Generally when we think of organically grown, thoughts of food come to mind. For good reason, the push for organic, non-gmo foods is growing rapidly with the most popular food items being fruits and vegetables. According to the Nutrition Business Journal, U.S. organic products reached an estimated $28.4 billion in sales in 2012—over 4 percent of total food sales—and surpassed an estimated $35 billion in 2014. This is significant growth in a 2 year period that has continued to increase yearly (U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service).
People are becoming more concerned with the things they put in and on their bodies. They want to rest-assured their foods and other goods come with as few harmful chemicals as possible. As the organic industry grows, people are interested in more than just the foods they eat. They’re also concerned with other items that are based in agriculture. For example textiles, lotions, and house cleaners. In fact, the Organic Trade Association’s 2016 Industry Survey announced the total for organic products sales reached a record high of $43.3 billion in 2015. Choosing organic products has major benefits at an individual, community, and global level. The more consumers support organic goods, the more we’ll see on the market. So put your money where your heart is and choose organic whenever you can.
What is organic?
So what exactly does it mean to be organic? The U.S. Department of Agriculture has set very specific standards any agricultural good must meet before it can receive the USDA Certified Organic seal of approval.
- Organic crops cannot be grown with synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides or sewage sludge.
- Organic crops cannot be genetically engineered or irradiated (non-GMO).
- Animals must eat only organically grown feed (without animal byproducts) and can’t be treated with synthetic hormones or antibiotics.
- Animals must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants (hoofed animals, including cows) must have access to pasture.
- Animals cannot be cloned.
Let’s look at what each of these standards mean.
Organic crops cannot be grown with synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides or sewage sludge.
This is perhaps the more recognized requirements for organic agriculture. For something to be synthetic, it must be unnatural or man-made. In other words, synthetic products use specific chemicals to help something grow (fertilizer) or to kill animal and insect pests and weeds (pesticide). These synthetic fertilizers are man-made compounds, many of which are by-products of the petroleum industry (Enviroingenity).
The use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides has many negative side effects. They pour unnecessary chemicals into local soil, water, and air, impacting wildlife and residents in the surrounding community. You may have heard about the controversy concerning the use of a particularly potent pesticide called chlorpyrifos. This pesticide uses chemicals proven to cause developmental problems in children. Right now the chlorpyrifos pesticide is allowed by the EPA, but many environmental groups are fighting to have it banned. (New York Times). Synthetic chemicals are also marketed with GMO crops. This has severe implications for farmers who don’t use GMO crops. More on this later.
Instead of applying these synthetic additives, organic farmers use all-natural pesticides and fertilizers. These organic alternatives are materials made from plants and animals. Examples are fish meal, blood meal, compost, bat guano, manure, seaweed, and worm castings. For those pursuing a vegan or vegetarian diet, you would want to focus on plant-based fertilizers and pesticides (Enviroingenuity).
The third item in this bullet, sewage sludge, is as bad as it sounds. When waste water treatment plants treat sewage from communities, the liquids are filtered, treated, and returned to the environment. The solids are separated into something called sewage sludge. For decades this was dumped into the oceans creating horrific dead zones. In 1992 when the Marine Protection Act went into effect, this dumping was outlawed. New solutions were necessary for the disposal of sewage sludge. The EPA and industries worked together to rebrand sewage sludge as biosolids to be used as agricultural fertilizers. Today many industrial farms continue to use these biosolids on all crops including fruits, vegetables, and cotton. Unfortunately these biosolids may carry potentially harmful chemicals and bacteria. Ever wonder where many of those E. coli and Listeria outbreaks on vegetables come from? As you can imagine, many people are opposed to this practice fearing unhealthy contamination and harm, therefore the use of sewage sludge is not allowed for farms seeking organic certification (Mother Earth News).
Organic crops cannot be genetically engineered or irradiated (non-GMO).
Most people have heard the term GMO – Genetically Modified Organism – but few really understand the implications of genetically modified agriculture. When simply stated, the idea of modifying our crops and animals to make them larger, faster growing, and better able to withstand environmental challenges would seem like an advantage, right? This is what GMO marketers would like us to believe. When placed in that light it does seem beneficial, but there is much more to know about GMO.
The use of GMO crops has significantly increased in the past 20 years. In fact, they are now the main seeds used in crop production in the United States. In 2014, GMO varieties made up 93 percent of corn acres, 94 percent of soybean acres and 96 percent of cotton acres planted in the country. This has major implications for farmers who seek to maintain organic, non-GMO crops. For one thing, their crops can be contaminated by GMO crops through cross-pollination with neighboring fields. This impacts their ability to market their crops as organic/non-GMO which significantly lowers their market value (Food and Water Watch). However, this is only the beginning of the problem.
Remember those synthetic pesticides and fertilizers mentioned above? Many of the companies who create the GMO products for farming are also the companies who develop the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Their intention is to create crops that can grow even when sprayed by the pesticides that would kill any other pants not raised to withstand it. This can create major issues in agricultural regions. First of all, many farmers own land that sidles up to another farmer’s property. When the GMO farmer sprays his crop, it is highly probable their sprays will travel to the neighboring farmer’s field either through the air or waterways. This is called “pesticide drift.” When those pesticides reach the next field, they will kill the other farmer’s crops which have not been raised to withstand the synthetic pesticides. They will also kill any natural flora growing in the vicinity. This can have major implications for the health of the ecosystem, neighboring crops, and farmers.
Monsanto is one of the big players in this scheme. The company has become the poster child for negative GMO practices. Organic farmers and environmental groups are fighting for legislation that bans the spread of especially harmful chemicals. In July of 2017, Arkansas and Missouri announced the temporary ban of a common agricultural chemical known as Dicamba. This is a fairly common pesticide whose use dramatically increased when Monsanto released Dicamba-ready soybean and cotton seeds. Farmers not using Dicamba-ready seeds were struggling as their crops were killed by nearby sprayers (Reuters). Organic and non-GMO farmers across the country are seeking to protect their farmers from pesticide drift.
The current ban of this chemical will hopefully set a precedent for future chemical pesticides. As GMO use increases, its negative impacts spread as well. This is why it is crucial that organic certification outlaws GMO products.
Animals must eat only organically grown feed (without animal byproducts) and can’t be treated with synthetic hormones or antibiotics.
When humans eat foods treated with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, they inevitably ingest those chemicals. A recent study by the Center for Ecogenetics and Environmental Health at the University of Washington, found the most common way humans are exposed to pesticides is by eating them, though those living near or working in farms face more direct exposure. Those most susceptible to pesticides are infant, children, and pregnant women. Children are more at risk than adults because they eat more in relation to their total body weight. This means they are ingesting more chemicals on non organic foods. The increased exposure to pesticides can cause developmental, neural, and respiratory issues in children (CEEH).
Animals raised for food can also pass these pesticides to humans. Chickens, cattle, pigs, and other animals raised for food eat large quantities in proportion to their body weight, and therefore ingest large amounts of chemicals. These chemicals are then passed on to humans through meat, milk, eggs, etc. Therefore, to be considered organic animals must be served a vegetarian, organic diet.
Animals must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants (hoofed animals, including cows) must have access to pasture.
Organic certifications also focus on the quality of life given to animals raised for human consumption. As people have become more aware of the unhealthy and sometimes brutal conditions many animals raised as livestock live in, they have increased pressure for drastic improvements. One of the most important is access to the outdoors. For decades most livestock have been confined to small, dark cages. Organic regulations battle these practices. Some regulations are stronger than others. Some may only require a window, where others do not clarify the amount of time spent outdoors.
If quality of life is important to you, make sure you pay attention to the unique certifications your food has earned. An additional certification you can seek is “certified humane.” This is a project focused on humane animal care with certifications for life and death including welfare and humane slaughter for beef cattle, broiler chickens, laying hens, dairy cows, pigs, sheep, turkeys, goats, and bison. For the best quality of life, look for this stamp of approval (Certified Humane).
Animals cannot be cloned.
The final rule, animals cannot be cloned was put in place in 2007. According to Jim Riddle, the former chair of the National Organic Standards Board, “cloning has no place in organic agriculture. As the FDA’s own report shows, cloning is still very experimental with a high failure rate, it’s inhumane and totally unnatural” (Food and Drug Administration).
So What about Other Organic Products?
The regulations pertaining to organic certifications in the U.S. primarily focus on food. So what about other organic products? There are perfumes, lotions, soaps, and organic textiles to name a few. To be certified organic, these products also have to follow the regulations stated above. Some also have unique certifications in their field at a local and international level. For example, let’s look at organic cotton. “Organic cotton has the powerful advantage of following internationally recognized organic farming standards that are enshrined in law,” (Organic Cotton). There are specific organic cotton certifications for the EU, Japan, and the USDA. There is also a global certification program called GOTS – Global Organic Textile Standards.
To learn more about GOTS, check out this post!
Organic standards are improving yearly as consumers become more interested in the impact of their personal choices. More and more individuals are seeking eco-friendly goods, and this bodes well for the planet. Whether it’s food, household products, or textiles, going organic is the right choice for your family, community, and our planet.