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What is Organic?
Most U.S. farms are “conventional”, where foods are often produced using synthetic pesticides, synthetic or sewage sludge-based fertilizers, ionizing radiation, genetic modified seed, antibiotics or hormones. In contrast, in organic production, food is required to be produced without any of these substances. “Organic” refers to a process of food production that is monitored by the government and must adhere to the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) rules. The NOP rules for organic farming mandate land management practices that conserve and protect fertile soil, promote biodiversity, and keep the water clean. For more information visit the National Organic Program Web Site.
Why is Organic important for the environment?
Conventional agriculture today contributes to numerous ecological and environmental problems such as ground- and surface water pollution; reduction in pollinating insects (such as honey bees) and potential human health risks from exposure to agricultural chemicals. Climate change and associated rising temperatures, droughts, floods, and storms are already decreasing global food production and have lead to higher costs.
Why is Organic important for your health?
Studies have shown that pesticide residues, and synthetic nitrogen fertilizers may increase our risk for certain cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, Diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease. In addition, organic meat production may reduce the development of human antibiotic resistance. For more information on how current methods of livestock production in non-organic agriculture are leading to super bugs and antibiotic resistance read the white paper on Antibiotic Use in Food Systems, developed by the Registered Dietitian’s in the Hunger and Environmental Dietetics Practice Group.
Another important consideration for your health is the issue of Genetically Modified (GM) foods. Some scientists and organizations are concerned with potential risks to both the environment and human health from Genetically Modified (GM) foods. The National Organic Program (NOP) bans GM seed in organic farming. In contrast, GM seed is widely used in conventional farming, particularly in the production of corn and soy. Conventionally produced GM corn and soy are used extensively as livestock feed. In contrast, the NOP mandates 100% organic feed for animals used to produce organic milk, chicken, beef, and pork.
What about small local non-organic farms? Is the farm sustainable? The grey area.
Sustain-ably managed farms take care of the soil and water and treat animals humanely. A local farm does not always mean a sustainable farm, but often it is. Local, small farms tend to be more diverse and much easier on the land than large conventional farms. A good way to evaluate this is to learn about the farm that produced your food. The next time you are at the farmer’s market talk to the farmer. Even though the farm’s food is not labeled as “organic”, the farmer may not be able to afford the expense of becoming certified, the food may still be grown without synthetic chemicals and artificial synthetic fertilizers, or the farmer may minimize the use of chemicals. On the other hand, there has been criticism of large corporate organic farms that may not be sustainable for reasons such as extensive carbon emissions in food production, not treating animals in a humane fashion, overuse of allowed natural pesticides, or using loopholes in the organic laws to use the organic label for profit. Some of these issues will be explored in the Sustainable Diets Blog or can be found discussed in more detail on the links provided on the blog page.