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What is Organic Food?

Updated on October 6, 2008

What Does Organic Mean?

According to the Oxford English dictionary, organic is defined as "relating to or derived from living matter; not involving or produced with chemical fertilizers or other artificial chemicals." In the context of food, clothing, cosmetics or other products ingested or used on the human body, the word organic implies a natural, sustainable, chemical-free method of production.

Organic foods and products are produced without using traditional industrial techniques like the petroleum-based synthetic fertilizers for crops or artificial hormones for livestock. As medical and environmental science has advanced, many methods used to increase crop yields introduced in the first half of the 20th century have been found to be either harmful to human or environmental health, or both. The harmful effects of industrialized farming have accumulated over time, and as public awareness has risen, so has the market share of organic food and products, which has been growing at an average of 20% since the early 1990s, resulting in about a 2% worldwide market share today.

How Can You Know If It's Organic?

In the United States, the National Organic Program (NOP), a subsidiary of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), regulates and certifies organically grown food and products. Several other countries, including Japan, Australia, the U.K., and India, have their own government regulatory agency for organic products in those countries.

When purchasing organic products, always look for the "certified organic" label. This is the most sure-fire way of correctly identifying organically grown products.

At the beginning of the organic movement, most foods and products were only available at the local level, and verification was based upon a personal relationship with the producer. As the organic market has grown, this has become impossible for many consumers, forcing them to rely on certified organic labelling, which, luckily, is well regulated to ensure transparency and reliability.

Today, a multitude of grocery stores are known to be exclusively organic, like Whole Foods, and scores more have special organic food sections. When trying to determine if a product or food is organic, first look for the labelling, then consider the situation. If it's not labelled organic, but you are in Whole Foods, chances are it is organic, but a quick question to an employee is a good way to make sure. If you are in a local supermarket, make sure that food has the official labelling.

Organically grown food, clothes and beauty products must pass a stringent test to gain certification, including the elimination of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, antiseptic irradiation, and genetic modification. In addition, organic products must be packaged in biodegradable or recycled materials.

Organic vs. Conventional Food

Organically grown food comes in every form you can imagine: from dairy products to fruit and vegetables, wheat and other grains, pasta and cereal. Food with multiple ingredients can be labelled organic if at least 95% of the ingredients are organic. However, there are a few common misconceptions about organic food, including:

Price

Organic food is more expensive than conventional food. This is true in terms of the price listed at the grocery store. However, there are some key factors to consider. First, organic food is produced in a sustainable manner that drastically reduces the pollutants and chemicals used in industrial farming, thus improving water and soil quality. Second, organic food is often locally grown and, therefore, has many less "food miles" (the distance food travels to get to your grocery bag), making it much more energy efficient and helping reduce carbon emissions. When these factors are considered in making your food purchase, organic food is actually cheaper in its reduced environmental cost and support for local agriculture.

Health

While organic food has not been shown scientifically to be healthier than conventional food, the simple fact that organic food is not exposed to chemical fertilizers or pesticides, food irradation (a sterilization process using radiation) or genetic engineering must count for something. Organic food is typically fresher, greener, and processed and packaged with natural or recycled materials. And while officially the science on genetically modified food has concluded that it is safe for human consumption, there remains a strong minority of dissenters who doubt the veracity of the research.

Sustainability

As mentioned above, organic food is grown in an environmentally sustainable way, with no chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and with much reduced oil-based machinery. These farming methods improve soil and water quality and reduce emissions. Organic farming improves soil quality because industrial farming uses mass tilling techniques that increase erosion, and they employ chemicals that end up in the soil. Water quality is improved because runoff from the fields does not contain pesticides and nitrogen, which damage delicate river ecosystems.

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    • BizzyMuse profile image

      BizzyMuse 

      9 years ago from Southern California

      This was an interesting read. I also love some of the small, local farmer's markets in my area. The growers are some of the nicest people around and I enjoy supporting their commitment (and their fresh fruits and vegees are the best). Thanks for sharing.

    • Just_Rodney profile image

      Rodney Fagan 

      9 years ago from Johannesberg South Africa, The Gold Mine City

      Organics if properly introduced, managed and enforced, should actually become cheaper once the price of conversion to organic certification is obtained. Thereafter the price per yield should be cheaper, as manpower replaces the machinery it makes for a more economic local area, more employment, better quality fruit and vegetables, meat and wines.

      A winery in the western Cape of South Africa, produces a better quality lower priced range of red wines, less sulphur as well. The farmers are all on "fair-deal" system. So this can be attained and prices therefore reduced, as more people are back in the fields and producing rather than only consuming.

    • Bob Ewing profile image

      Bob Ewing 

      9 years ago from New Brunswick

      Going organic has many benefits and thanks for pointing many of them out.

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