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What Does Organic Mean?

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What Does Organic Mean?

Organic most commonly refers to an organism (usually a plant, crop, food, or fabric) that is produced without any chemical or synthetic fertilizers or pesticides (including herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides). Non-organic food, which is a crop or animal product grown using pesticides, antibiotics, or artificial growth hormones is referred to as “conventional.”

The term organic (or organic matter) can also refer to any living thing that is derived from nature, including plants, soil, humans, and animals. For instance, when speaking about composting, it’s common to describe compostable materials as organic matter.

How Are Pests Managed on Organic Farms?

So without pesticides to keep insects, animals, weeds, diseases and funguses at bay, organic farmers have to employ other techniques. As explained by farm management company Agrivi, popular methods include: cultural practices, such as crop rotation or crop isolation; mechanical and physical control, such as mowing, cutting, tilling and soil coverage; biological control, which involves introducing predators or biological agents that will naturally destroy the pests; and chemical control, which is the use of “naturally occurring substances” that work as natural pesticides, such as pyrethrin and rotenone, as well as select synthetic substances, such as hydrogen peroxide and lime sulfur.

Does Organic Mean No Pesticides?

On a basic level, yes, organic food is produced without the use of synthetic pesticides. However, as the Washington Post explains, even food with the USDA’s 100 percent organic label can carry trace amounts of pesticides, due to things like runoff from neighboring conventional farms or nearby invasive GMO crops. In fact, for a product to have the USDA organic label, it only needs to include 95 percent organic ingredients. 

Basically, if you’re trying to avoid pesticides, organic products are the way to go. Just know that it’s hard for food — namely packaged foods with multiple ingredients — to be 100 percent free of synthetic substances and chemicals. 

Is Organic Better For the Environment?

Pesticides from conventional farming have a number of negative effects on the environment, according to a study published on NCBI in 2009. Due to rain, wind, and other elements, pesticides can pollute soil, water (both groundwater and surface water), nearby vegetation, and the air. Pesticides can also inadvertently kill non-invasive animals, insects, and plants who live in the surrounding area. The study also found that pesticides can kill beneficial microorganisms like bacteria and fungi that live in the soil, which in turn causes soil degradation. 

That said, organic produce is not always better for the environment, as there are many other factors to consider. For example, organic food grown overseas and shipped internationally to get to your grocery store might have a higher carbon footprint than conventional produce that was grown domestically. 

Is Organic Food Healthier?

The NCBI study also found that pesticides can be harmful to humans. All humans are exposed to pesticides when we eat conventional crops (or foods made with conventional crops), but at fairly low rates. The exposure rate is much higher in people who work with pesticides, whether it’s in the field or in the lab.

In fact, there are currently more than 11,000 lawsuits in the works against Monsanto and its parent company Bayer. The plaintiffs are alleging that using Monsanto’s pesticide Roundup (the corporation’s brand name for glyphosate) caused their cancer, and Monsanto has already been ordered to pay tens of millions of dollars to two plaintiffs.

Does Organic Mean Non-GMO?

A GMO, or genetically modified organism, is a plant or animal whose genes were modified in a lab so that the organism exhibits a new trait. One of the most common reasons scientists create GMOs is to make them resistant to pesticides, so that heavy amounts of pesticides can be sprayed without killing the crop itself. Glyphosate, known commercially as Roundup, is one of the most widely used pesticides on GMO crops.

Because of that, a GMO crop cannot be organic. According to the USDA, any food that is certified organic is almost always non-GMO. So if a food label says organic, you can rest assured that it is not genetically modified. 

Is Organic Really Better?

A 2013 study published on NCBI found that: "There is a huge body of evidence on the relation between exposure to pesticides and elevated rate of chronic diseases such as different types of cancers, diabetes, neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson, Alzheimer, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), birth defects, and reproductive disorders." For that reason, some consumers choose to eat organic food when possible. To help make that more affordable and practical, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends following its Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce, better known as the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen.

What Are the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15?

Every year, the EWG comes out with a revised Dirty Dozen and Clean 15. The Dirty Dozen is a list of the 12 fruits and vegetables that the EWG has found to have the highest concentration of pesticides even after being washed, and therefore the group recommends buying these organic. Topping off 2019’s list was strawberries, spinach, and kale.

The Clean 15 is a list of 15 fruits and veggies that the EWG found to have the lowest amount of pesticides, and the group recommends buying these conventionally. 2019’s “cleanest” produce items were avocados, sweet corn, and pineapples.

That said, never let not having access to organic produce stop you from eating fruit and vegetables. Conventional spinach is better for you than no spinach at all. 

Why Is Organic Food More Expensive?

Organic food is more expensive for a number of reasons, as explained by The Balance Small Business. Manual methods of protecting crops often take more time — and therefore cost more money — than using synthetic pesticides. Additionally, being labeled organic requires more than simply not using pesticides — if a farm wants to be certified, they will need to pay for the certification, as well as pay for a number of other things. 

Another issue is supply and demand. According to Capital Press, organic food was only responsible for 5.5 percent ($45.2 billion) of the food industry’s total sales ($822.2 billion) in 2017. As the demand for organic food grows, the prices could go down.

Are Organic Milk, Eggs, and Meat Better?

Organic animal products mean the animals being used were raised on certified organic land, fed organic feed, and not given any antibiotics or growth hormones. 

If you’re wondering if organic meat, dairy, and eggs is better for animals, know that “organic” animals in the agriculture industry are treated just the same as “conventional” livestock. Unfortunately, “organic” doesn't mean much to animals who are forced to live in factory farms, and they suffer the same horrific conditions and ultimate fate (slaughter) that all other livestock face. 

In terms of the environment, animals being used for organic food still eat the same amount of food and produce the same amount of methane. Overall, switching to organic meat, dairy, and eggs will not significantly reduce your environmental impact

If you’ve been wondering if organic animal products are better for your health than conventional ones, you may have noticed claims on food packaging that the product “hormone-free.” A more accurate phrase would really be “added hormone-free,” since cows, pigs, and chickens all have hormones, just like humans, meaning no animal product can truly be free of hormones. In fact, a 2010 study published by the journal Pediatrics found that American girls were going through puberty much earlier in life than in the past. The researchers concluded that this was likely as a result of exposure to estrogen from animal products, plastic, and chemicals, according to the Huffington Post. Not to mention, eating animal products can cause a slew of other health issues, such as cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes.

An eco-friendly, animal friendly, and healthy alternative to eating animal products is not swapping them for organic versions — instead, consider a plant-based diet, centered around fruit, vegetables, grains, beans, lentils, and nuts. You can also opt for decadent vegan alternatives to meat, such as a burger by Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods.

Organic Baby Clothes and Sheets 

Are organic cotton baby toys, clothes, and sheets really worth the hype? Reader’s Digest spoke with dermatologist Dr. Gervaise Gerstner, who explained that babies have highly sensitive skin.

“Babies have a higher ratio of skin surface area to body volume, which means they absorb chemicals easier. Their skin is actually 30 percent thinner than adults’, too,” Gerstner told Reader’s Digest. “Organic baby clothes are a good idea but the main recommendation is to avoid synthetic fibers. Synthetic fibers are made with PVC, petrochemicals, esters, and other chemicals which are known to be linked to immune disorders, behavioral issues, and cancer with high exposure. Looking for sustainable fibers and non-toxic dyes is a good start.”

Is Organic Worth It?

In the end, whether or not someone purchases organic food, alcohol, coffee, clothing, baby items, menstrual care items, and beauty and hygiene products is a personal decision. The internet is filled with studies and opinions on the topic, and it will be interesting to see how organic food and other items grow in the future.

Without pesticides to keep insects, animals, weeds, diseases and funguses at bay,