We had very few tools to navigate our shopping experience until the popularization of universal labels like “organic.” Codified by the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Organic Food Production Act (OFPA), the term “organic” revolutionized the way Americans buy food. Because these phrases are easy recognizable and government regulated, Americans finally found a way to find and buy better food simply by seeking out buzz words and labels we are convinced we can trust.
And trust them we do. Most consumers probably do not think twice about organically labeled foods and instead think of them as green light products that are good to buy. This, in itself is not wrong. The organic label has simplified information for the average consumer making it easier to buy better foods for their family. But foods passing the USDA organic requirements are not necessarily better for your, the environment or the animals we eat.
The organic label, it turns out, gives little actual information about where our food comes from and how it arrives in our hands. In truth, the term organic is only vaguely defined by the USDA as food produced “without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation” as well as by farmers who emphasize “the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.” These guidelines focus solely on growing and raising crops and animals which is only a portion of the process food undergoes before reaching your mouth.
The label leaves out vital information about how organically grown foods are processed. The USDA definition of organic has no real regulations on the food once it has left the organic farm. “Organic” doesn’t necessarily speak to how foods are transported across the country, grown out of season using enormous amounts of energy or the horrible living conditions, treatment and slaughtering practices of cattle, pork and poultry- other important things to think about when buying food.
And this is just the beginning. For example, feed lot confined organically fed cattle, which live in restricted dirt lot eating organic grain or corn, could be mistaken as better than grass fed cattle because the latter is missing the organic label. The term organic is much broader than people think. There are industrial organic farms that transport and export food long distances, local organic farms supplying food items to make processed non-organically certified foods, imported organic foods, organically fed battery caged hens who lay organic eggs, organically fed cattle confined to feed lots, and the list goes on. The word “organic” simply is not enough to navigate our current food industry.
With so much conflicting information coming from different stakeholders- the food industry, advertisements, popular books, documentary films, governmental departments- we can no longer believe in the goodness of the organic label.
With extreme frustration we often ask ourselves what should we buy and from where should we buy it. Consumers like you and me often times feel overwhelmed by information or compelled to change their buying habits but have no idea where to start. “Voting with your dollar” is not so easy when you no longer know what we should vote for. So what can we do?
One simple answer is to buy locally grown and produced foods when you can and shop intelligently when you can’t. This may seem daunting but give it a try. Start with one food product. Before your next trip to the supermarket, focus on one item- pick one thing- tomatoes today (maybe eggs in March, yogurt in April). By looking online or reading a book on seasonal produce, you may find that your tomatoes are not in season and should instead buy winter squash. You can then investigate how your squash are grown and where and how they are processed. Buying locally, whether from a farmer’s market, a local foods store or a co-op, gives you an opportunity to engage with your food and find out more about how it reached your refrigerator shelf. Organic might be the answer but it might not be.
Changing your buying habits, even if for just one product at a time, will bring you closer to your food. Being closer to your food means knowing more about where it comes from. And as the saying goes, knowledge is power to create change. And let’s face it, with an epidemic of obesity and other nutrition related chronic diseases, disparate access to fresh fruits and vegetables, outbreaks of food contamination, and inhumane treatment of farm animals, change is what the American food industry needs right now.