30 January 2011

What is Organic, Anyway?

According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary:

Definition of ORGANIC

1 archaic : instrumental
2 a : of, relating to, or arising in a bodily organ b : affecting the structure of the organism
3 a (1) : of, relating to, or derived from living organisms <organic evolution> (2) : of, relating to, yielding, or involving the use of food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides <organic farming> <organic produce> b (1) : of, relating to, or containing carbon compounds (2) : relating to, being, or dealt with by a branch of chemistry concerned with the carbon compounds of living beings and most other carbon compounds
4 a : forming an integral element of a whole : fundamental organic parts of the action — Francis Fergusson> b : having systematic coordination of parts : organized organic whole> c : having the characteristics of an organism : developing in the manner of a living plant or animal organic>
Let's look at definition 3 a (1) and definition 4 a: "of, relating to, or derived from living organisms" and "forming an integral element of a whole." If we think about our food being organic from this perspective, then we think of our foods as living - they are alive, pure, and in their natural state. Organic matter (or organic material), for example, is matter that has come from a once-living organism.  My beef should come from a cow that was once alive, and my pork should come from a pig that was once alive - similarly, my carrots and spinach should also come from plants that were once alive and growing in the dirt.
Now let's look at the definition of inorganic:

Definition of INORGANIC

a (1) : being or composed of matter other than plant or animal : mineral (2) : forming or belonging to the inanimate world b : of, relating to, or dealt with by a branch of chemistry concerned with substances not usually classed as organic
2 : not arising from natural growth : artificial; also : lacking structure, character, or vitality inorganic things, without individuality or prestige — John Buchan>
Our American food industry, however, has defined "organic" not as something that came from a once living being - but rather "of, relating to, yielding, or involving the use of food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides" (see definition 3 a (2) of organic). Therefore, it is possible to eat "organic" beef that, as a cow, was not fed growth stimulants or antibiotics, but still ate grains its whole life instead of grass, or spent large amounts of time in confinement.  True grass fed, according to the American Grassfed Association means:
• animals were fed a lifetime diet of 100% forage
• animals were raised on pasture, not in confinement
• animals were never treated with hormones or antibiotics

All three things must - and should - be true.  Yet, as it stands, USDA grass fed standard only requires that animals have access to the outdoors during the growing season. (See USDA 2007 Press Release "USDA Establishes Grass (Forage) Fed Marketing Claim Standard.") The good  news is that the USDA is apparently making progress.  Before 2007, USDA standards stated that "consumption of [...] grain in the immature stage is acceptable." Animals are not biologically designed to eat grain and corn - they are designed to forage, to eat grass and bugs.  Cows that are fed corn or grain are much more likely to be infected with E. Coli because eating this type of feed makes their normally pH-neutral digestive tract abnormally acidic, which in turn causes E. Coli to develop a resistance to acid.

There are various labels on meat out there: Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, Global Animal Partnership, USDA Organic, and American Human Certified.  Ironically, the one label using the "term" organic actually has the least strict standards.  For a good summary on what all these labels mean, read the article Truth Behind the Labels: How Meat Eaters Can Find Out if Their Dinner Was Really Humanely Raised.  In the United States, we have no unified standard on what "organic" truly means.  So if you really want to know, you must investigate your food source.

Now, let's move on to fruits and vegetables.

I've been reading on various sources that the USDA Organic Rule states that "the use of genetically engineered organisms and their products are prohibited in any form or at any stage in organic production, processing or handling." The thing is, I have not been able to find anywhere on the official USDA site that states this. (So if someone out there reading this can point me to the source, I'd surely appreciate it!)  Granted, I haven't spent hours digging into their site - only about thirty minutes. Still - the average consumer does not even have thirty minutes to find this information. I feel this type of information should be clearly stated and easily located on their website.

This brings us to the question of whether or not the "organic" fruits and vegetables we purchase are genetically pure, or genetically modified. And by genetically modified, I don't mean that two strains of tomatoes cross-pollinated and created an accidental, nature-induced hybrid.  I mean those seeds which have undergone Frankenstein surgery to acquire super powers. Monsanto, a U.S.-based multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation, has created herbicide-tolerant genetically modified seeds called "Monsanto's Roundup Ready® crops," which are engineered to be resistant to Monsanto's broad-spectrum herbicide Roundup (Glyphosate). Whether or not the USDA National Organic Program has been allowing this in the past, it's hard to say. I am still tracking this information down. 
But I do know this. If you visit the NOP website on http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/nop, you will notice right away that this program is being run by the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. If you understand anything about marketing, then it should give you a fairly large clue that truth and integrity are probably not the foundations for this program.  (Read Seth Godin's "All Marketers Are Liars.")  Then again, they might not be hiding anything.  After all, just recently - in January 2011 - the USDA stated they will allow the planting of modified alfalfa.  This is on mainstream news. How this will affect the "National Organic Program," we've yet to see.
In a recent press release, however, also this past month in January 2011, the National Organic Program "Proposes Renewal of Twelve Substances for Use in Organic Agriculture." So really, who knows? At any given time, that "USDA Organic" label on your chicken breast or bag of apples could mean whatever the USDA has decided or ruled at the time. You have to keep up with it, and you have to stay informed, if you truly want to know whether your food is "dead" or "alive."
I'm a busy gal - I don't always have time to keep up with these news.  Fortunately, the folks down at the local farmers market, where I do most of my food shopping these days, keep me updated. If you haven't yet visited your local farmers market, I highly recommend it. This is the easiest way to be sure that your food is truly organic - that is, not fed antibiotics, happy roaming, grass and bug fed, not genetically modified, not sprayed with pesticides, and handled with care. And most of the food is sold by the very farmers who grew it!  Think you can't afford the higher prices for real food? I guess your health - and of the people you love - must not be worth it.

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