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A lot of people worry about that one little word. “Organic.” But is organic really all it’s cracked up to be?
I bring this up because on more than one occasion recently, I’ve had a reader ask if they should choose something local (raised in a high-quality manner, but not labeled ‘organic’) or the commercial ‘organic’ version. To me this is a no-brainer. But we’re so concerned about that little word that it seems to really make people hesitate. Let’s explore it further.
What Does “Organic” Really Mean?
If you are out and about and you need a snack, “organic” may mean that it’s healthier. If you have no local option, then “organic” guarantees that at least no chemical pesticides or herbicides were used, and that it’s not GMO. It’s a guaranteed “better” option. That does not make it good, however.
Organic basically means:
- No pesticides (except what’s on the ‘allowed’ list)
- No herbicides (except what’s on the ‘allowed’ list)
- No GMOs (unless cross-contamination has accidentally occurred)
- Animals must get 30% of their feed from pasture (70% can be grain)
- Processed foods must use at least 70% organically-grown ingredients
That’s really it. It doesn’t make any claims about the actual healthfulness of the product or food, nor does it talk about the way it was raised.
Organic produce could be raised in a mono-crop system with “naturally derived” fertilizers and pesticides. Or it could be raised on an intensive crop-rotation system with only compost and fish oil for fertilizers. There’s no telling. The latter is going to be more nutrient-dense than the former.
Organic meat or animal products could be raised fully on pasture with no grain supplements. Or it could be raised in a modified feedlot, where the majority of the diet is grain and the animal is grain-finished. The former will be a lot more nutritious.
Organic packaged foods could be made with a few very simple ingredients, either raw or cooked gently and nourishing. Or, they can be made with modified corn starch, vegetable oils, and other really not-so-healthy ingredients. It’s hard to tell unless you read the label and learn about the company’s practices.
Image by SummerTomato
Why Organic Isn’t Really That Important
If your only choice for a food item is the “regular” version or the organic version, both purchased from a store, then choose organic if you can. It will minimize the pesticides, herbicides, GMOs, etc. that your family ingests. Organic is still safer, especially when we’re talking about animal products or the dirty dozen.
But if you’ve got local options, throw the whole “organic” idea out the window.
Many local farmers do not bother to get organic certified. The certification takes a lot of time to get and it costs a lot of money. It isn’t feasible for many farms to do it. Plus, as explained above, the word “organic” alone does not tell you anything about that farmer’s beliefs or practices or the true health of his animals or nutrient-density of his final products. (Or her final products. Our milk farmer is a woman!)
When you find local farmers, talk to them. Ask about their practices. You want answers to questions like these:
- What do they feed their animals?
- How do they fertilize their crops?
- Do they use crop rotation?
- If their animals get any grains, which ones and how much?
- What are their philosophies about farmer?
I have run into farmers who think that it is “impossible” to farm without pesticides or herbicides. I have run into farmers who were actually defensive about these practices when I asked a simple question (“do you spray?”). I refuse to give the latter category my business. If you can’t answer a simple question honestly and convince me that your way is best without being rude, I won’t do business with you. I might do business with the former category…depending on the other options in my area.
I have also run into farmers who use crop rotation, raise fully pastured animals, and are very knowledgeable and passionate about it. I love to do business with these farmers and consider myself fortunate to have met them and be able to buy from them. I especially love when I am able to visit their farm and see their facilities directly and ask them lots of questions. I like to get to know my farmers!
In many cases, what you find will be some sort of “compromise.” For example, the cows might be 100% pastured in the summer, but receive some grain supplementation in the winter. Or the chickens will be given feed in addition to roaming around the fields (many farmers still believe it isn’t possible to completely free-range chickens…but it is. Much harder if you have a large group though). They may employ crop rotation and manual pest removal (literally, walking the fields and killing/removing bugs by hand) but also use low-toxicity sprays early in the season but never on the fruit itself. I have run into quite a lot of this.
It’s up to you to make the call on what you’re comfortable with, but knowing a farmer’s practices and that they are probably better than average is a good thing.
Plus, there’s the fact that if you buy local, you’re supporting local businesses and keeping the money in your local economy. And, you often get better prices than if you bought organic at a health food store. 🙂 I can’t find grass-fed (probably grain-finished) beef for under $6/lb. or whole organic chickens under $3.50/lb., but I can buy local grass-fed beef for $3.50/lb. or less and chickens for $2/lb. I save money, support local, and am probably getting higher quality food. How can that be wrong?
The Bottom Line
Always source local first. If you do not have a local option, look for organic. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that organic “packaged” food is healthy (plus it’s really expensive). More information about your food and a better connection to it is always better.
Do you care about the “organic” label or not?
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