When my daughter was born nearly six years ago, Mr. Crumbs and I committed to buying organic milk, chicken and eggs. Shortly thereafter, we also decided to buy organic produce according to the dirty dozen and clean fifteen, as often as the budget allowed.
As the price of food continues to rise, we fight back by evaluating the food we buy. We consider what we buy, the quality of what we buy, and whether or not our original decisions still fit into our real food mentality.
For example, we’ve noticed that the price of milk has gone up $1.50 since last year. We’ve been experimenting with dairy-free options, and have even considered forgoing all milk unless it has been cultured into yogurt or kefir. No definitive decision has been made yet, but we’re not sticking our heads in the sand and pretending the issue doesn’t exist.
So when a reader made the comment that she wasn’t going to buy organic produce anymore after doing some research for her own family, I started wondering about our own decision to buy organic produce too… especially since I’ve heard practically nothing but rave reviews about organic foods since day 1.
Why would a fellow real food eater purposely stop buying organic produce? What skeletons did she uncover in her research that I should know about? Were they really so bad that it warranted swearing off buying organic produce entirely?
I decided to do a little digging myself and as it turns out, there’s a plethora of “hidden” information on organic food and the organic industry as a whole. I say “hidden” loosely, because it’s not buried beneath links and PDF files to the point of no return.
It’s just that unless you choose to look, you won’t find anything.
That was the reasoning behind my asking the question “Why do we do the things we do?” in the Crumbs weekly newsletter last week. After reading several books and articles and coming across enough little known facts about organic food to make my head spin, I wasn’t so sure about our commitment to organic food anymore.
These 16 facts I’m sharing today are only a small glimpse into the organic industry – an industry that has grown at a rate that is all but sustainable for the long term.
I’m prefacing these facts with a disclaimer that I’m not calling organics bad or good, nor am I calling conventional bad or good. I firmly believe, and will continue to encourage every family to make the best decisions that suit their needs.
But I also believe that your decisions should be well informed.
With that said, here is some background information to set the stage.
Definition of Organic
Many people don’t know the true meaning of the word “organic.” Some take it to mean natural, pesticide-free and local. Others take it to mean certified to the utmost degree.
Here’s what it means to the United States Department of Agriculture, and for our purposes, the REAL definition of organic:
Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.
I know that language is somewhat ambiguous, so here a few highlights to help explain what those “approved methods” include, in plain English:
- that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms were not used
- pesticides, if used, must be derived from natural sources
- these pesticides must be applied using equipment that has not been used to apply any synthetic materials for the past three years
- the land being planted cannot have been treated with synthetic materials for that period either
- producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors
Another post that you might find helpful is one that I wrote on the labeling of foods in the supermarket. You’ll want to read that one too, if you haven’t already, so you can understand what all the stickers on our produce means.
14 Facts the Organic Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know
(1) Pesticides are allowed in organic production.
Organic advocates often leave the impression that organic farming eliminates the need for pesticides… if that were true, the Organic Materials Review Institute would have no need to list more than 40 pesticides allowed in organic production.
This will come as a big shocker to those who buy organic foods in order to avoid harmful pesticides. It’s true that each one of the 40+ pesticides on the “approved” list are individually reviewed and approved for use, but they’re still pesticides. They’ve been designed to do the same thing as all the other pesticides out there and there’s no guarantee that they’re any safer.
A current list of allowed substances can be found HERE.
(2) Some “natural” chemicals used in organic farming are carcinogenic.
Until recently, nobody bothered to look at natural chemicals (such as organic pesticides), because it was assumed that they posed little risk. But when the studies were done… you find that about half of the natural chemicals studied are carcinogenic as well.
The organic industry has always been deemed “safer” than conventional, so very little attention has been given to testing the chemicals used in organic farming to see whether or not they really are safe. As it turns out, some of the approved chemicals can do just as much harm as some of the “dangerous” chemicals used often in conventional farming.
For families like my own, where we buy organic foods to avoid harmful chemicals, this means that our money spent has essentially been wasted. And in fact, we might be doing more harm than good since the “natural” chemicals haven’t been thoroughly tested.
(3) Organic pesticides aren’t always as effective as synthetic, and may require more application in order to achieve the same protection.
A recent study compared the effectiveness of a rotenone-pyrethrin mixture versus a synthetic pesticide, imidan. Rotenone and pyrethrin are two common organic pesticides; imidan is considered a “soft” synthetic pesticide (i.e., designed to have a brief lifetime after application, and other traits that minimize unwanted effects). It was found that up to 7 applications of the rotenone- pyrethrin mixture were required to obtain the level of protection provided by 2 applications of imidan.
Building on the fact that many organic pesticides haven’t been tested for safety, now we see that farmers are having to use more because they’re not as effective as the chemicals used in conventional farming.
I’m not sure what’s more dangerous – consuming a larger quantity of chemicals that have NOT been tested for safety, or consuming a lesser quantity of chemicals that have been tested for safety…
(4) There are 35 non-synthetic, non-organic substances allowed as ingredients in or on processed products labeled as “organic.”
When you buy organic food items, how often do you read the ingredients? Do you ever? Or do you just trust the organic label and feel better about what you’re buying?
Carrageenan is an ingredient that serves as an emulsifier, making ingredients creamy. It’s also a substance known so well for causing inflammation that it’s used to test anti-inflammatory drugs.
You’ll find this often in items like coconut milk and almond milk, and you’ll find it in both conventional AND organic because it’s on the list of approved non-organic substances allowed to be in foods labeled organic.
(5) There are 43 synthetic, non-organic substances allowed as ingredients in or on processed products labeled as “organic.”
Similar to point #4, except this time we’re talking about non-natural substances, like cellulose and ethylene.
Cellulose is most often found in packages of shredded cheese, to help keep it from clumping. Cellulose is also the fancy name for wood pulp.
Ethylene can be found as a natural plant hormone, and in nature, it’s what triggers the fruit to ripen. In farming however, fruits are picked early so that they can be shipped to far away places without going bad before arrival. Upon arrival, a synthetic variation of ethylene is sprayed on the fruits so that they look ripe on the shelf at the supermarket.
(6) Over 45 non-organically produced ingredients are allowed as ingredients in or on processed products labeled “organic” when the ingredient is not commercially available in organic form.
Basically, an organic processing facility simply has to say that the organic version of such-and-such ingredient isn’t available, and they’re allowed to use the conventional counterpart.
Included in this list is soy lecithin, the leftover sludge waste from processing soybean oil. Cornstarch is also on the list, which is produced from corn… and as of 2011, 88% of corn was genetically modified.
(7) Only 95% of a food item is required to be organic in order to be labeled “organic.”
The other 5% is supposed to come from a list of approved substances, but there are small loopholes that allow things like the casings of sausage, despite the sausage being marketed as such.
It’s also worthy to note some of the items allowed to be in organic foodstuffs aren’t even food, like the synthetic chemicals used in disinfecting washes.
(8) The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Organic Program (NOP) do not certify or inspect companies/foods for certification.
The USDA is the umbrella manager of the NOP.
The NOP creates the policies and regulations for certifying agencies to follow during the certification process.
Neither the USDA or the NOP have specific responsibilities or hands in the day-to-day operations of the organic certification process. Instead, they are simply the managers overseeing that the organic certification is working as it’s supposed to… in the United States. Neither the USDA or the NOP have any control or authority over organic food in other countries.
(9) The company/brand seeking organic certification pays the accrediting company.
The accrediting company not only offers the original certification, but they also offer the annual re-certification of being organic.
To put this into perspective, it would be similar to paying a police officer to help you when they respond to a 911 call… or paying the officer as they patrol the neighborhood… or paying the officer when they arrest you.
While most companies are honest, this arrangement clearly creates a potential conflict of interest where fraudulent certifications and under-the-table payments for signatures and accreditation can be easily obtained and forged.
(10) Two of the three major organic certifying companies are for-profit. Only one organization is non-profit.
Quality Assurance International (QAI) is the largest certifying company of organic foods, and it is for-profit. California Certified Organic Farmers is also for-profit.
Oregon Tilth was founded as a non-profit company and still is.
The fact that the certifying companies are businesses seeking to obtain and maintain profit, it should be even more concerning that they’re being paid by the ones they certify.
(11) The actual certification to become organic, and follow-up inspections of companies certified organic, is often outsourced to a third-party.
The major organic certifying companies usually do not have offices in faraway places, nor do they have the funds to travel to faraway locations to certify and/or inspect for themselves. As the result, these tasks are often outsourced to another third-party company.
If you’re following along, here’s an example of how far removed the farm can be from your fork:
- USDA/NOP certifies QAI (QAI pays USDA/NOP).
- QAI certifies Muir Glen as an organic tomato processing plant (Muir Glen pays QAI)
- QAI outsources the organic certification of the remote tomato farm to a third-party (the tomato farm pays the third-party, and the third-party pays USDA/NOP)
- Your local grocery store buys organic tomatoes from Muir Glen and has no clue where the tomatoes truly came from (and to be honest, Muir Glen might not know either).
If you think I’m exaggerating when I say your store won’t know where your food came from, check out this photo I shared on Instagram where my ground beef (bought from Trader Joe’s) was labeled to be from four different continents.
Quality of the Food
(12) Organic foods may be cross-contaminated with conventional versions of the same food.
Both organic and conventional avocados are grown in Mexico. These avocados are likely grown in neighboring fields, and processed in the same facility. The risk of cross-contamination between conventional avocados and organic avocados, as well as any other food item, increases with each step away from the farm… the farm itself, shipment to a plant, during processing, during packaging, during shipment and during the stocking of the shelves.
Since the NOP doesn’t specify the width between organic fields and conventional fields (they simply state “sufficient to prevent contamination“), conventional and organic foods could grow – and everything that goes with the process – right next door to each other with minimal interference.
Depending on how well each farmer/processor/shipper regards the rules for organic in their own country, the risk could be exponentially far greater. The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention has a database containing several cases of where organic food items have been contaminated with their conventional counterpart. That database is HERE.
From the consumer’s standpoint, once the bin is full, the avocados will be labeled organic. Whether it really is or not we don’t know, because you can’t judge whether an avocado is organic or conventional by looks alone.
(13) Organic foods may be “watered down.”
Say we’re dealing with an almond grower, and they grow both organic and conventional almonds. The grower ships the harvested almonds to the processing plant, where the nuts are hulled, shelled and pasteurized.
Conventional almonds may be mixed with organic almonds – intentionally or unintentionally – in order to produce a higher yield of “organic” almonds. While this is against NOP rules, it happens nonetheless.
The NOP receives about 200 complaints of fraud each year, with Harold Chase and his selling of conventional corn as organic corn being one of the recent ones happening in the U.S. You can view a list of companies found with fraudulent organic certificates HERE, along with other cases investigated and closed by the NOP HERE.
(14) Annual sales of organic food totals about $27 billion each year, yet there are only 27 employees in the NOP.
The NOP has no dealings with the day-to-day operations in the organic industry. In short, they’re responsible for creating the rules, enforcing the rules, and handling complaints and disputes that arise from breaking the rules. Yet the NOP is severely understaffed to handle these issues.
With only one staff member for every $1 billion in sales each year, the NOP is forced to be a reactive organization, rather than a proactive organization for the organic industry.
Note: The $27 billion figure was as of 2011. Within a couple of years, the organic sales total yielded over $52 billion worldwide.
Eating real food is truly a journey, and sometimes it feels like it would be easier to just cover our eyes with a blanket and stop asking so many questions. But knowing why we do the things we do is what keeps us on this journey, helping us to continue making good, smart choices with the food we buy and the money we spend.
Do you buy organic food? Is it to avoid pesticides? Because it tastes better? Because it’s “healthier?”
Regardless of what you buy, make sure you know why. If you don’t, stick around because this post is only the tip of the iceberg!!