Last week’s column explored in general terms what organic means to chemists and the scientific community and what it means to the “natural” foods community. This series of articles isn’t intended to take sides but to provide information to help in making informed decisions. Now let’s briefly attempt to get a handle on what exactly “organic” foods are. This involves several parts and it is important to note there are foodstuffs claiming to be organic and foodstuffs that have followed certain strict requirements and are certified as organic.
When a producer terms food “organic” the word is meant to conjure up certain images such as pure, healthy, wholesome, nutritious and so on depending on your background. The producer is conveying organic farming practices were used in every step of food production. What exactly does (should) that mean if you are interested in the organic food movement? First there are varying definitions of what organic means from person to person, place to place, and country to country.
• The organic or natural foods movement arose in the mid-20th century in response to the development and increased usage of synthetically manufactured fertilizers and pesticides. It was argued that natural fertilizers (animal manures, nitrogen from legumes, etc.) were better for the soils, crops, and the environment. It was an environmental and spiritual response against what was termed chemical or industrial agriculture. The movement really started to gain steam in the late 1960s and early 1970s in part because of the increasing environmental problems brought to light by issues such as DDT and the Bald Eagle, and earlier with the publication of Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring.” This combined with serious environmental problems was the impetus for the formation of the EPA and a boost for the organic (natural) foods movement. Also tied into this was the reaction against modern society, a movement toward self-sufficiency, and a desire for a simpler life. This isn’t good or bad but context for what has evolved into the modern organic foods movement.
• In general terms, organic food production doesn’t use synthetic (inorganic) fertilizers or pesticides. It relies on manures and crop rotation for fertility and pest control. Normally, it is more labor and even machinery intensive in controlling pests. It may use pesticides but they are “naturally” occuring. Organic foods eschew preservatives and tend to be less processed (whole grains flour vs. white flours for example). Foods are additive free, not irradiated, ripening is not chemically induced, and GMO crops and compounds are not used. For animal products there is no usage of antibiotics, growth hormones, or other similar compounds. There is also an emphasis how the animals are reared and used typically involving open or free range animal husbandry. Various levels of vegetarianism are not necessarily part of those eating organic diets.
Unfortunately, this discussion will have to wrap up next week when we delve in what the differences are between organically and conventionally produced foods.