By now, most American consumers are familiar with the concept of organic food, and it is generally accepted that organic growing practices yield produce that is tastier, healthier and more environmentally-friendly than traditionally grown fruits and vegetables. These advantages stem from the fact that organic growers rely on natural methods to cultivate their crops, and eschew the use of harmful chemicals. The main goal of organic agriculture is to farm in a way that promotes biodiversity and works with the land, rather than against it.
Many consumers have come to view the “Organic” label as assurance that produce has been grown entirely without the use of synthetic chemicals. While it’s true that organic foods have been exposed to significantly fewer chemicals than traditionally grown produce, US Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines do permit the use of some synthetic chemicals.
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What Makes Produce ‘Organic’, Anyway?
In order for produce to be labeled USDA Certified Organic, the farm must undergo inspection and growers must provide documentation that their growing and handling methods fall within the guidelines of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). Broadly speaking, these guidelines prohibit the use of substances that have been found to adversely affect the environment and/or human health.
Many chemicals used in commercial pesticides and fertilizers pose a variety of health risks, with problems ranging from acute poisoning symptoms to long term physical and behavioral changes. Many have been labeled suspected or confirmed carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) and/or groundwater contaminants. Additionally, these chemicals create hostile condition for organisms, both good and bad, that live in the soil and can leach the soil of its natural nutrients, over time rendering the land unusable.
Organic growers, on the other hand, rely primarily on natural rather than synthetic resources. Compost and manure take the place of chemical fertilizers, predatory insects, such as ladybugs, can be used to control pest populations and yearly crop rotations help prevent the spread of disease.
These natural methods can go a long way the cultivation of healthy crops, but the fact remains that commercial growing, even on a small scale, would be nearly impossible without the use of some chemicals. The USDA places fairly rigid restrictions on which synthetic substances organic farmers can and cannot use, but the use of chemicals persists, even in organic agriculture.
What’s Allowed In My Organic Food?
Growers participating in the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) are restricted to the use of chemicals found on the NOP’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. This list contains only chemicals that have been classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as either List 4A or List 4B ingredients. Substances found on these lists are believed to pose minimal risks to human health and the environment when used as pesticides.
This approach is probably the most practical option for growers looking to minimize their impact on the environment, but it is not without its drawbacks. In 1996 the EPA began a reassessment of the ingredients on lists 4A and 4B and after a decade of research decided to remove eight substances from List 4A after determining that these substances did not, in fact, meet the EPA’s safety guidelines. This means that several substances once thought to be harmless and permitted for use in organic farming were subsequently banned. Although the EPA completed its assessment in 2006, changes to the National List did not take effect until 2010.
Today the NOP’s National List continues to undergo revisions. A document released by the USDA in January, 2010 reviewed proposed amendments to the National List that would allow the use of one previously prohibited substance and amend the restrictions on an allowed substance.
All this goes to show that the regulations behind organic growing methods are not as cut and dry as we might like to believe. Chemicals allowed in organic food today may be banned from organic farming a year from now, raising questions about just how much weight the organic label carries.
Is Organic Really The Best Option?
When it comes to buying food, choosing items labeled “USDA Organic” is probably the simplest way to reduce your exposure to harsh chemicals and your impact on the environment. For some, revisions to the National List may cast doubt on the legitimacy of this label, but these revisions can also be interpreted as evidence that federal regulating bodies remain vigilant about consumer health; the EPA, USDA and FDA continue to reevaluate substances used in agriculture and will remove them from the National List if they fail to meet t NOSB guidelines.
That said, our understanding of the effects of chemicals is still evolving, and lists like those used by the NOSB often reflect the limits of our knowledge.
Rather than simply relying on government-issued labels, consumers who are really concerned with what’s used in their produce need to go to the source, the farmer. Farmers’ markets provide an excellent opportunity to speak directly with growers; they also promote local farms which further reduce the environmental impact by cutting down on fuel consumption used in transport. In some cases, buying locally may be the better option, even if the produce is not Certified Organic.
The bottom line: Consumers looking for produce grown 100 percent chemical-free will need to look a little further than the “USDA Organic” sticker.
National Agriculture Library. 2007. Organic production and organic food: information access tools.
Pesticide Action Network. 2010. PAN pesticide database.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. January, 2010. National Organic Program; proposed amendments to the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (crops). Federal Registrar, Vol. 75, No. 7.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. September, 2010. Guidance: reassessed inert ingredients.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Organic Program. 2008. Certification.