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What is Organic? | Certified Organic vs Sustainable

Mar 25, 2014 8:30:00 AM

Anyone born later than the 1950s lives in a world filled with messages designed to influence consumption. This sea of information subtly shapes our attitudes and influences our buying choices. Many modern marketers utilize socially conscious terms like sustainable and organic to tempt consumers to try products that, in many cases, don't live up to the hype. The best way to ensure that the products you use are truly organic or made in a sustainable manner is to carefully study the ways they are packaged and labeled.

What is Organic?

If you ask most people what organic means, they'll probably say that it refers to food grown or reared in a natural manner without the use of chemicals. Products that are advertised as “organic” must be labeled showing that they are produced according to specific guidelines published by the government. In the United States, organic products are managed under the provisions of the Organic Food Productions Act.  According to the USDA Organic Program:

“Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.  Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled ‘organic,’ a government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. “

Only products certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture may carry the USDA organic seal.

Look closely at the label if you want to make sure that the products you use are produced in a sustainable manner without the use of harsh chemical fertilizers or antibiotics. Products carrying the USDA organic seal must contain more than 95% organic content. This applies to fresh foods as well as packaged agricultural products.

Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.

Organic Certification Not Always Necessary

The makers of most organic products are committed to sustainable agriculture, meat and dairy production and earth friendly manufacturing. Buying certified organic produce, meats and manufactured goods protects the environment by reducing the amounts of toxic chemicals, powerful fertilizers and synthetic growth hormones getting back into the environment. It is healthy for your family, your community and the earth as a whole.

Keep in mind that not all food products that otherwise conform to the above organic standards are labeled as organic.  Many farmers consider the certification process for obtaining the right to market their products as “organic” to be cost or time prohibitive so they don’t bother with the process.   In an ideal world, consumers should know their farmer, ask them about their practices and read about their farming practices on their websites if available. Additionally, many fruits and vegetables like blueberries, sweet potatoes, and avocados need little to no pesticides to grow naturally so you can buy them without the “organic” label.

Absent an organic label, look for the products that carry labeling to indicate sustainable practices. Eggs, dairy and meats labeled organic often carry labeling showing how the animals are reared. Look for terms like cage free, and free range when buying meat and eggs. This indicates the animals are allowed access to pasture grazing and are not kept penned up. Free range, grass fed and cage free meats and dairy are more nutritious and contain less harmful cholesterol than those produced under industrial farming methods. Look for meats and poultry labeled hormone free. These products won't contain the growth hormones or steroids found in other meats.

Organic and sustainable aren't just modern buzzwords or a cool new trend, these products are carefully produced under strict regulation by the USDA. Every year their inspectors audit thousands of farms and organic processing sites to make sure the regulations are followed. Make sure you get the full scoop on buying organic; take the time to read the labeling carefully before you buy.

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Topics: Sustainability

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