Organic foods, or certified organic foods, are foods that are farmed according to prescribed standards that allow them to carry a label stating that they are organic. Organic farming differs from conventional farming in the techniques used, including; use of herbicides and pesticides, use of hormones and antibiotics in livestock, and the types of fertilizers used.
The popularity of organic food has exploded in the last two decades as a backlash to industrial farming methods and genetically modified foods, and a desire from consumers to live healthier, more natural and less environmentally damaging lifestyle. For many, organic food is perceived to satisfy these desires.
In order for food produced in the United States to be allowed to carry the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) certified organic label, the production process must adhere to strict USDA regulations. The only farmer’s exempt from certification are those who sell less than $5000 annually.
Receiving organic certification for crops or livestock can be an extremely time consuming and administratively taxing burden. Requirements include detailed descriptions of practices and procedure, extensive monitoring and record-keeping systems, and suitable land use management propositions. Organic production in the US is overseen by agents from the USDA. Due to the strict operating parameters, and the potential for crop loss or lower yields than conventional farming, certified organic foods generally carry a higher price tag than their non-organic counterparts.
The following criteria must be met for a product to receive the USDA organic distinction:
- All ingredients must be certified organic.
- All processes must be certified organic.
- Labels must declare the name of the certifying agent.
The most notable differences between organic and conventional farming are:
- Fertilizers – Organically grown foods use only natural fertilizers such as manure and other animal and plant waste products.
- Pesticides and herbicides – Non-chemical methods are used to protect crops from weeds and insects. Among other techniques, this includes manual weeding, crop rotation, and the promotion of insect eating animals in the vicinity of the farm.
- Hormones and antibiotics – Organically grown livestock are not subject to hormones and antibiotics. Additionally, animal feed must be certified organic. Organic livestock are often housed in cleaner environments and given access to the outdoors.
The Results: Organic vs. Conventional
Anecdotally, organic purists claim that organically grown food is better tasting and healthier. However, studies have so far been inconclusive in confirming either superior taste or health benefits of organically grown food over conventionally grown food.
In 2012 a meta-study was conducted reviewing literature and previous research on organic foods. Overall, the study did not observe a statistically significant health advantage in either the organic or conventionally grown food. Similarly, a 2009 study on taste was unable to find an overall superior taste attributable to organic food. However, the study did suggest that individual research in which the taste of a specific fruit or vegetable was compared tended to favor the organic option.
In general, while organic food may not be proven as safer or more nutritious, its value still resonates with consumers who favor natural and environmentally sound farming practices.