What Does ORGANIC Mean? (Should I Pay More For It–Or Not?)
This is a topic I have wondered about for years. I don’t think buying organic foods is worth it, because there’s no way to know if it is actually organic. My uncle is a farmer and does not grow organic crops. However, he has friends who are “certified organic” farmers and they use the same harmful pesticides he does. All they had to do to get the organic sticker is pay a fee. What are your thoughts about this?
You may be like Mikaela, wondering if a few decades of government intervention in the “organics” industry has made the term all but meaningless.
This article will cover five questions that may be burning on your mind:
1. What does “organic” mean?
2. Are organics truly free of chemicals?
3. Does “Certified Organic” really mean anything?
4. How has government helped, or hurt, consumers wanting to eat chemical-free foods?
5. How much more should I spend on organic food?
Let’s explore these essential issues, towards helping you decide whether to spend more for Certified Organic products, or stick to conventionally grown products.
1. What does Organic mean?
Government regulation has certainly bogged down what “organic” truly means. You may think it means “free of pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals.” Well, yes and no—but mostly yes!
The legal definition of “organic” is governed by the USDA, and has four tiers:
A. 100% Organic: This means that every ingredient is Certified Organic (see C, in this list), all facilities involved are Certified Organic, and the product may, or may not, have the USDA Organic seal.
B. USDA Organic: This means that 95% or more of the ingredients are Organic (see C, in this list), non-GMO, and have obtained the USDA certification. The remaining 5% of ingredients must come from an approved list. All farms, facilities, and handlers must have the USDA certification.
C. Organic: This means that 95% or more of the ingredients are certified for no artificial food additives, irradiation, GMO’s, synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. Animals must be fed organic feed, with no hormones or antibiotics. The remaining 5% of ingredients must come from the approved list, and all facilities must be inspected by the USDA.
D. Made With Organic Ingredients: This means that 70% or more of the ingredients must be Certified Organic, and the product cannot use the USDA seal, and cannot represent that the finished product is Organic.
At GreenSmoothieGirl, we make organic products, and I can tell you that we have to prove our facilities and products are compliant—and not doing so would incur federal fines!
You may wonder why manufacturers can use up to 5% non-organic ingredients? Some ingredients are simply not available organically, although what’s exciting is that more and more options are becoming available, as demand increases for organic growing and manufacturing.
2. Are organics truly free of chemicals?
The quick answer to this is, “No.” But if we left the answer there, we’d be doing you a disservice.
Because the fact is, it isn’t true, what Mikaela’s uncle told her, that all you have to do, to be certified organic, is pay money to a government entity. In fact, you have to submit your product to testing, and you cannot put the certification on your label, unless you pass.
Trying to pull a “fast one,” skipping the certifications, would mean no co-packer would work with you. So only the biggest companies who own their own packing facilities could possibly get away with this level of fraud.
And they have the most to lose, because if you are caught, the consequences could actually bankrupt you.
So, the fact remains that Certified Organic does mean something very important, for the consumer.
An organic farmer goes through a process to prove that he is meeting the standards, including not spraying specific pesticides and herbicides known to be most toxic, including glyphosate.
Organic farmers must meet stringent standards of the USDA National Organic Program which regulates the pesticides and chemicals that can be used as well as the harvest and handling of organic produce.
They do, however, face the same challenges that conventional farmers face, namely insects and weeds. In order to combat these, the National Organic Program allows about 25 synthetic pesticides in addition to the natural-based pesticides such as neem oil and diatomaceous earth. This compares to the 900 synthetic pesticides approved for conventional farmers. In addition, these synthetic chemicals can only be used once the farmer has attempted to control the problem by natural means such as crop rotation or cover crops.
A few of the synthetic substances allowed for use in organic farming include hydrogen peroxide, lime sulfur, insecticidal soaps, Vitamin D3, and humic acids. As previously noted, they cannot use the majority of synthetic pesticides used by conventional farmers. This includes one of the most widely used herbicides–glyphosate–which you may know as Roundup.
In a study conducted at Boise State University’s School of Allied Health Sciences, 4,500 people were analyzed for exposure to organophosphates (OP), a common insecticide used in conventional farming. Results showed that those who ate organic produce had significantly lower OP pesticides in their system.
Why do some studies show that glyphosate and other chemicals are found in organic foods? First of all, virtually all studies have shown that organics have far fewer synthetic chemicals than conventional produce and products.
Second, unfortunately, the grower can do absolutely everything right, and testing may still show chemicals in their product.
And as I mentioned, they have to do everything right, or they risk very expensive penalties, and their product recalled—which jeopardizes the brand’s reputation with both their retailers and customers.
So why are chemicals found on many organic products? Put simply, it is due to groundwater and overspraying that can contaminate their product.
Farms nearby may be spraying. (After all, glyphosate is usually applied in larger commercial ventures, by low-flying small aircraft.)
The government cannot easily penalize an organic grower against what his neighbor may be doing.
Rain and irrigation takes those chemicals into the groundwater, where the water flows far and wide through many farms, and then those chemicals end up in the atmosphere again, and then in the rain.
Purchasing organic, then, isn’t a perfect solution. But it’s the solution we’ve got–until our government and farmers are finally able to stand up to biotech firms’ heavy lobbying spend and pressure
Someday, I believe this will eliminate the public health hazard of 500 million tons of Roundup sprayed on our crops.
Not only is it smart for your own health to buy organic, but you are also sending this signal to the marketplace:
I want clean products, and I’m doing my part to send a message.
In a related topic, check out my short video about the GMO issue.
In the video, I explain why, because our government will not intervene and limit or stop genetically modified foods (and ever-expanding use of glyphosate and other highly toxic chemicals), our main recourse, currently, is to “vote with your dollars.”
You are making an impact on the ecosystem, and the future health of your children and grandchildren, when you purchase foods that are not sprayed with the worst chemicals, and when you support farmers who have made the transition to more eco-friendly practices.
3. Does “Certified Organic” really mean anything?
Mikaela’s uncle told her that farms can get “organic certification” just by paying a fee.
For four years, I dated a young 5th-generation farmer who was taking over the family farm from his ill, ailing parents. His father was of the same mind as Mikaela’s uncle:
He didn’t know anything about organic or other certifications, but was frustrated and anxious, watching the growing trends of farmers wanting to eliminate glyophosate and other deadly chemicals, and switch to other methods.
My boyfriend’s father was farming the way he’d done all his life, and he wasn’t particularly interested in the very difficult work of converting their cattle ranching to “grass fed,” or their alfalfa farming to “certified organic.”
He didn’t see the need, even though he was dying of cancer, and his wife was dying of heart disease.
Are all the farmers turning to organic practices doing it out of a sense of responsibility to the ecosystem and the future of humankind? I doubt it. Organic farming is becoming big business, and I’m glad.
Whatever the reason farmers take “the road less traveled,” we are the beneficiaries, and I’m grateful and want to support them with my purchasing habits and educating others. Less glyphosate in the air and groundwater and food supply is categorically a positive trend.
Over the years, I’ve seen a number of farmers and ranchers comment on my social media, videos, and blog posts, that they don’t think there’s a problem, when it comes to pesticide, or steroids and antibiotics in our food, and similar issues.
They cite anecdotal evidence that the organic certification isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.
It’s true that organic growers are allowed to use some synthetic but “organic” materials that aren’t as natural and non-toxic as, for instance, herbs and essential oils.
I wish this weren’t so. After all, before the invention of Roundup, we grew crops without chemicals for thousands of years.
And I think that public awareness and pressure can exert more influence, in coming years, to find the best ways to grow hardy, high-yield crops that co-exist with pests.
After all, the biotech industry came to its current power and profitability by promising the world higher yields, to feed the poor and hungry, world-wide. While that’s a wonderful idea, Monsanto, Dupont, Dow, and the others haven’t shown themselves to be acting on those stated motives, nor has the promise of higher yields panned out.
Twenty years ago, the U.S and Canada introduced genetic modification while Europe did not. Using data from the United Nations to compare these two continents, the New York Times found “no discernible advantage in yields–food per acre.”
Another thing to consider is that a major British meta-study reviewed 343 published papers and concluded that, in addition to the issue of whether organics are completely free of chemicals, or not—organic produce is clearly more nutrient dense.
I like meta-studies, versus a single piece of research, because they analyze the findings of many published studies on one topic. Single studies have contradicted each other: some find that conventional produce has the same nutrient value, and others find that in organic produce, there is more value in the food.
The meta-study concluded that you would have to eat two more servings of produce, to equal what you get in a day, eating organic produce. All by itself, this argument may make you think more favorably about whether buying organic is worth the extra money.
And regardless of whether you line up behind the studies that eating organic gives you more nutrient density, or not–we are all better off eating fewer toxins, in a world where the human body cannot keep up with the chemical input.
4. How has government helped, or hurt, consumers wanting to eat chemical-free foods?
I’m known to be a frequent critic of government regulation and standards. What follows isn’t a defense of government, so much as putting all the data in context.
Once the FDA approves a new chemical for use in our environment, it’s very difficult to get it out of our air, water, and food. Essentially, a new chemical is “innocent until proven guilty,” which is why our government has now approved over 80,000 chemicals for use in our air, water, and food.
A food-additive or herbicide chemical is not proven guilty until many years of use, and until the research that may emerge eventually proves its negative effect on our health.
I remember studying world government in college, as a poli-sci minor, and being astonished at the level of corruption in most governments. For instance, most of the governments of the world turn a blind eye to government employees accepting bribes, in most of regulatory agencies.
The dynamics that cause the FDA and USDA, even in the U.S., to become beholden to special interests is beyond the scope of this article. The U.S. is still one of the least corrupt governments in the world, and I believe that most employees and groups inside the regulatory agencies want to protect the American public.
Be aware that as government agencies grow and have to police tens of thousands of brands, and millions of products, with overworked departments unable to keep up—I still believe that the USDA Organic certification is beneficial, and even critically important for us, the consumers.
First, a company that goes to the trouble of certifying is now in the radar sights of these certifying organizations, and if they are found to fail testing, which happens often, they risk financial catastrophe if they are caught.
Testing failure can mean that a company has to undergo an FDA recall, which is painful, time-consuming, and expensive.
(The company must contact every retailer, and prove three attempts at contacting every consumer who purchased their product, to give them a full refund. Recalls are extremely painful for a food manufacturer.)
Significant evidence shows that eating products with organic ingredients is better than eating conventionally grown products. And a step further, USDA Certified Organic, is even better, since it also doesn’t allow GMO ingredients.
USDA Certified Organic requires that 95 percent of the product must be ingredients that are certified organic. Why only 95 percent? Remember, some ingredients are not yet available organically.
5. How much more should I spend, for organic food?
The answer to this is, “it depends.”
We’ve already established that “Certified Organic” doesn’t mean pesticide-free and herbicide-free. But we’ve also shown why it is still a valuable certification, and the best indicator we have of a product being clean.
So, now the question becomes, for a family on a budget (and that’s most of us), “Then what do I buy organic, versus conventional?”
While many trends in the modern age are negative, one very encouraging one is that organics don’t cost much more than conventionally grown produce, these days. Consumers are demanding organics, and companies like Costco and even Walmart have proven their stated objectives to provide more options for their customers.
Ten years ago, I often had to spend double or triple to buy the organic version, if I could even find it.
In 2018, my choice to buy organic isn’t hitting my pocketbook, much, and I can almost always find a certified organic option in the places I shop.
Each year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) issues a “Dirty Dozen,” and a “Clean 15,”
These lists help you decide which groceries you absolutely insist on buying organic, as well as some crops that aren’t usually sprayed, or that have thick outer shells or peels that are removed.
We’ve made a free wallet card for you, for you to print and tuck into your pocketbook, listing the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15.
While you’re shopping, check the list to decide which produce is worth spending extra for, for the certified organic label, and which you can purchase conventionally grown, without fear.
In general, your priority is to buy organic greens and thin-skinned fruits.
You can find organic berries and greens easily, and for little or no extra cost. Costco has made a committed effort to more organic sourcing, and hundreds of organic products are found in each of their stores.
Whole Foods Market has lots of processed food, and it turns out their no-GMO-ingredients policy wasn’t entirely true.
But they also have many organic options in the produce section, and elsewhere in the store, and many other grocery stores have followed suit.
This trend cannot continue if we, the consumers, do not purchase organic, and tell the store management that we appreciate their organic selection and would like to see more of it.
In general, thick-skinned fruits (like melons) and nuts with hard shells (such as almonds) are okay to buy conventionally grown, but remember to wash produce well before cutting into it. (Remember that your knife will slice through the pesticides on the outside of the cantaloupe or watermelon, putting any toxic residues on your fruit.)
And organic grains, if you eat them, are definitely worth the extra spend. Wheat is now sprayed with Roundup not just once, but twice! Why? Farmers have discovered that this chemical, which the FDA has recently admitted causes human cancer, acts as a desiccant, drying the wheat out, as it is harvested.
Put very simply, the human organism was never built to digest, assimilate, or eliminate synthetic chemicals.
Now the average newborn baby has over 230 known carcinogenic chemicals in her umbilical cord.
What can you do?
Possibly your most important commitment to your health, in this toxic world: Undertake a personal detoxification process twice a year.
You can watch my free Detox Video Masterclass on how the human being detoxifies, and what the effects are for your organs, your overall health, and even your mood and ability to resolve emotional suffering–if you undertake a serious biannual “detox.”
You can learn more about what I’ve learned in over two decades of deep research and practice. You can take the short-track, rather than the long course of study I did–if you’re interested in making changes in your own diet, watching my free 12 Steps To Whole Foods Video Masterclass I’ve made for you with these 6 videos:
- 7 Foods That Fight Inflammation
- Rehab Your Gut With Food
- Beat Your Food Addictions In 4 Days Flat
- Make 12 Simple Shifts In One Year
- My Best Tips For Eating Super Healthy, Super Cheap!
- How to Get Your Partner / Kids On Board
–Robyn Openshaw, MSW, is an international lecturer, and author of 15 titles, including 2017’s Vibe: Unlock the Energetic Frequencies of Limitless Health, Love & Success.
She’s a Utah single mother of four and competitive tennis player. You can find a free video masterclass about her 12 Steps to Whole Foods, here–or her free video masterclass about how to Detox, Not Diet, here.
Disclosure: This post may contain Affiliate links that help support the GSG mission without costing you extra. I recommend only companies and products that I use myself.