

  • Canada’s organic standard prohibits hydroponic and aeroponic production methods. USA allows both in organic.
  • Canada’s organic standard prohibits use of sodium nitrate fertilizer (a mined quick release fertilizer that kills soil organisms) (USA allows its use in organic).
  • Canada’s organic standard requires specific amounts of living space for each livestock type. USA does not have the same specific requirements.
  • USA’s organic standard prohibits livestock being treated with antibiotics (Canada allows antibiotic treatments to prevent suffering of animals under certain conditions.

Are Community Gardens Organic Farming?

Organic farming in a community garden

Of course, just because you are not USDA certified, doesn’t mean that your products are not organic. There are countless locally-grown products that certainly would meet the organic standards but just have failed to go through the certification process.

At Small Axe Peppers, we like to say that the peppers we source in our local community gardens are ‘beyond organic’. Not only are they all grown in local gardens don’t use pesticides at all, neither synthetic nor organic.