What is Organic?
From packaged tea to fresh produce to frozen dinners, there are a growing number of organic food options available to consumers these days. But what exactly is organic and why do we care?
Organic has holistic origins.
“In 1939, the term ‘organic farming’ [was coined] out of [the] conception of ‘the farm as organism’ to describe a holistic, ecologically balanced approach to farming.” – Wikipedia
The modern organic movement was born in the early twentieth century in response to agricultural damage the industrial revolution’s introduction of synthetic chemicals had caused, including erosion, soil depletion and a decline in crop varieties.
The organic practices that emerged focused on traditional farming methods—used for thousands of years before chemicals were introduced—to conserve and improve soil. Improved soil conditions, it was thought, would provide a sustainable agriculture solution that would yield better tasting and more nutritious food.
Organic helps conserve and protect the environment.
“Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.” – United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
The synthetic pesticides and chemicals used in conventional growing methods are transferred into groundwater and can pollute water in nearby streams, rivers and lakes. They can also leach soil nutrients, destroy soil structure and leave the ground vulnerable to erosion.
But organic practices that feed and protect plants and soil with natural and renewable resources—such as manure, compost, plant cuttings and mulch—can improve the soil’s ability to retain nutrients and improve soil structure over time, creating an ecosystem that is healthy and sustainable for the long-term.
Organic is free of synthetic pesticides and chemicals.
“Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.” –USDA
Conventional, non-organic growers manage pests and disease using synthetic pesticides and feed plants with chemical fertilizers. These pesticides and chemicals leave residue on (and in) a plant that those working with the plant may be exposed to and that may be ingested when the plant is consumed.
The USDA claims that an organic plant carries significantly fewer pesticide residues than does a conventional plant. That’s because organic growers feed plants and soil with natural fertilizers—such as manure or compost—and use natural pesticides and beneficial insects to help manage pests and disease.
Organic tastes better.
“Because they’re not protected by pesticides, organic plants that suffer from insect attack can accumulate higher level of flavor chemicals and other protective molecules, including antioxidants.” – Harold McGee, Food Scientist
Better taste is a certainly a subjective matter. But here are some of the theories that support why many claim organic foods taste better:
- The aroma and flavor of a plant come from phytochemicals the plant stores up to protect itself from invaders like microbes and insects. Organic plants that are not protected by pesticides tend to build up higher levels of these flavor-producing phytochemicals in order to defend themselves against their natural predators.
- Organic plants are often allowed to blossom and ripen at their own natural pace, instead of being sped to harvest with chemical feed, so they have time to develop more of their natural sugars and other chemical compounds which contribute to the plant’s final flavor.
- Organic crops benefit from soil that is higher in nutrients, so plants are better nourished and fed.
Organic is a certified process.
“Before a product can be labeled ‘organic,’ a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.” –USDA
Not just anyone can slap an organic label on a product and call it good. The USDA established a government-regulated organic certification program that defines how foods must be grown and processed if they are to be labeled organic. The certification process is time consuming and the certification standards are rigorous.
This process assures consumers that when they buy something labeled organic they’re buying a product free of toxic chemicals and the company they’re buying from supports farming methods that benefit the environment.