The Big O: The Dirty Truths behind 'Organic' In the '90s, we often left the term 'organic' out of our culinary vocabulary. It was a time when the calorie-counting culture raged and we were collectively obsessed with all things sugar-free and fat-free. On the flip side, a mere mention of the dirty "o" conjured up images of inexplicably expensive food, reserved for health-extremist hipsters with deep pockets. Such glossy and pricey produce solely adorned the aisles of elitist health food stores: the sort that most vehemently avoided. Whole Foods wasn't begrudgingly referred as 'Whole Paycheck' for nothing. Instead, those concerned with health (or, more candidly, maintaining a svelte figure), stocked up on sodium-rich Lean Cuisines and aspartame-laced Diet Coke.
Thanks to the popular revolutionary prose of people like Michael Pollan, however, championing real food and condemning processed, the US has since evolved into a Health Food Nation. Vegetation has been repositioned as the necessary cornerstone of our diet. Yes, my friends, this is a dietary renaissance. We are now wise to the perils of chemical-ridden food and lovers of sustenance that is 'of the earth'. Toss out the Sweet'N Low and usher in tons and tons of kale. Plant-based, gluten-free and raw are suddenly our buzzwords du jour and even the formerly notorious 'organic' label is experiencing a reawakening.
Progress? Well, we now know to avoid any edibles that are modified or contain anything synthetic and that, as a general rule of thumb, you can't go wrong with organic fruits and veggies. Organic nourishment may be pricier than its chemical-farmed counterpart, but investing in our health is inarguably a worthwhile expense. But this does beg the question: what is the actual definition of "organic"? And the simple answer is that there are two different camps: organic and Organic. In other words, what it means in its truest form, and what the USDA has deemed it to mean. Here's what organic ought to mean in relation to food. The literal, un-USDA-tainted meaning, if you will. Organic produce is grown:
- Without synthetic fertilizer
- Without genetic engineering
- Without prohibited chemicals or pesticides
- With natural or mechanical methods in a natural environment
But the buzzkill reality is that the word 'organic' is a hot commodity (read: organic equals dollar bills). The moment that certain people catch wind of a trending term like 'organic', they figure they can exploit the term to turn a profit. This is particularly evident in the case of factory farms, which are just what their name suggests: factories. They exist to churn out a mass volume of product in as short a timespan as possible. True organic farming can be super time – and cost-heavy – and these industrialized farms are in the business of making money, not spending it. Since a substantial demographic is willing to bite the bullet and cough up some extra cash for chemical-free fare, the organic label has become a valuable asset to their commercial scheme. In short, factory farm corporations have worked round (or even with) the USDA to seek out and create loopholes to increase their efficiency and profitability. A little deal-making ensues and BAM: redefined regulations for farming practices to qualify as "organic".
there's no app for this one.
Here's the rundown on what passes as acceptable for a product to qualify as 'organic' in the eyes of the USDA: 1. They do NOT have to be pesticide-free. Farmers can use pesticides on the crops, so long as they are derived from 'natural,' not synthetic, sources. Food with an organic label does not necessarily mean that it's free of additives, as the Organic Trade Association lobbied Congress to allow toxic additives in organic foods. Many of those additives are not required to be included on the nutritional label. 2. So long as the food is “USDA Organic” and not “100% Organic”, the food may still contain traces of GMO ingredients. It’s also important to know that there are no restrictions against GMO contamination.
Though 'natural' pesticides may sound less menacing than the alternative, that's not necessarily the case. Many have been shown to be more destructive than synthetics, and over half of these 'natural' pesticides contain known carcinogens. This all boils down to the reality that the increased price of 'organic' food is no longer (if it ever truly was) a guarantee that it’s free of harmful substances; the USDA has legalized loopholes that allow for farms to hike up the price of produce, while covertly integrating them into their farming practices.
So, what's to be done? Do we give up on the utopian dream of chemical-free food and revert back to the cheaper, synthetically treated options? Of course not! Instead:
- Hit up those farmers markets and buy local.
Be sure to converse with those selling the grub and ask about their farming practices. Truth is, the Organic certification is expensive and many small farms simply don't have the resources. They could very well be practicing organic farming, but unable to afford the label.
- Grow your own food.
Yup, I’m putting you to the task and asking that you summon up the green thumb spirit of your ancestors. Start small with a few potted plants in the windowsill and go from there.
- Buy products certified by the Non-GMO Project and the USDA Organic label.
That way, you can ensure you’re eating GMO-free food.
- Sign petitions and nag your elected officials.
Demand that they support legitimate organic farming, not Big Agriculture. This is your time to be vocal and be heard: crank up the volume and let your bossy flag fly.
There are definitely attainable solutions, but they all require some legwork and research. Sorry guys, there's no app for this one. The moral here, if there is one, is that as procurers of the produce, we need to reclaim authority over how our food is grown by supporting local, bona fide organic farmers. Toxin-free is the way to be. And don’t let factory farms or the USDA tell you otherwise.
Eva Bloomfield is a Los Angeles-based vegan lifestyle blogger with an (un)healthy appetite for all things vegan and cruelty-free - food, fashion, beauty, travel. She can be found tweeting about all of this and more at @dirtyrttnvegan