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Most people view a food as organic if it has been grown without the use of pesticides and other chemicals. While this view of organic foods is technically true, there is also the issue of sustainability to consider. Sustainably grown organic foods are not only good for the consumer’s health, but are also good for the environment. The following will touch up on what differences, if any, there are between the practices of self proclaimed organic small farms and large corporate farms, and what the different organic labels on food packaging mean.
It is good to know the difference between organic and sustainable agriculture. While organic and sustainability tend to go together, the two are not always mutually exclusive. There are specific rules to be met to be considered organic, but sustainable agriculture goes beyond this.
Animal products considered organic must come from animals with access to the outdoors in addition to the animals being fed organic and being antibiotic free. Animals can spend their entire lives indoors with access to the outside through a window, or only be allowed outside for a short time each day in a small and enclosed area, and still technically be considered organic. In a sustainable system, animals are allowed to roam outside as much as possible like they would if in their natural environments. If in a fenced area, they are given ample room to move around. A sustainable farmer may choose to provide shelter for an animal at night or when the weather is bad. Sustainable farmers may sometimes choose to give a sick animal antibiotics, but no meat, egg, or dairy product is passed on to the consumer until the antibiotic is out of the animal’s system. Artificial hormones are not used at all by either one.
Organic food can be grown on any size farm. Whereas a smaller organic farm tends to follow sustainability practices, large organic corporate farms tend to grow monocrops on multiple acres. Foods produced in large industrial complexes are not by sustainable practices. An exception could be a large brand which is made up of a co-op of multiple small farms.
Almost any food can be shipped thousands of miles before reaching its final destination, but a sustainable food is in keeping with the philosophy of sustainability when it is sold closer to the local area from which it is grown. The best way to ensure organic produce has been grown in your region is to buy from a farmer’s market. This is also a good time to inquire about what practices the farmer implements for growing the food. When at a grocery store, food source information can usually be found on packaging when it states where a food was produced.
Small organic farms are generally known for their sustainability practices. They grow small, mixed crops and/or practice crop rotation for soil health and pest control. Mixed crops help to ensure if one crop fails, not all is lost. Evidence of mixed crops can be seen at any farmer’s market where individual vendors will usually be found selling various products which come from one farm.
A prime example of a small organic farm which practices sustainability is that of Polyface. It is a family owned farm in Virginia that provides fresh meat and eggs. The animals eat off the land or are supplemented with organic foods. The farm is run in the best interests of the animals and the land. Polyface doesn’t just make claims; they can actually show what they are about. They offer occasional intensive seminars to small groups where they show and educate what is done on this kind of farm. Self guided and scheduled escorted tours are offered throughout the month. This farm also keeps with its philosophy by only selling their products locally.
Large organic corporate farms have some advantages when compared to not being organic, but there are still some disadvantages in the grand scheme of things. The impact of substantially less pesticides and herbicides being used is a good thing for the general population’s health and for the environment. That being said, some of these corporations don’t always follow sustainable practices in other areas. For example, instead of only maintaining the number of cows a land’s natural resources can contain in the long run, a large organic dairy farm may confine dairy cows the majority of the time in a large complex. To these corporations, the more the better, as profit is the bottom line. This makes it possible for them to sell organic dairy products at lower prices than a comparable product which comes from a smaller farm which practices higher standards of taking care of animals. In the long run, paying a higher price is worth it when all the factors that go into producing the product are considered.
The Cornucopia Institute researches certified organic dairy brands and publishes a Dairy Brand Ratings Scorecard based on ethical organic farming practices. Brands can be given a 5 rating for outstanding down to a 0 rating of ethically deficient. One such brand that receives a 0 rating is the Dean owned brand of Horizon. About half of the milk sold by Horizon comes from small farms which most likely have good sustainability practices. The problem lies in the other half of Horizon’s dairy production from large industrial scale farms, including two self owned corporate facilities. One such facility contains 4000 – 5000 cows packed in with little access to pasture.
An organic dairy farm that has 5 rating from The Cornucopia Institute is Loleta Cheese in California, which owns a dairy farm near their cheese manufacturing plant. Their cows are given access to large pastures for grazing and all purchased cows are organic from birth. The organic dairy from Loleta Cheese follows what most people think of when they see the organic label.
When shopping in a grocery store, the variations in organic labeling can sometimes be confusing. There are many factors that go into a food being qualified to have the organic label on its packaging. In 2002, the USDA, through its National Organic Program, created a standard set of guidelines food producers must comply with to display its USDA Organic seal and labels, or to be able to make the organic claim.
Single ingredient foods such as organic fruits and vegetables may have a sticker or a sign on the produce displaying the USDA organic label. Multi-ingredient foods may have one of four choices. Foods made with 100% organic ingredients may display “100% Organic” and the USDA Organic seal. Foods made with 95 – 99% organic ingredients may display “Organic” and the USDA Organic seal. The 5% or less of nonorganic ingredients must be determined as being not commercially available in organic form. These other ingredients can be spices, flavors, colorings, oils, vitamins, minerals, or food additives. Though not required to be organic, the ingredients still must meet certain requirements. They may not be produced using excluded methods, sewage sludge, or ionizing radiation. Foods made with 70 – 94% organic ingredients may display “Made With Organic Ingredients”, but instead of the USDA organic seal, they may list up to three organic ingredients on the front of the package. The nonorganic ingredients must follow the same production practices as the nonorganic ingredients of products that display “Organic”. Foods made with less than 70% organic ingredients may list ingredients as organic on the ingredient list of the package.
Companies certified as being organic producers are allowed to use the word “organic” as part of their brand name. Seeing organic implies to consumers that they are purchasing organic. This is something to watch out for, because a brand name with the word “organic” in it will be on all of their products, even if a particular food item is not organic. A company can also trademark a phrase and can then place it on their food packaging.
While the USDA organic label is helpful when making purchasing decisions, it is not the end all and be all of what is organic. Certification for use of the USDA Organic label can be costly and is a yearly process. Many smaller farms that practice sustainable and organic farming are unable to afford the costs of USDA Organic certification, and therefore cannot label their organic products as organic. Because of this, some of the farmers use alternative certifications that inspect and certify using organic standards.
One certification alternative is that of Certified Nationally Grown (CNG), which started the same year the USDA Organic standards were initiated. CNG is a nonprofit concentrating on certification programs for small market farmers. Inspections are done by volunteers and the only cost to the farmer is a suggested contribution of $50 – $175 to keep the program running, though the farmer decides on the exact amount. The CNG certification process starts with the same standards of what is organic used for the USDA Organic certifications. One can be confident when seeing the CNG label that the product is up to par with organic standards. The CNG label has become nationally known and recognized. CNG also certifies organic livestock practices based on what the USDA Organic uses. Natural beekeeping can be certified by the CNG according to standards set for beekeeping was developed by CNG.
Some food labeling terms give the impression that the food is organic but this isn’t always so. Examples are “natural”, “free range”, and “hormone free”. Such terms can apply to both organic and nonorganic food products. USDA standards for labeling a food as natural are it must not contain artificial ingredients or colors and is minimally processed.
So when it comes to shopping for and consuming organic foods, there are more factors to consider rather than just the question of whether or not pesticides, herbicides, or hormones were used in the production process. Knowing the sustainability practices that go into the organic foods we eat, and understanding of the various food labels go a long way go a long way in making informed choices that support ethically sound farm production.
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