Shopping for food in the modern world can be an overwhelming experience. No matter where you shop or what your dietary needs are, you are inundated with information about the nutrition, safety, and environmental impact of the food you're buying.
One of the most common labels you'll see on products is "Organic". Certified organic foods are farmed according to strict standards focused on preserving soil health, avoiding chemical inputs, ethical treatment of animals, and other key principles. Why is this kind of farming important, and why should you pay attention to organic labels on your food?
Organic Farming Overview
Organic farming promotes soil health, sustainable practices, and avoidance of synthetic chemical inputs. For every type of crop or livestock, there are more specific requirements that farmers must follow to maintain organic certification. Organic farming also avoids the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The basic requirements farms must follow to be USDA Certified Organic are:
- No synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers (unless specific exemptions are made for certain issues)
- No hormone or antibiotic use in livestock
- No Genetically Modified (GMO) seeds or other inputs
To manage weeds, pests, and other challenges, organic farmers often use mechanical controls (such as cultivating a field to remove emerging weeds) or practices like mulching rather than relying on chemicals. While there are organic-approved products to protect plants against insects and disease, organic farmers also use strategies like interplanting, trap crops, and resistant varieties. When raising livestock, organic producers rely on preventative measures like rotational grazing to prevent animal health issues, rather than using antibiotics.
Conventional Farming Overview
The term "conventional farming" is a bit of a misnomer, since farmers practiced organic methods throughout history before modern chemicals were developed. In non-organic farming, farmers can use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. They can give livestock growth hormones or use antibiotics to promote faster growth. Further, they can freely use GMO seeds; a common practice is to plant seeds that are resistant to a specific herbicide and then use that herbicide to control weed growth in a field.
Organic Farming: Environmental Impacts
Conventional farming can harm the environment in multiple ways. Chemicals used to control insects, kill weeds, and improve plant growth can end up in local water systems after being washed out of fields. Antibiotics used in raising animals can also enter the water supply from the animals' waste.
In addition to the direct effects of conventional farming, there are also many indirect environmental effects. Conventional farms tend to be monocultures where only one or two types of crops are grown. This means less biodiversity, fewer resources for pollinators, and higher reliance on chemical controls.
In contrast, because organic farms must use natural methods to grow and protect their crops, they tend to have better biodiversity and more on-farm habitats for pollinators and beneficial organisms. The products they do use on their crops do less harm if they end up in waterways, and practices like using compost to improve soil fertility also help to prevent runoff and keep nutrients in the soil.
Organic Farming: Your Health
Research has shown that the chemicals used in conventional farming do persist and enter the food system, and show up in the bodies of people who eat conventionally produced food. While there are useful guides like the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen" to help determine which foods are most likely to have high levels of pesticides, the easiest way to avoid these chemicals is to choose organic food whenever possible.
Another reason to consider choosing organic food is its potentially higher nutrient levels. Studies have shown that organic fruits and vegetables can contain higher levels of nutrients than their conventional counterparts, due to better soil nutrition.
Organic Farming: Animal Welfare
Many consumers who choose organic also care about where their meat comes from. Without clear labels, it can be hard to know whether animals were raised humanely or not. In conventional agriculture, livestock is often kept in crowded conditions and given unhealthy drugs to make them grow faster.
Organic standards require farmers to:
- Avoid giving antibiotics or hormones (preventative measures like vaccines are allowed)
- Give animals 100% organic feed and hay
- Allow animals to live according to their natural behaviors, including giving all animals access to the outdoors and letting ruminants graze on pasture
- Maintain grazing and haying lands organically
Certification Process - How Do Farms Become Certified Organic?
So, organic farming can produce food in ways that benefit the environment rather than harming it, while protecting your health and the welfare of animals raised for meat. But how can you be sure the food you're buying was really grown according to strict organic standards? You will often be paying a premium for organic food, and you want to be sure you're getting what you pay for.
USDA Certified Organic Label
In the United States, USDA Certified Organic is the official organic standard. While farms can be certified directly by the USDA or by smaller certifying organizations, the standard is the same. When you see the USDA Certified Organic label on your food, you can be sure it was grown according to real organic standards.
In order to get and keep an organic certification, farmers must follow these steps:
- Keep records for 3 years prior to certification, indicating that no prohibited substances were used on their fields or given to livestock
- Be audited by the USDA or an approved certifying organization, including on-site inspection and review of records
- Continue to avoid using prohibited substances and practices
- Continue keeping records of any products used and maintain a production plan describing all farm practices
- Get re-certified each year
Australian Certified Organic
Australian Certified Organic, the standard that Cleaver's meat products adhere to, is even stricter than USDA Certified Organic. The animals raised for our meat are kept outdoors on fresh pastures and allowed to roam freely without confinement.
Learn More About Organic Farming
With the benefits of organic farming in mind, it makes sense to choose organic products whenever you can. When you buy meat from Cleaver's, you can be confident that your meat is free-range, grass-fed, and certified organic.