As consumer demand for organic foods and products continues to grow, some may wonder about the value of organically grown vs. conventionally grown foods. There are explanations as to why products labeled organic are more expensive, as well as good reasons to purchase organics when possible. For farmers, producers and processors, Organic Certification is a lofty goal. It is a stringent, expensive and time-consuming process that requires ongoing dedication and long-term commitment. While the process of gaining certification is fairly straightforward, not all applicants will qualify.
The organic certification process:
- Compliance with National Organic Program (NOP) standards begins several years in advance, as crops must be grown on land that has been free from prohibited pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers for three years prior to certification.
- During the application process, an organic certification agent will schedule a site inspection once compliance with NOP regulations and standards are met.
- An intensive onsite inspection of production, handling and storage takes place to ensure there are no operating concerns and verify that no prohibited substances have come in contact with the product.
- If there are no concerns and all fees have been paid, the products or company can be labeled and marketed as USDA Organic. Certification is valid indefinitely if all aspects of the organic operation are found in compliance with organic regulations during extensive yearly inspections and annual renewal fees are paid.
What the certified organic label means:
- Per the Organic Foods Production Act, animal foods sold or labeled as organic are obtained from animals that consume hormone-free, Non-GMO organic feed. Animals are not given growth hormones or administered antibiotics as a disease preventive, a strategy utilized in conventionally raised meats. Medications are limited to vaccinations and antibiotics are used only to treat an illness. Disease is prevented through natural methods, such as clean housing, rotational grazing, healthy diet and required outdoor access.
- Fruits and vegetables labeled organic are grown with natural fertilizers, such as manure or compost. Seeds and transplants are chemical-free. Weeds are controlled naturally by crop rotation, hand weeding, mulching or tilling. Pests are controlled by natural methods, such as birds, insects or traps, and with limited exception, naturally derived non-chemical pesticides.
- Organically grown or raised food is not irradiated, as are most foods in the American diet, including meats, poultry, wheat, wheat flour, vegetables, fruits, spices and herbs.
Irradiation extends shelf life but does not sterilize foods. Per the Organic Consumers Association, irradiation creates free radicals, damages enzymes and depletes vitamins including A, C, E, K and B complex. Free radicals in combination with existing pesticides in conventionally grown foods creates toxins unique to irradiated foods, the health effects of which have not been studied or proven safe for long-term health — especially for babies and children.
- Only food that contains a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients may be labeled “100 percent organic”. Food made with “organic ingredients” must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients but cannot use the USDA Organic seal on the package. Only foods labeled 100 percent organic are guaranteed GMO-free.
- To know if the fruits and vegetables you purchase are organic, look at the Price Look Up (PLU) sticker. Organic produce codes contain five-digits beginning the with number 9. Non-organic produce will have 4-digits. A five-digit PLU beginning with the number 8 indicates the item is genetically modified.
About GMO labeling:
- The science isn’t clear and questions remain regarding any negative health effects of GMO foods. The 2018 USDA disclosure and labeling guidelines, or National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS), falls short of transparency, keeping consumers, food producers and retailers in the dark about genetically engineered foods.
- The new law exempts highly processed GMO-ingredients from labeling, allows the use of complex consumer-unfriendly QR (Quick Response) codes and sets GMO threshold for unintended presence of GMO ingredients at 5 percent, five times higher than the European Union’s 0.9 percent standard. Until January 2022, no information is required on packaging except a QR code, a URL (web address) or a phone number — for consumers who wish to know what’s in their food and have unlimited amounts of time to scan every item of packaged food they purchase or call the company to try to get answers.
- As well, many genetically modified (GMO) foods are excepted from disclosure rules, including highly refined oils and soft drinks. Per the Grocery Manufacturers Association, excluding refined ingredients from disclosure rules could result in 78 percent fewer products being disclosed under the law.
- The vast majority of corn, soy, canola and sugar beets grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered and often used as ingredients in processed foods. Meat, eggs and dairy from animals fed a GMO diet will not require disclosure.
- Per a nationally representative survey by Consumer Reports, 92 percent of Americans believe GMO foods should be clearly labeled. While many GMO foods will not meet that standard, consumers can rely on voluntary non-GMO claims such as Non-GMO Project Verified, as well the USDA Certified Organic label.
Reasons to buy organic:
- The debate over the nutrient quality of organically grown vs. conventionally grown foods continues. However, The Soil Association, which developed the world’s first organic standards in the 1960’s, notes that an organic diet increases the consumption of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and essential fatty acids. A 2007 study by Newcastle University in the United Kingdom found organic produce has 40 percent higher levels of some nutrients, including vitamin C, zinc and iron. A 2003 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that organically grown berries and corn have 58 percent more polyphenols—antioxidants that help prevent cardiovascular disease—and up to 52 percent higher levels of vitamin C than those conventionally grown. Results of a 2016 European study show that levels of certain nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, were up to 50 percent higher in organic meat and milk than in conventionally raised versions.
- There is no doubt, however, that choosing organic produce lowers your exposure to pesticides. Non-organic foods often contain harmful hormones and pesticides, that when consumed may result in neurological problems, allergies, asthma, infertility, certain cancers and many other conditions and symptoms, including low birth rate, disrupted hormone function and behavioral problems.
- The non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) analyzes the results of government pesticide testing and offers an annually-updated list to help guide consumers’ choices when seeking low-pesticide conventionally-grown produce, as well as avoidance of high-pesticide residue foods that are best to buy organic when possible. As well, EWG provides useful healthy eating guides to help consumers navigate food choices for healthier living.
What’s Wrong With Food Irradiation. https://www.organicconsumers.org/sites/default/files/what%27s%20wrong%20with%20food%20irradiation.pdf
Organic Foods: What You Need to Know. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-eating/organic-foods.htm/
DARKer Act: USDA’s new GMO labeling rule is an “insult to consumers.” https://non-gmoreport.com/articles/darker-act-usdas-new-gmo-labeling-law-is-an-insult-to-consumer-transparency/
Organic 101: Ensuring Organic Integrity through Inspections. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2014/02/26/organic-101-ensuring-organic-integrity-through-inspections
Learn How to Tell When “Organic” on a Label Is True. https://www.thebalancesmb.com/when-is-organic-really-organic-2538312
Soil Association Our Standards: https://www.soilassociation.org/our-standards/