“Organic” is a term used to describe some food and farming techniques, but the meaning can be confusing. Let’s try to sort out some fact from fiction.
Organic farming was a phrase first used in a book called Look to the Land by Lord Northbourne published in 1940. His idea of managing a farm as an organism described a holistic, ecologically balanced approach, and was the source of the phrase. Another author, Sir Albert Howard, carried Northbourne’s ideas farther. A few years later, Lady Eve Balfour wrote The Living Soil, still a classic, which described experiments comparing conventional and organic farming outcomes.
Virtually all farming was relatively “organic” until the late 1930s and early 1940s when research and war-related food shortages resulted in the development of petrochemicals. Pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers were among the many new chemicals created. Their effects seemed miraculous and chemical-based farming proliferated. The US government also actively encouraged farms to get bigger, and industrialized farming was underway. From the beginning, some farmers recognized the potential hazards and continued to work on more natural, chemical-free techniques.
In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring brought the negative side effects of pesticides (especially DDT) into public awareness. Rodale began writing about organic gardening. Since then, a worldwide environmental movement has developed, focusing on the pollution of air, water, and land resources–and our own bodies. Organic farming has become a key concept in efforts to create clean, sustainable solutions.
In 2002, the U.S. government started regulating use of the term “organic” as related to food production through the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program. Regulations now require farms to be annually certified to call their products organic.
Basically, federal organic regulations:
- prohibit use of most man-made and petrochemical fertilizers (except for an exempted list);
- prohibit use of irradiation, sewage sludge, genetic engineering, and all antibiotics;
- require animals to get 100% organic feed without added growth hormones or animal byproducts;
- require animals to have access to outdoors;
- require products labeled “organic” to contain at least 95% organic ingredients.
This all sounds good, but there are problems. For example, the cost of certification and the amount of record keeping required is sometimes prohibitive for small farmers. To counteract the cost problem, the Washington State Dept. of Agriculture has several loan and grant programs available to help farmers pay for up to 75% of the cost of organic certification.
Other problems have to do with loopholes in the regulations. For instance, a company can certify some of its products organic and thus qualify to use “organic” in its business name. However, they can use that same name on their non-organic products as well, making it very confusing for consumers.
Other problems relate to the treatment of animals. While outdoor “access” for animals is required, in practice it may be only open screened windows for animals who spend their whole lives in confinement. The prohibition of all antibiotics also sometimes leads to animal suffering. While the regulations say a farmer must treat sick animals, the use of antibiotics for treatment can be a matter of opinion. Sometimes antibiotics don’t work, and sometimes an animal gets well without antibiotics. Since even one dose of antibiotics means an animal and its future products are no longer legally organic, farmers may decide to wait until the animal is ill past the point where medicine can help.
So what’s a conscientious consumer to do? The best way to ensure access to reliably organic food is to buy direct from the producer. If a farm is not certified, ask them why. Some farmers practice and support farming methods which exceed organic standards, and they choose not to participate in certification because they don’t think the standards are stringent enough. Other farmers may have valid exceptions. For example, one berry farmer told me if he did not treat his canes to prevent molds he would have to be able to afford to lose a whole year’s crop. Instead he chooses to use a chemical, but is careful to only treat plants before they start to bloom or form berries. That may or may not be acceptable to you, but without knowing the farmer, you wouldn’t have a choice.