You may have noticed that it is much easier to find organic products today than ever before. As public interest in organics continues to grow, even major manufacturers like General Mills and Coca Cola are branching out and offering their own lines of organic merchandise.
While many people accept the term as an indication of a healthier alternative, far fewer have a clear understanding of what "organic" signifies. Knowing the standards that define organic practices, and how those practices differ from conventional food production, can help you make informed purchasing decisions.
A Brief History of Organic Practices and Regulatory Standards
The organic farming movement began in response to the increasing use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in the early years of industrial agriculture. While small groups of farmers formed various associations to promote organic practices, it wasn't until the 1980s that various farming and consumer groups began pressuring government officials to regulate organic production to ensure consistent practices.
In 1990, Congress approved the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) to establish uniform standards in organic food production. This legislation also established the National Organic Standards Board to help develop and refine standardization and clarify how organically grown foods are grown, harvested, processed, and packaged.
In the US today, the United States Agricultural Department (USDA) sets the standards and requirements for achieving organic certification. Owned by the federal government, the organic certification seal cannot be used unless stringent requirements are upheld. At least 160 countries currently practice organic agriculture and have similar regulatory practices.
Defining the Standards of Organic Production
When you see the organic certification seal on your organic products, the products you select meet or exceed particular USDA production standards. Purchasing organic foods reduces your exposure to potential toxins while supporting farming practices that protect the environment.
Organic certification regulates every aspect of production from pre-planting soil management to the way livestock are fed and cared for. When you select organic products, you ensure the products you select are the best nature has to offer.
Organic Foods Are Grown Without Potentially Hazardous Chemicals
Pesticides, rodenticides, and herbicides are commonly used by non-organic farmers to minimize damage to their crops. While these chemicals help ensure higher yields, these potentially hazardous contaminants compromise the quality of our soil, water, and the air we breathe. Pesticide use can throw delicate ecosystems off balance.
Not only hazardous to wildlife, but pesticides also seep into the foods they are meant to protect and can jeopardize your health. Research shows that pesticides are directly linked to some forms of cancer, and can negatively affect your central nervous system, endocrine system, reproductive functions, and your gastrointestinal tract.
Organic farmers use safer, natural methods of pest control. In place of hazardous chemicals, organic farmers rely on mulching, tilling, trapping, biological agents, and naturally occurring substances. Purchasing organic reduces your exposure to the chemicals used to kill weeds, insects, fungus, and rodents. Organic farming methods also protect you from eating animal products sourced from animals fed a diet of chemically contaminated grasses and grains.
Grown from Non-GMO Seeds or Raised on Non-GMO Feed
Foods are genetically modified with lab-replicated genes from viruses, plants, or animals to enhance specific properties. GMOs are now believed to harm human health and cause the development of diseases that are immune to antibiotics.
Although GMOs are banned in many countries, in the US, genetically modified organisms do not need to be identified. Genetically modified crops are processed into hundreds of ingredients. Unless your food is labeled non-GMO or organic, there is a good chance of genetic modification.
Selecting organic foods protects you from unknowingly purchasing genetically modified products. Organic farmers plant only non-GMO seeds and raise their livestock on non-GMO feed, grass, and foliage.
Grown Without Synthetic Fertilizers or Sewer Sludge
Synthetic fertilizers deliver immediate nutrients to the soil. Organic fertilizers need to break down before the nutrients can be absorbed. While synthetic fertilizer and organic fertilizers both provide nutrients, synthetic fertilizers kill the beneficial microorganisms that break down organic fertilizer and increase the nitrate levels of the soil.
When you consume nitrates absorbed into our food, those nitrates convert to nitrites in your intestines. Nitrites contribute to a significant number of health concerns, including vascular disease and respiratory distress.
The use of sewer sludge as fertilizer raises concerns of its own. While many non-organic farmers use sewer sludge to fertilize their crops, this remnant of waste treatment facilities commonly tests positive for pharmaceutical, heavy metals, flame retardants, and a significant number of other contaminants. Organic crops are never grown with harmful synthetic fertilizers or sewer sludge.
Organic Foods Are Processed Without Radiation
Food is commonly irradiated with gamma rays, X-rays, or an electron beam (e-beam) to improve shelf life, control insects, and delay ripening and sprouting. Although the Food and Drug Administration assures consumers that irradiation does not significantly compromise nutritional value, many people are concerned about eating food exposed to certain levels of radiation.
Research suggests that irradiation breaks up food molecules and creates free radicals. While free radicals kill bacteria, they also damage essential vitamins and enzymes and can combine with chemicals from fertilizers to form new chemicals (unique radiolytic products). Studies focused on feeding irradiated food to animals show an increase in reproductive failures, tumors, and kidney damage.
The nutritional value of irradiated foods is also a topic of concern. Most of the food in our diet is irradiated, even though some studies show that irradiation decreases nutritional value between 5-80 percent. The decrease in nutritional value depends on the dosage of radiation and duration of storage. To qualify as organic, food cannot be exposed to radiation during any phase of the production process.
Animals are Fed and Treated Without Antibiotics
Farmers have been feeding animals antibiotics since it was discovered in the mid-1950s that sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics like procaine, tetracycline, and penicillin enhanced the feed to weight gain ratio. For decades, the positive effects were championed while the consequences remained undetected.
Many researchers today believe the use of agricultural antibiotics has resulted in antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals and humans. The implications go far beyond the food we eat. These treatment-resistant microbes can also be traced to our water supply and the sludge used to fertilize non-organic crops.
Organic livestock grows without exposure to antibiotics. Of course, illness and infection have to be treated. Any infections that cannot be managed naturally are treated with antibiotics, but those treated are no longer considered organic. Animals treated with antibiotics are isolated from organic livestock. Formerly organic animals are then grouped with other non-organic animals.
Organic Livestock Are Raised Without Hormones
Hormones have been used for decades on livestock. Testosterone and estrogen are commonly used to force weight gain. Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) is used to increase the amount of milk production in dairy cows. Studies show that these hormones end up in our meat and dairy products.
While the studies investigating the safety of the hormones in our food supply are inconclusive, there is increasing concern about the additional hormones in our diet causing cancer, endocrine disruption, and early puberty in children. Although hormones for cattle are banned in Japan, Canada, Australia, the European Union, and New Zealand, there are no major studies evaluating the safety of these hormones in the US. Selecting organic meat and dairy reduces your exposure to questionable hormones.
Raising Organic Livestock Humanely
Livestock raised for organic products are treated much differently than animals raised using non-organic methods. The animals raised for organic meat, dairy, and eggs have access to sunlight, shade, and exercise, with living conditions that accommodate their natural behaviors.
Many people choose to eat organically to avoid exposure to chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, and radiation. Numerous others choose to eat organic meat, eggs, and dairy products to support farmers who raise their livestock responsibly and humanely.
Cleaver's organic cattle are raised humanely on farms that adhere to the highest standards of animal welfare. Sourced from hand-selected family farms, Cleaver's organic meats are a favorite in Australian supermarkets. Now you can order flash-frozen, vacuum-sealed Cleaver's steaks and beef for delivery in the United States.
Unlike much of the organic beef sourced in the US, Cleaver's cattle are fed a diet of grass and natural foliage rather than finished on organically grown grain or feed pellets. That's why Cleaver's beef is lower in fat and calories. When cattle are 100% grass-fed, you can taste the difference.