Making healthy food choices is important. But, sometimes it’s really tough to be sure that you are getting what you intended to get. Let’s say, for example, that you have made a decision to eat primarily organic foods. Well, how do you know it’s organic?
The obvious answer is that it is labeled by the USDA, whose National Organic Program regulates the standards for any farm, wild crop harvesting, or handling operation that wants to sell an agricultural product as organically produced. In order to represent their products as Certified Organic, and show the USDA Organic label, these producers have to meet all of the standards set forth in the Program.
This is quite distinct from organic gardening, whereby organic foods are produced using methods that do not involve modern synthetic inputs such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Organic foods are also not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives. The organic gardening movement arose in the 1940s in response to the industrialization of agriculture and was known as the Green Revolution.
However, the organic home gardener cannot, for example, represent his produce as organic—even though, in all likelihood, it was raised under more strict standards than some USDA Certified Organic crops.
This distinction needs to be made, as many consumers do not realize that a substantive number of fruits and vegetables sold in farmer’s markets and local farm stands cannot be represented as organic, but have actually been grown in full accordance with the principles of organic gardening. All this omission actually means is that these gardeners have not sought certification. It does not mean that their produce was raised conventionally (ie, with chemical and/or synthetic pesticides).
If you ask these gardeners if their produce is organic, they are required to tell you that they are not certified. It is then appropriate to query them about their gardening methods. If they are gardening in strict accordance with, for example, the Rodale Institute, their produce IS organic. It simply isn’t certified.
Any time you buy an organic product, you’re putting your trust in some entity. Maybe it’s USDA-certified organic and you’re trusting the U.S. government. Maybe, on the other hand, you know—and trust–the actual farmer who grew the product under organic conditions.
Regardless, it’s a leap of faith, and that’s the first problem facing organics. “Organic” is a human designation, and humans aren’t always right, or honest, or fully in the know. It’s possible the government certifier didn’t look closely enough, or that the farmer cut corners.
An even more insidious problem is that the produce may be contaminated. This is seldom the result of dishonesty. It’s just the chaos of nature. If an organic farm is situated near a conventional farm, it’s possible the wind or rain run-off could carry some of the conventional pesticides into the organic field.
Ultimately, the food choice lies with the consumer. Personally, I am most comfortable buying from local, non-certified gardeners who I know—and trust. I’ve walked through their gardens. I’ve seen their management program. I know their level of integrity in the community.
I have more confidence in my neighbor’s commitment to organic practices than I do in those utilized in large-scale organic farms—often transporting the goods from as far away as South America. Small is beautiful. Local is sensible. Organic, to me, is a set of practices to which anyone can adhere.
I really don’t need a label to make up my mind. The USDA system is good and I’m glad we have it. But, I feel that there is also a lot of room to make choices “beyond the label.”
– Sherry Ackerman, Transition Voice