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Farm to Label: Are Organics Really Better?
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Farm to Label: Are Organics Really Better?

Today, in a consumer culture that’s hyperaware of GMOs, hard-to-pronounce chemical additives, and harmful contaminants, organic food is big business. But is it really any better for you and the Earth, or is it all just a crafty marketing ploy? We dug in and peeled back the USDA-certified labels to find out what exactly organic is and what it’s not. Here’s what we found:

Big trend, big business.

  • In 2013, the U.S. sold $760 billion worth of food.
    • Organic sales made up 4.25% of that or $32.3 billion.
  • 10% of all fruit and vegetable sales are organic.
  • Organic products are available in 3 out of 4 (73%) conventional grocery stores.
  • Organic foods have generated half a million American jobs.
  • In 2012, 81% of US families bought organic.
  • Since 2010, the average yearly food sale rate is growing at 3%, while the average yearly organic food sale rate is growing at 10%.
  • The organic food market is comprised of:
    • 35.9% Fruits and vegetables
    • 15.2% Dairy
    • 14.9% Packaged/prepared foods
    • 12.4% Beverages
    • 11.8% Breads and grains
    • 5.3% Snack foods
    • 2.6% Condiments
    • 2.1% Meat, fish, poultry
  • In 2013, wholesale organic veggies cost almost 2x as much as conventionally grown veggies.
  • In 2013, wholesale organic fruits cost almost 1.6x as much as conventionally grown fruits.
  • In 2011, the U.S. had 843,866,715 acres of agricultural land.
    • Organic agricultural land made up 0.6% of that or 5,383,119 acres.
    • There are over 17,750 organic certified farms, ranches, and businesses in the US.
  • 93% of organic food sales are in retail supermarkets, while 7% of organic food sales are in farmer’s markets, which are growing fast.
    • In 1994 there were 1,755 farmer’s markets.
    • In 2013 there were 8,144 farmer’s markets.

Organic food sales (billions), by kind and year

Year Fruit and vegetables Dairy Packaged/prepared foods Beverages Breads and grains Snack foods Condiments Meat, fish, poultry TOTAL
2005 $5.369 $2.140 $1.627 $1.657 $1.360 $0.561 $0.341 $0.256 $13.3
2006 $6.068 $2.579 $1.887 $1.934 $1.651 $0.680 $0.417 $0.345 $15.6
2007 $6.932 $3.081 $2.164 $2.302 $1.949 $0.840 $0.522 $0.476 $18.3
2008 $7.799 $3.406 $2.396 $2.599 $2.133 $0.949 $0.636 $0.606 $20.5
2009 $8.658 $3.373 $2.498 $2.587 $2.210 $0.972 $0.675 $0.618 $21.6
2010 $9.689 $3.681 $2.574 $2.708 $2.328 $1.060 $0.724 $0.644 $23.4
2011 $10.844 $4.028 $2.768 $2.921 $2.480 $1.163 $0.783 $0.724 $25.7
2012 $10.087 $4.537 $4.364 $3.810 $3.393 $1.478 $0.709 $0.608 $29.0
2013 $11.600 $4.900 $4.800 $4.000 $3.800 $1.700 $0.830 $0.675 $32.3

Wholesale vegetable prices, organic and conventional, 2013

Vegetable Package Type Cost
Globe Artichoke 24 Piece Carton Conventional $25.79
Organic $32.18
Green Cabbage 45 lb Carton Conventional $15.28
Organic $42.08
Carrots 25 lb Sack Conventional $9.60
Organic $24.56
White Cauliflower 12 Piece Carton Conventional $21.69
Organic $37.11
Swiss Chard 24 Piece Carton Conventional $25.94
Organic $34.68
Lettuce 24 Piece Carton Conventional $19.70
Organic $35.51
Mesculin Mix 3 lb Carton Conventional $6.56
Organic $11.08
Yellow Onions 40 lb Carton Conventional $22.20
Organic $35.25
Flat Spinach 24 Piece Carton Conventional $20.13
Organic $39.60
Russet Potatoes 50 lb Carton Conventional $15.05
Organic $39.01
Cherry Tomatoes 12 Pints Conventional $18.02
Organic $43.88
Sweet Potatoes 40 lb Carton Conventional $22.25
Organic $35.49

Wholesale fruit prices, organic and conventional, 2013

Fruit Package Type Cost
Apples 80 piece carton Conventional $35.05
Organic $53.11
Avocados 2 layer carton Conventional $34.69
Organic $53.17
Raspberries 12 6-oz cups Conventional $29.99
Organic $36.97
Strawberries 8 1-lb containers Conventional $15.70
Organic $27.08
Bananas 40 lb carton Conventional $15.59
Organic $25.69
Oranges 7/10 bushel carton Conventional $21.67
Organic $36.61
Pears 4/5 bushel carton Conventional $35.13
Organic $57.64

Number of farmer’s markets, by year

1994 1755
1996 2410
1998 2746
2000 2863
2002 3137
2004 3706
2006 4385
2008 4685
2010 6132
2012 7864
2014 8268

Is organic farming really worth it?

The Farming Systems Trial: Since 1981, the Rodale Institute has been conducting a side-by-side study of organic vs conventional farming.

According to the study, there is an initial decline in yields when a farm transitions from a conventional system to an organic system. But the long term benefits for organic farming surpasses that of the conventional farming.

After 30 years of research, here’s what the study found:

  • Carbon in the soil, an indicator of soil health, has increased over time in the organic system while the conventional system is essentially unchanged.
  • Organic soil retains 15-20% more water than conventional soil.
  • Organic systems yield slightly more crops than conventional systems and with better weed tolerance and no pesticides.
    • Organic: 4,079 pounds/acre/year
    • Conventional: 4,022 pounds/acre/year
  • During moderate drought, organic corn yields were 31% higher than conventionally grown corn.
    • Genetically engineered “drought tolerant” corn yields were only 6.7%-13.3% higher than conventionally grown corn.
  • Traditional plant breeding and farming methods have increased yields of major grain crops three to four times more than genetically modified crops.
  • Organic systems are nearly 3x more profitable.
    • Conventional systems on average:
      • cost: $305/acre/year
      • sell: $495/acre/year
      • profit: $190/acre/year
    • Organic systems on average:
      • cost: $277/acre/year
      • sell: $835/acre/year
      • profit: $558/acre/year
  • The conventional system uses 40% more energy than the organic system.
    • Organic system: 3,264 megajoule/acre/year
    • Conventional system: 4,568 megajoule/acre/year
  • The conventional system emits 55% more greenhouse gasses than the organic system.
    • Organic system: 906 poundsCO2/hectare/year
    • Conventional system: 1400 poundsCO2/hectare/year

According to the United Nations:

  • Organic agriculture provides 30% more jobs per hectare than non-organic farms.
  • Eco-farming methods could double global food production in just 10 years.

 Conventional farming relies on expensive inputs, fuels climate change and is not resilient to climatic shocks. It simply is not the best choice anymore today. A large segment of the scientific community now acknowledges the positive impacts of agroecology on food production, poverty alleviation and climate change mitigation
– Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food

So what exactly is organic?

According to the National Organic Program:

“Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”

The term “organic” is just one of over 146 “eco-labels”, such as:

  • Natural / All Natural
    • The natural label only applies to processing of meat and egg products, not farm practices or anything that does not contain meat or eggs.
    • Meat and egg products labeled as “natural” may not contain any artificial flavorings, color ingredients, chemical preservatives, or artificial or synthetic ingredients
    • They must be processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.
    • They may contain antibiotics, growth hormones, and other similar chemicals.
    • Regulated by the USDA.
    • No mandatory third-party certifier.
  • Free-range / Free-roaming
    • The flock was provided shelter in an enclosed area with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle.
    • Regulated by the USDA.
    • No mandatory third-party certifier.
  • Cage-free
    • The flock is able to freely roam in an enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle, but they generally do not have access to the outdoors.
    • Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are still permitted.
    • Not regulated by the USDA.
    • No mandatory third-party certifier.
  • Grass-fed
    • Grass-fed animals receive a majority of their nutrients from grass throughout their life, while organic animals’ pasture diet may be supplemented with grain.
    • Does not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides.
    • Regulated by the USDA.
    • No mandatory third-party certifier.
  • Humane
    • Multiple labeling programs make claims that animals were treated humanely during the production cycle, but the verification of these claims varies widely.
    • Not regulated by the USDA.
    • No mandatory third-party certifier.
  • No hormones added / Raised without hormones
    • Federal regulations have never permitted hormones or steroids in poultry, pork, or goat. However, it does allow the use of hormones on beef.
    • The USDA has banned the term hormone-free.
    • Regulated by the USDA.
    • No mandatory third-party certifier.
  • No antibiotics added / Raised without antibiotics
    • Meat and poultry carrying these labels must not have had any antibiotics administered during the lifetime of the animal.
    • The USDA has banned the term antibiotic-free.
    • Regulated by the USDA.
    • No mandatory third-party certifier.

How “organic” is the organic label?

In general:

  • Organic crops do not use:
    • irradiation
    • sewage sludge
    • synthetic fertilizers
    • prohibited pesticides
    • genetically modified organisms
  • Organic livestock
    • meets animal health and welfare standards
    • do not use antibiotics or growth hormones
    • do use 100% organic feed
    • provided animals with access to the outdoors

But, not all “organic” labels are created equal.

Did you know that your “organic” food can contain newspaper, traces of pesticides, and even phosphoric acid?

As long as those ingredients don’t exceed a certain percentage, the USDA allows non-organic ingredients in your USDA-certified “organic” food. There’s even a USDA-approved “National List” of exempted substances.

“100% Organic”

  • All ingredients must be certified organic.
  • Any processing aids must be organic.
  • Must identify ingredients.
  • Must state the name of the certifying agent on the information panel.
  • May use the USDA organic seal and the “100% organic” claim.

“Organic”

  • Must contain at least 95% organic ingredients (not including water and salt).
  • Must not contain added sulfites.
  • May contain up to 5% non-organic ingredients that are either:
    • not available commercially in organic form
    • on the USDA-approved exemption list
  • Must identify ingredients.
  • Must identify organic ingredients as “organic [ingredient].”
  • Must state the name of the certifying agent on the information panel.
  • May use the USDA organic seal and the “[95+]% organic” claim.

“Made With Organic [ingredient]“

  • Must contain at least 70% organic ingredients (not including water and salt).
  • Must not contain added sulfites (excluding wine).
  • May contain up to 30% non-organic ingredients that are either:
    • including those on the USDA-approved exemption list
  • Must identify ingredients.
  • Must identify organic ingredients as “organic [ingredient].”
  • Must state the name of the certifying agent on the information panel.
  • May claim “[70+]% organic” and the term “Made With Organic [ingredient]“
  • Must NOT use the USDA organic seal or represent finished product as organic.

“[x]% organic [ingredient]“

  • May contain less than 70% organic ingredients (not including water and salt).
  • Must NOT use the USDA organic seal or represent finished product as organic.
  • Must NOT show the certifying agent’s seal.
  • May ONLY claim “X% organic [ingredient]” in the information panel and the ingredient list, NOT the front panel. No other reference to organic content is allowed.

So they must be more nutritious, right?

According to a 2010 Nielsen study, most organic food consumers believe their food is more nutritious.

  • 76% believe that organic food is healthier.
  • 53% want to avoid pesticides and other toxins.
  • 51% believe that organic food is more nutritious.
  • 49% want to better the environment.
  • 45% say organic food tastes better
  • 37% want to avoid genetically modified food
  • 35% want to help small rural communities
  • 31% say it’s the right thing to do
  • 10% disapprove of modern farming methods

But researchers have found that organic foods do not contain any more vitamins or minerals than conventional foods (with the only exception being phosphorus, which we all have sufficient amounts of anyway).

There’s nothing in organic foods themselves that make them more nutritious than non-organics.

If organics aren’t extra nutritious, why spend extra money?

It’s not about becoming Superman. It’s about avoiding Kryptonite.

But, you’re still not completely safe with organics: Detectable pesticide residue has been found in 7% of organic produce and 38% of conventional produce (because of pesticide drift from nearby fields or long-lasting pesticides left over in the soil).

How did we get these pesticides?

Since the beginning, farming has been “organic.” In fact, organic farming is some of the oldest technology on the planet.

And then in 1939, chemist Paul Muller developed DDT, the first of a new class of insecticides called chlorinated hydrocarbons to counter the pest problems.

Then in 1962, marine biologist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a book that criticized the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The title Silent Spring refers to the ultimate disappearance of songbirds because of the effects of Paul Muller’s DDT.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, the organic movement took hold in Britain and then much of Europe. From there it spread to Australia, as part of the “be natural” approach.

The 1970s and 1980s saw the modern day “organic” movement spring to life as customers grew increasingly concerned over the health hazards associated with the use of chemicals in food.

In 1990, The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) authorized a new USDA National Organic Program (NOP) to set national standards for the production, handling, and processing of organically grown agricultural products.

Through the 1990s, supermarkets started introducing organic products onto their shelves, products that where previously only offered at health food stores.

Today, organic products occupy prime shelf space in the big chain supermarkets.

The modern day organic movement isn’t modern at all. It aims to return to original farming practices while opposing the questionable techniques of modern farming.

This is why the Organics Institute calls it “more of a renaissance than a revolution.”

So are organics really better?

After thirty years of study, the Rodale Institute concludes that:

“organic methods are improving the quality of our food, improving the health of our soils and water, and improving our nation’s rural areas. Organic agriculture is creating more jobs, providing a livable income for farmers, and restoring America’s confidence in our farming community and food system.”


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