States , Japan and in the European Union, certification is a matter of legislation, and commercial use of the word organic, outside of the certification framework, is illegal. The specifics of certification are the subject of wide debate and disagreement among organic producers and consumers; at present, there is no universally accepted definition of organic food.
Types of organic food
Organic foods can be either fresh or processed, based on production methods, availability and consumer perception.
Fresh food is seasonal and perishable. Fresh produce — vegetables and fruits — is the most available type of organic food, and is closely associated with organic farming. It is often purchased directly from growers, at farmers' markets, from on-farm stands, through speciality food stores, and through community-supported agriculture (CSA) projects. Unprocessed animal products — organic meat, eggs, dairy — are less common. Prices are significantly higher than for conventional food, and availability is lower.
For fresh food, "organic" usually means produced without extensive use of synthetic chemicals (eg: fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones), substantially free of genetically modified organisms, and often, but not necessarily, locally grown.
Processed food accounts for most of the items in a supermarket. Little of it is organic, and organic prices are often high. Despite this, organic processed products are now mainly purchased from supermarkets. Most processed organics comes from large food conglomerates, as producing and marketing products like canned goods, frozen vegetables, prepared dishes and other convenience foods is beyond the scope of small organic producers.
Processed organic food usually contains only (or at least a certain specified percentage of) organic ingredients and no artificial food additives, and is processed without artificial methods, materials and conditions (eg: no chemical ripening, no food irradiation). However, a recent amendment to the US organic legislation has allowed some synthetic processing agents to be classified as "organic", so the exact composition of certified organic processed food may vary according to regional regulations.
Identifying organic food
Definitions of organic food vary. Organics can be difficult to explain by empirical measurement. For one thing, most food industry research of the last 50 years has focused on developing chemical agriculture and modern food processing -- less has been done to investigate side effects of conventional agriculture that are not obvious. Also, organics is concerned in large part with what NOT to do -- "as much as possible, let Nature do its thing" -- rather than in devising precise formulas for organic production. A strictly rules-based definition of organic farming and organic food, consisting of approved inputs and practices, created and maintained by regulatory agencies, is inevitably subject to "exceptions" and to special interest pressures to modify the rules. As organics become "whatever the rules say it is", the line between organic and conventional food can get blurred.
Early organic consumers looked for chemical-free, fresh or minimally processed food, and they had to buy directly from growers: Know your farmer, know your food. Organic food at first comprised mainly fresh vegetables. Personal definitions of what constituted "organic" could be developed through first-hand experience: talking to farmers and seeing farm conditions and farming activities. Small farms could grow vegetables (and raise livestock) using organic farming practices, with or without certification, and this was more or less something the individual consumer could monitor.
As consumer demand for organic foods continues to increase, high volume sales through mass outlets, typically supermarkets, is rapidly replacing the direct farmer connection. For supermarket consumers, food production is not easily observable, and product labelling, like "certified organic", is relied on. Government regulations and third-party inspectors are looked to for assurance.
With widespread distribution of organic food, processed food has also become dominant over fresh, confusing the issue further. Modern food processing is complicated. Commercial preparation methods, the use of additives, the effects of packaging and storage, for instance, are outside the first-hand experience of most people, including organic farmers. Traditional, minimally processed products, baked goods; and canned, frozen, and pickled fruits and vegetables, are easier for consumers to understand by comparison with home preparation methods, although home and mass-production techniques are quite different. For convenience foods, like frozen prepared foods and cooked breakfast cereals, ingredients and methods are quite a mystery to most consumers. A "certified organic" label is usually the only way for consumers to know that a processed product is "organic".
In the United States , agricultural products that claim to be "organic" must adhere to the requirements of the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 (found in 7 U.S.C.A. § 6501-22) and the regulations (found in 7 C.F.R. Part 205) promulgated by the USDA through the National Organic Program ("NOP") under this act. These laws essentially require that any product that claims to be organic must have been manufactured and handled according to specific NOP requirements. A USDA Organic seal identifies products with at least 95% organic ingredients, as defined by the National Organic Program.
Unfortunately, there are no natural models for preserving food the way it's found in supermarkets. Food with a long shelf life is the cornerstone of the food industry, providing most of the revenue and profits. In wealthier locales, an impressive array of technologies is used to make food last longer: home refrigerators and freezers at the consumer end, and industrial and chemical practices applied along the food production chain, from seed to field to fridge or table.
In general, organic standards cover this entire process, specifying what is an "organic" ingredient or practice. However, as there is little natural reference for preparing, for example, a precooked, frozen dinner, a "certified organic" label may be hard to understand. The main ingredients are one thing, the processes and additives used are quite another.
Thus, in developed nations: most of what is in supermarkets today can never be called "organic", in the broadest, "all-natural", fresh or minimally processed sense. The idea is not new, and whole foods have long been part of the health food diet. But if demand for organics intensifies, agribusiness interests dictate taking as much control as possible of the definition of "organic food", by including production practices that facilitate food preservation, in order to maintain the existing industry infrastructure.
Claimed benefits of organic foods
Within the food industry, defining the benefits of organic food is largely left to word of mouth, media coverage, and the promotional efforts of organic advocates. Major food and beverage corporations, like Kraft Foods, Heinz, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Cargill, Unilever, General Mills, and Campbell Soup, have rapidly moved to acquire significant organic market share. Still, the specific sales points of "organics" go largely unmentioned on product packaging and in mainstream media advertising. Claims of improved food quality are regularly used in conventional food marketing, with "low fat", "low sodium", "whole grain", "high fiber", "vitamin enriched", "no trans-fat" and other commonly advertised benefits. By contrast, "certified organic" is generally left to stand on its own as self-explanatory, assisted only by general terms like "natural". Meanwhile, consumer surveys have consistently identified food quality as the main reason for purchasing organic food. Higher nutritional value, no toxic residues from pesticides, and better taste are often cited, as is the positive impact of organic production on the environment. Whether organic food actually delivers on these desires is controversial and the subject of scientifically inconclusive debate. The debate concentrates on a variety of specific and supposedly demonstrable characteristics which proponents have claimed make it superior to conventional farming.
Organic proponents cite evidence that some chemicals used in conventional farming, including pesticides and herbicides, mimic hormones - usually estrogen - when inside a person. They claim that this is significant even at the minute levels that the average person is exposed to. The US government states that these chemicals are safe when used correctly, but proponents claim such tests are only done on healthy adults - and that children and fetuses might be at risk to even small amounts of these chemicals.
In Australia , the Government sponsored Australian Total Diet Survey measures pesticide residues found in typical Australian diets. The 2004 survey found all estimated dietary exposures to pesticide residues were below 16% of the respective Acceptable daily intakes and therefore all exposures are well within the applicable health standards.
Organic food proponents cite the existence of reduced levels of pesticides and herbicides as a way to reduce the long term risk of chemical consumption. A study published by the National Research Council in 1993 ("Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children") determined that for infants and children, the major source of exposure to pesticides is through diet. A recent study in 2006 measured the levels of organophosphorus pesticide exposure in 23 school children before and after replacing their diet with organic food. In this study it was found that levels of organophosphorus pesticide exposure dropped dramatically and immediately when the children switched to an organic diet (Lu et al.).
The degree of risk posed by pesticide residues remains uncertain. Pesticide use in conventional food products is heavily regulated, with established, research-based maximum residue levels (MRLs) below which residues are considered safe for human consumption. Also, many pesticides are not cumulative in the body, and are regularly elminated. Notable exceptions include heavy metals such as lead or mercury which are sometimes found in foodstuffs in countries which have lax food production standards. The U.S. and most of Europe prohibit the use of inorganic compounds containing heavy metals in any type of agriculture including conventional.
One area where organically produced food is demonstrably different is in the reduction of nitrates, which are commonly used to stimulate production of conventionally farmed agricultural products. Nitrates reduce the transmission of oxygen in the bloodstream or may under certain situations become nitrosamines, which are carcinogens. Organic foods do not use nitrates as a fertilizer, and so present a reduced nitrosamines risk, although the use of nitrates and the nitrate content of the final product in conventional foods is regulated by region. This is not to imply that organic methods of fertilization are free from risk. In the case of organic fertilizers, some critics claim that using manure to fertilize organic crops might increase the risk of contamination by dangerous microbes like E. coli. Proponents of organic farming reduce the spread of E. Coli primarily by using organic manure.
Organic animal manure, typically that of cattle, is manure from animals that eat mainly hay and other organic, primarily non-grain materials. This is seen as a way to reduce the amount of E. Coli bacteria present, and the feces of organically raised cattle have only 1% of the E. Coli present in non-organic manure. However, when using primarily manure to grow organic crops, the risk for mycotoxin contamination is significantly increased. Mycotoxins are the result of molds found in some varieties of cow feed, and even in very small amounts they can induce liver cancer if consumed over a long period of time. It is important to note that conventional farms also use manure as fertilizer but in much smaller quantities, which means a lower risk of contamination.
Certified organic foods are not substantially genetically modified. The health risks surrounding genetically modified foods remain highly contentious. In the USA , a small admixture of a GM variety is compatible with organic certification, as long as it is unintentional. The USDA regulates the organic production process, and does not verify the actual composition of the final product. So as long as the farmer complies with the rules of organic farming, he cannot lose his organic certificate solely because of random presence of transgenic variety. In most European countries, certification rules are much stricter. Basically, any confirmed detection of transgenic plant, seed or feed can result in a loss of organic status and cosenquent substantial economic losses for the farmer.
Other issues surrounding GMOs may also concern consumers, such as the ownership of biological intellectual property by corporations, and reduction in crop varieties.
With estimates that pollen of some crops (eg. canola) can travel more than 5 kilometers per year, we can be certain that the technology and marketing of organic foods will clash with the technology and marketing of GMO foods. In many countries, however, public awareness is limited and the battles seem to take place with a small elite in the GMO industry and the NGOs that oppose them.
Some organic advocates claim that organic food is more nutritious. It is important to note that the objective of organic agriculture is to produce food that does not degrade soil and the surrounding environment over long periods of time. The goal has never been to produce food that is higher in specific nutrients. In some cases, this has happened, generally due to conventionally grown produce being higher in water.
Organically grown potatoes, oranges, and leafy vegetables have more vitamin C than conventionally grown products. Phenolic compounds are also found in significantly higher concentrations in organic foods, and these may provide antioxidant protection against heart disease and cancer.
Still isolated bits of research suggest that conventional agricultural practices are degrading food quality. A study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in 2004, entitled Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999, compared vegetables analysed in 1950 and in 1999, and found noticeable decreases in six of 13 nutrients examined (the six were: protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and ascorbic acid). Percentage reductions ranged from 6% for protein to 38% of riboflavin, although when evaluated on a per-food or per-nutrient level, usually no distinguishable changes were found. Reductions in calcium, phosphorus, iron and ascorbic acid were also found. The authors suggested that the differences probably reflect changes in cultivated varieties between 1950 and 1999, in which there may have been trade-offs between yield and nutrient content.
However, whether organic foodstuffs have a higher nutrient content is still debatable. Studies have shown no clear, consistent results, and those that have suffer from significant experimental design flaws, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Further, the FAO found that in some crops, such as wheat, there appears to be a trade-off: in conventionally farmed wheat the levels of protein are higher, but the lower levels in organic materials are offset by gains in alpha-amylase and sugar contents. Also, much is still unclear or unknown in nutrional science.
Many claim that organic food tastes better. This is primarily referred to regarding fresh food.
It is possible that organic food taste better simply because it is fresher. Because organic farms tend to be smaller, they often sell their products closer to the point of harvest. Thus, organic fruits and vegetables taste more "farm fresh" than comparable conventional produce.
However, organic foods might also have more flavor because organic farmers often breed with taste instead of marketability as the primary factor. Conventional tomatoes, for example, are often bred to be perfectly red and round, to match the ideal appearance of a tomato. They are also bred to resist damage in transport and storage, for a longer shelf-life. This means that taste is an attribute that has a lower priority. In addition to crop diversity and selection practices, organic farming emphasizes soil nutrition, which can positively influence the taste of the food. Tests by the United Nations FAO demonstrated that some apples, specifically the "Golden Delicious" variety, have higher flavonoid counts when grown organically. This suggests that they do have more flavour.
Some foods, such as bananas, are picked when unripe, then artificially induced to ripen using a chemical (such as propylene or ethylene) while in transit, possibly producing a different taste. The issue of ethylene use in organic food production is contentious; opponents claiming that its use only benefits large companies, and opens the door to weaker organic standards.
Every food purchase supports the system that delivers it, and if large-scale chemical production methods are damaging to the environment, then purchasing these foods supports this damage. Critics of organic farms cite evidence that organic farms produce less yield than conventional farms; one prominent 21-year Swiss study found an average 20% lower organic yields over conventional methods. However, that came with consumption of 50% less fertilizer, and 97% less pesticide (Maeder et. al.). Another study that supports the claim that organic farms are more energy efficient was done with apple farms in the state of Washington . In that study, the organic farms were found to be at least 7% more energy efficient (Reganold et. al.).
In comparing yields, a US survey published in 2001 analyzed 150 growing seasons of data on various crops and concluded that organic yields were 95-100% of conventional yields Because organic farms don't use toxic pesticides and herbicides, there is more biodiversity in the soil. Besides higher soil quality ( Johnston p97) - more life in the soil allows for higher water retention. This helps increase yields for organic farms in drought years where there is less rain. During drought years, organic farms have been found to have yields 20-40% higher than conventional farms (Lotter et. al.).
Claims that eating organic food is better for the environment are, however, frustrated by the fact that most of the organic food sold today travels the same great distances as conventional food. A UK study published in 2005 in the Journal of Food Policy found that maximum environmental benefit would result from purchasing food produced within a 12-mile radius. Therefore, buying local food that is not organic could be environmentally "better" than buying organic food that has travelled hundreds or thousands of miles.
Without exception, the fundamental claims of benefit are contentious and well-contended by various supporters of conventional agriculture, regardless of the fact that the food industry establishment also has a significant stake in organic food. The hot button issue seems to be the effect of pesticides on people, animals, and the environment. This is still being debated by experts in toxicology. There are research reports, expert opinions, and anecdotal evidence both supporting and rebutting them. The same holds true for the other claimed advantages.
Various alternative organic standards are emerging. They generally bypass formal certification, which can be expensive and cumbersome, and provide their own definition of organic food. One such, the Authentic Food standard, proposed by leading US organic farmer Eliot Coleman, includes criteria that are incompatible with current agribusiness:
- All foods are produced by the growers who sell them.
- Fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs and meat products are produced within a 50-mile radius of their place of their final sale.
- The seed and storage crops (grains, beans, nuts, potatoes, etc.) are produced within a 300-mile radius of their final sale.
- Only traditional processed foods such as cheese, wine, bread and lactofermented products may claim, "Made with Authentic ingredients."
Some are also implementing new approaches to defining and buying food. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is one such approach, that cuts out all the middlemen by having consumers partner with local farmers. CSA members prepurchase "shares" in a season's harvest, and pick up their weekly portions from distribution sites. Thus, consumers provide direct financing for farms, participate in the risks and rewards of annual growing conditions, and participate with farmers in distribution networks.
CSA is one example of "buying locally," which is often valued by both the organic food consumer and producer. Generally speaking, locally-grown seasonal foods can be brought to market more quickly than foods that have to be transported long distances, and therefore can be fresher, better tasting, and more nutritious. Additionally, the act of buying foods that are locally-grown benefits local farmers and other employers. This serves as an investment in one's own local community and reduces economic dependence.
Organic food is also often linked with the fair trade movement, based on the principle that social and environmental sustainability are inextricably interdependent.
Facts and statistics
While organic food accounts for 1–2% of total food sales worldwide, the organic food market is growing rapidly, far ahead of the rest of the food industry, in both developed and developing nations.
- World organic food sales were US $23 billion in 2002.
- The world organic market has been growing by 20% a year since the early 1990s, with future growth estimates ranging from 10-50% annually depending on the country.
In the United States , organic food is federally regulated by the National Organic Program:
- Organic products are now available in nearly 20,000 natural food stores and 73 % of conventional grocery stores, and account for approximately 1-2 % of total food sales in the U.S. — Feb 2003
- Two thirds of organic milk and cream and half of organic cheese and yogurt are sold through conventional supermarkets.
In the European Union, organic food is regulated by the EU-Eco-regulation
- Baby food is almost exclusively organic, and over 30% of bread baked in Munich is organic.Link
- Existing legislation calls for all school lunches to be organic by 2005.
- The government has created incentives so that within the next few years, 10 % of its food will comprise locally grown organic foods.
In Cuba :
- After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the government converted the entire country to organic agriculture, and currently only organic agriculture is permitted by law.