You Don’t Know Shit About Organic Food

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Beautiful display of organic tomatoes arranged in rings ranging from greed to red
Photo by Michal Klajban, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

You’ve seen it at the grocery store: that little section of the produce aisle, tacked on like an afterthought at the end of the row, just past the collard greens and tomatillos. The eight feet of display set aside for the organic vegetables, which look the same as everything else, only they cost twice as much. Maybe you buy it sometimes because you know you should for some vague reason you don’t really understand. Maybe you’ve considered it, but the cost put you off. Or maybe you never understood what the hell the point was to begin with. Maybe you thought the main point of organic food was just to give some people a way to feel superior to everyone else.

So, what is the deal with organic food? Well, I’m sure you’ll be completely surprised to find out that the answer is complicated. What the term means and how important it is depends on where you live, what your priorities and values are, and most importantly, what was going on at the specific farm that produced the food. Turns out, one person’s organic arugula is another person’s filthy corporate greenwashing scam.

Organic milk vending machine in Wales
Photo by Rhyswynne, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Apparently, in Wales, they have organic milk vending machines

Let’s start with what the term “organic” actually means. Even this is tricky, because there’s what people think it means, and then there’s what the legal definition is. And, of course, that legal definition changes over time and varies from country to country. But in general, when we say that a product is organic, what we mean is that it was grown without using artificial fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides. That’s the most basic and arguably the most important aspect of what makes an organic pepper different from a conventional one. So if nothing else, remember that: the main point of organic food is that it’s grown in a more environmentally friendly way, without dumping poisons on the land. Not because it makes the food taste better or more healthy or because it makes you better friends with Gaia the Earth Goddess. It’s about pollution and soil health first and foremost. That’s not the only benefit, but that’s the driving motivation.

The legal definition of “organic” generally follows this notion. In both the United States and the European Union (and other nations I’m sure, I just can’t be bothered to go look up each and every one), in order for food to be labeled organic, there are other practices that must be avoided besides using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. It also can’t be produced using ionizing radiation, genetic engineering, and antibiotics or hormones (unless it’s for a legitimate veterinary purpose). Organic meat, eggs, and dairy also requires that the animals be treated more humanely than is permitted on conventional farms, although the EU is more strict about this than the States. The food that the livestock eats must itself be organically grown, whether that’s the pasture on the small farm that they’re raised on or grain purchased for them to eat.

Cool, now let’s all listen to the Grateful Dead

Okay, great, sounds good, right? And it does sound good. Less poison and chemicals spread on the land and washing into our streams and rivers. Better treatment of the animals. If you’re a person who thinks that pollution is bad and that animals, even animals we intend to eat, should be treated decently, then organic food seems like a no-brainer. But, like anything that gets regulated by the government, it gets complicated so fast that mere mortals don’t have a chance in hell of keeping up with all the details.

The first thing to understand is that, in the United States, the government only regulates what can and can not be labeled “organic” because organic farmers actually asked them to. It used to be all willy nilly out here. “Willy nilly”, by the way, is an agriculture industry term that means, “not as fun as it sounds like”. Some organic farms were virtual shrines to the power of ecology and biodiversity, while others just opted for the second most vile pesticides rather than the very worst ones. Standards varied from state to state, where they were enforced at all. There was no way for the consumer at the grocery store to know what was really environmentally friendly food and what was just a marketing gimmick. So the real organic farmers, the ones who actually gave a shit, asked the feds to regulate it so it’d be harder for farms to cheat and so that organic food would have to meet the same standards no matter where it was grown. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture eventually agreed.

Rows of different varieties of organic lettuce at Mustard Seed Farms
Photo by HessCreek, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Mustard Seed Farms, organic farm in Oregon, USA

The result, however, has been less than perfect. Don’t get me wrong! In general, when you buy food that has the “USDA Organic” label on it, you are buying food that’s grown in a more environmentally friendly way, in a way that most would call organic. But there’s some flaws and loopholes in the system. For instance, you might be surprised to learn that some copper-based chemicals such as copper sulfate are allowed to be used as a pesticide in organic farms in the U.S. Copper is allowed because it’s “natural”, but… I mean, so is uranium, but I wouldn’t want that shit spread on my lettuce. Copper is notoriously toxic to aquatic organisms, and it’s basically impossible to use copper sulfate, or any chemical, on a farm without at least a small amount ending up in nearby streams or in the groundwater. Copper can also build up in the soil, so an organic farm using even very small quantities of copper sulfate can eventually end up with a toxic level of copper on it.

So… while advanced, modern chemicals aren’t used in organic farms, sometimes the simple, basic substances aren’t any better. The USDA rules on animal welfare are also more lax than you’d expect. For example, conventional eggs can come from chickens kept in shockingly tiny cages. Organic eggs must come from chickens that aren’t caged, and which have access to the outdoors. But that may not be as idyllic as you think. A windowless shed, crammed with as many chickens as possible, with a small enclosed screen porch on it, counts as being cage-free and having outdoor access. It’s still better than the conventional cages, but it’s a far cry from the picture of happy chickens roaming a pasture that you may have thought it meant.

You think *we* have problems…

All that said, the organic food regulations in the United States aren’t bad, it’s just that they may not be as good as you expected, and there’s certainly room for improvement. Organic farms do have to get inspected on an annual basis and can suffer fines if they’re caught cheating. The inspections also aren’t perfect, but they’re a lot better than nothing. A much more serious problem is imported organic food. You may be surprised to learn that a lot of organic food, especially organic grains, are imported to the US rather than grown domestically. And I don’t mean imported from Canada or Mexico. I mean from fucking Eastern Europe. Turkey, Ukraine, Romania. Now… if the point of organic food is to be more eco-friendly, then it seems to me that shipping it from the other side of the planet on ships burning fossil fuels might be defeating the purpose.

dried soybeans, one type of grain sometimes fraudulently sold as organic
Soybeans: The surprising subject of a multi-million dollar international crime

To make matters worse, while those imports are still supposed to comply with the USDA organic regulations, nobody really checks to make sure that they do. In some cases, we have agreements with other nations that actually don’t allow us to do our own inspections. But even when it’s allowed, inspections of foreign farms are almost never conducted. It’s expensive and time consuming and there’s simply no budget or framework for doing it. On top of that, in recent years there’s been some very prominent cases of fraud, not by foreign farms, but by the middlemen, the companies doing the shipping. There have been several cases where cargo ships that filled up with conventionally grown corn and soybeans grown in Eastern Europe showed up in the States with grain that had magically become organic in transit, complete with forged paperwork. And they basically got away with it, because the feds didn’t catch them. We only know about it because of some investigative journalism.

By the time the press spilled the… soybeans… I’m sorry…. they’d already sold a lot of that fake organic grain to actual organic dairy and poultry farmers who honestly thought they were buying organic animal feed. Even if they’d been caught, it wouldn’t have done much to deter them. Because, as you know from that little section of organic produce at the store, organic food costs more than conventional food. So that cargo ship of corn sold for an extra $4 million when they forged the organic certification than it would have as conventional grain. If they’d been caught, they would have just paid their measly $11,000 fine, sold the grain at conventional prices for a more modest profit, and tried again the next time. With the difference between the profit and the fine being so huge, they only have to get away with selling fraudulent organic grain every once in a while in order for it to be worth it.

Clear as mud

Now that we’ve totally and completely made organic food more confusing for you than ever, you may be wondering if organic food is better for you. Yes, the main point is to reduce pollution, but is it healthier? Does it taste better? The answer is, “Maybe, probably not though.” As far as nutritional value, the studies that have been done so far are a mixed bag. Some show some specific types of organic food have higher levels of certain nutrients than conventionally grown food, but others don’t. More data is needed, and it’s going to be tough to figure out for sure.

Because, it turns out that comparing apples to apples is kind of like comparing apples to oranges. Because, remember how I said there were organic farms that were a triumph of environmentalism, and others that were trying to game the system? The methods used to grow organic food vary from farm to farm, so if there are any significant differences in how healthy the resulting food is, it may depend more on what specific techniques the organic farm uses, than just the fact that it’s organic. With the amount of leeway in what can be considered organic, at least in the United States, it’s going to be tricky to nail down if any of it is actually more nutritious.

An apple and an orange
Michael Johnson, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

As for tasting better, there’s no real evidence for that. Some people may think it does, but that could well just be a sort of placebo effect… they think that their organic carrots should taste better, and so they actually seem to. What’s more likely to improve the taste of food is simply freshness. If the organic food from the stand at your local farmers market seems to taste better than what’s at the grocery store, it’s probably because it was harvested that morning or the night before, not because it’s organic.

Delicious pesticides

There is one pretty clear way that organic food is healthier, though. While the US has regulations about how much pesticide or herbicide can be present in food, the limit isn’t zero. There often are small amounts of pesticide on your produce, and it may not simply rinse off in the sink when you clean it. Organic food has dramatically less pesticide residue on it than conventional food, because it’s exposed to less to begin with. Notice I said “less”, though. Because of course, there are some more “natural” pesticides that are allowed to be used on organic food, so trace amounts of that can still be present on the food.

Also, organic farms can only control what they do on their own land. If the farmers that own the land next door are all about dowsing their crops with chemicals, then some of that can accidentally end up on the organic farm and there’s not much they can do about it. It’s like when you’re eating at a nice restaurant and the kid at the table next to you is sneezing without covering their mouth. Some of their child-germs might be getting all over your eggplant parmesan, but you’re still going to eat it, dammit, because you paid twenty bucks for it and it’s delicious.

Anyway, organic food probably does have less pesticide residue on it, which is definitely a good thing for your health, but you can’t count on it having absolutely none at all.

Money is also green

Okay, so there are benefits to organic food, but… why is it so damned expensive? On average, organic food costs at least 50% more than conventional food, and can be as much as three times the cost for some items. Couple of reasons for that. One is simple supply and demand. As long as enough people are willing to pay more for a limited supply of organic food than they would for more plentiful conventional food, it’s going to be more expensive. That’s just called “capitalism”, folks.

Another is that, depending on what you’re talking about and how the specific farm is going about it, organic food can just be more expensive to produce. It may be less efficient in terms of amount of food grown per acre of land. Organic alternatives to pest control may be more expensive or less effective than conventional methods. The best practices for organic farming don’t always translate well to the giant, single-crop farms that most of our food comes from. So some of these bigger, corporation-owned farms are doing what they need to do to be called organic, but they don’t feel it’s practical to adopt more effective organic practices that might be more labor intensive or otherwise require a fundamental restructuring of their business model.

Display of organic lettuce at Whole Foods
Photo by Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

And that cost difference is a problem, of course. It’s nice for the farmer, maybe, if they can leverage their organic label to charge higher prices. Farmers, small farmers especially, tend to struggle to keep their businesses profitable, and a 50% markup for organic spinach makes a huge difference to them. But for ordinary grocery shoppers, it can be a bitch. Some folks can afford to buy nothing but organic food, but most probably can’t justify it, no matter how much of an environmentalist they may be. Some of us just do what we can when it makes sense, but there’s plenty of folks who have to make every penny count. And there’s plenty of others who have trouble buying fresh produce at all, let alone organic veggies, because the nearest place to buy groceries that isn’t a gas station is miles away, and they either don’t have a car or have to be frugal with their gasoline budget as well as their food budget.

So here we are again: being an environmentalist is often a privilege that not everyone can afford. And that’s shitty, and unfair, and it. Has. To. Change. I wish I had good advice on how we go about doing that, but unfortunately, it gets wrapped up in the very foundations of our society, in the way we view and treat people with lower incomes. And, to be honest, in the way we treat people who aren’t white. Now, look, I don’t aim to make this a blog about racism, but it’s just a fact that a lot of the same systems and processes that are harmful for minority groups are also harmful for the environment, and that definitely comes in to play when we talk about organic food. There’s a reason that the stereotype of an organic vegetable shopper is a middle-class white suburbanite, and it ain’t because non-whites or urban-dwellers don’t give a shit. It’s because our food system was biased against some communities anyway, and the extra steps needed to go organic only make it that much harder for folks who already were facing hurdles.

I love the taste of pesticides in the morning

So, given all of that, if you decide that you’ve got a few bucks a month to spare on “upgrading” your groceries to organics, then you need to figure out how to get the most environmentally friendly bang for your buck. Luckily, there’s a couple of easy guidelines. First off, remember the problems with imported organics? Be wary of imported organic food. Some is fine, others not so much. Pick a domestic organic product if you have the choice. Then, if you buy meat, dairy, or eggs, then buying organic versions of those items has a bigger impact than organic fruits and vegetables. That’s because of fact that the food that the organic animals eat has to also be organic. You also get a side benefit that these critters aren’t going to be subjected to some of the worst practices of factory farms. Of course, we know that eating meat, especially beef, has a bigger carbon footprint than any sort of plant-based food. But if you’re still going to eat it, the extra dollars spent on the organic stuff might be a good way to spend your limited budget.

Beyond that, it turns out that some conventional produce just contains a lot more pesticide than others. Luckily, an organization called the Environmental Working Group has figured out which ones for us. So if you can only afford a few extra bucks each trip to the store, buying organic versions of these “dirty” fruits and vegetables will have the biggest impact on your personal exposure to pesticide residue, and probably a bigger impact on how much pesticide ends up in the environment as well.

  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Nectarines
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Cherries
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Peppers
  • Celery
  • Tomatoes
Organic bananas with stickers
Photo by BananaQueens, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Likewise, some produce doesn’t normally have much pesticide residue on it anyway. This doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t use much pesticide in the field, it could just mean that it doesn’t persist on these foods as well as others. But still, if you can only buy a limited amount of organic produce, these are good candidates to not worry much about:

  • Avocados
  • Sweet corn
  • Pineapple
  • Onions
  • Papaya
  • Sweet peas (frozen)
  • Eggplant
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Kiwi
  • Cauliflower
  • Mushrooms
  • Honeydew melon
  • Cantaloupe

The other stuff

Now, there’s one last thing I want to mention. I’ve been talking mostly about the USDA Organic certification here in the United States. There are other, non-governmental organic certifications floating around out there, and some of them are just as good if not better. A couple you might bump in to on your food labels are the Real Organic Project certification, and the Certified Naturally Grown certification. If you see either of those two, you’re good, they’re basically run by hardcore organic farmers who thought the USDA label was for pansies. There’s plenty of other labels and logos you might find on your food, and rather than try to cover them all here, I’d just suggest you make use of that handy pocket computer you carry around with you that you call a “phone”. If you see something that sounds like it might be a kind of organic label or something similar, look it up online right there in the store, or take a pic of it and look it up later. There’s a pretty good chance it’ll turn out to be something worth spending a bit extra for.

USDA organic label
In the US, this is the organic label you’re most likely to find

So, there you go, organic foods. A flawed, messy system built on genuinely good intentions that, amazingly, still turns out to be mostly worth it. If you want to keep the waterways clean and minimize the amount of poisons out in the environment, buying organic is one way to help out with that. If you were hoping it would also help you “detox” your system or whatever, well, sorry to disappoint you. It’s healthier for the land, not necessarily you. It’s got issues, of course. The added cost and patchy availability is an unfair barrier to many people. And the fact that it’s sometimes less efficient is a potential problem, too. If we all start eating mostly organic food, would that mean we’d need to devote more land to agriculture to make up the difference in the amount of food per acre grown? Where would that land come from? Burned tropical rainforest, maybe? Yeah, oops. We’re going to have to think about that one. Maybe we need better organic farming practices, or maybe we’ll just have to accept that organic food will always be a luxury, a niche product. I don’t have the answers. But, for now, if you can swing it and it feels right to you, by all means, upgrade your grocery trip with some organic fruit and veggies. Buy the organic, free-range eggs that cost three times as much as the regular ones. For real, it’s money well spent if you’ve got it. Just be aware of what you’re actually getting for your money.

And now, apparently, I need to go find a used Geiger counter online. I know damned well nobody is actually spreading uranium on their lettuce fields, but now that I’ve got the idea in my head, I can’t stop thinking about it. Thanks a lot, everyone.

MORE READING:

How More Organic Farming Could Worsen Global Warming
Is the Organic Label As Valuable As You Thought?
Flaws in the ‘USDA Organic’ certification can allow ordinary products to be labeled organic

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