Organic food has become a popular option for health conscious consumers. People are concerned about the chemicals in commercial farming and want to go back to nature. In response, there has been an explosion of organic food stores nationwide. What’s all the fuss about? How does organic food differ from conventional food?
Organic food is food made with methods complying with the environmental requirements of organically growing crops. Organic agriculture features methods that recycle agricultural runoff, promote environmental balance, and preserve biodiversity, since organic farmers do not use synthetic pesticides used on conventional farms. Organic certification ensures that farmers have adhered to the strictest organic standards, which usually require minimal use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides.
Some people have equated “organic food” to higher prices. After all, organic food goes through more soil and insecticides than conventional food. However, these fears are unfounded, as studies have shown that organic food doesn’t necessarily cost more.
One of the main arguments against organic foods is that they are grown using higher levels of chemical fertilizers and pesticides than conventionally grown produce. These critics point out that organic farming is often done with synthetic pesticides that are lower than conventionally grown plants. These pesticides and fertilizers are commonly applied before the crop is even planted. They are released into the soil where they are absorbed and eventually become part of the plants’ tissues. When you buy conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, you are eating them based on what they are grown with rather than on what they are sprayed with.
Another concern is bacterial contamination. Studies have found trace amounts of antibiotic resistant bacteria in both wild and organic foods. However, these findings are largely unproven, as no research has been done on the long term effects of antibiotic resistance. Some critics argue that antibiotic resistance can be controlled, pointing to past efforts in which farmers were discouraged from applying pesticides known to be harmful to livestock, to controlling bacterial contamination in drinking water, and to sterilizing food to make it safe for consumption. Critics of organic foods claim that because these attempts were not successful, it shows that conventional farming practices are faulty. Yet studies have shown that antibiotic resistance was already common among some strains of bacteria prior to the advent of organic farming, raising questions about whether or not the extra effort required to control contamination is really worth the trade.
Critics also argue that some organic standards do not go far enough to ensure safety. For example, while the USDA sets guidelines for overall protein intake and the percentage of meat, poultry, and eggs in a given meal, there are no federal requirements for organically processed foods. So, a vegetarian may still be eating meat, yet may have large traces of antibiotics and other chemicals in their food. While it is possible to meet all of the standard requirements of organically processed foods as set forth by the USDA, it is not mandatory for consumers to do so.
Critics argue that the lack of regulations for organically produced ingredients makes the food much more vulnerable to contamination. In addition, they point out that the FDA itself has said that even organically produced ingredients can pose risks to consumers. As one prominent health official stated, the FDA cautions, “There is simply no way to quantify the risk of ingestion.” This adds another burden to the few consumers who can legally buy and consume organic products without fear of harming themselves or others.
There is some hope on the horizon. Recently, Congress has been debating bills that would require the FDA to certify organic foods by undergoing an added level of scrutiny before they can be marketed. The bill, called the “EMB certification act” (Employee Label Protection Act), may actually force the FDA to apply tighter regulations to farmers who grow and process organic products. If this happens, it could drive up costs and force farmers to withdraw organic products from the market altogether, further hurting the very people the organic label is meant to help.