By Sean Boone
You round the produce aisle at your local grocer and are confronted with two choices: a conventional section of fruits and vegetables and an organic one.
You pick up two competing apples. Both look identical, but in many ways they are different.
Although organic agriculture is not a new practice by any means, its popularity has skyrocketed in the past decade despite a limited, pricier selection in comparison to the counter practice.
Since 2001, more than $9 billion worth of organic products have been sold, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“It’s definitely a growing sector,” says Michael P. Hoffmann, director of Cornell University’s Agricultural Experiment Station.
Hoffmann says Cornell has been working for decades to react to the stakeholder needs in the agriculture workforce. Now that organics have become a more important part of the industry, more focus has been put on the practice.
“We have 20 acres in one of our farms for research related to vegetable productions and a dozen acres of outlying farms that focus on grain as well as another 5-10 acres up in the northern part of New York,” Hoffmann explains.
In 2002, the USDA began putting labels on all approved organic foods, providing consumers with more assurance that what they are getting is truly “all-natural.” Those who are found to be selling fake organics can be fined up to $10,000.
When you are out shopping, look for the three USDA organic labels:
—100 percent organic: products that are completely organic or made of all organic ingredients.
—Organic: products that are at least 95 percent organic.
—Made with organic ingredients: these are products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients. The organic seal can’t be used on these packages.
Anything less than 70 percent is considered non-organic.
There have been conflicting studies over the years on whether or not organics taste better than conventional foods or if they truly are more beneficial to the environment or a person’s health.
But one thing can be agreed upon—organics aren’t bad for you. In fact, a substantial amount of research shows that organic farming is better for both the grower and the consumer.
Organic farmers don’t use pesticides or chemical fertilizers on their crops; they use such practices as laying manure, composting and using beneficial insects instead. Animals are not injected with hormones or antibiotics and are given more room to roam, which cuts down on disease.
The practice has also allowed many smaller farmers to compete in the market. According to a report from Scientific American, conventional and integrated systems generally break even in 15-16 years whereas organic fields will do the same in nine. Another report from the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture states that organic farms can out-produce conventional farms by 70-90 percent during drought times.
Organic farms have also opened the door to many urban growers—particularly young adults trying to get into the “field.”
“Because organic productions are more profitable for farmers, a lot of young people have been able to get into growing,” says Charles Mueller, a senior research associate at Cornell.
Mueller has been studying organic methods of farming since the early 1980s, including projects on such things as alternative weed management and soil quality. He says it wasn’t until this decade that federal money was allocated for research into organic practices.
“For a long time, you couldn’t write a grant with the word organic in it. That changed in the last 10 years, and now you have money specifically for organic agriculture.
“Overall, organic production has seen a two-digit increase for decades. Eventually, we had an expediential growth that is large enough to where people are paying attention. The standardization from USDA has also contributed to some demand and interest.”
WHERE TO FIND
Nearly every grocer in America now carries organic products on their shelves. In Pensacola, Ever’man Natural Foods sells an exclusive organic produce line, but large grocers such as Publix and even Wal-Mart have made great strides in recent years to provide such products.
One thing to remember is that just because the label says it’s natural, doesn’t mean it’s organic. Check for the USDA label, or if shopping at a local farmer’s market, ask the manager where the product originated.
COMPARISON: ORGANIC VS. CONVENTIONAL (From USDA)
—Nutrition. No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than conventionally-grown food. And the USDA, even though it certifies organic food, doesn’t claim that these products are safer or more nutritious.
—Quality and appearance. Organic foods meet the same quality and safety standards as conventional foods. The difference lies in how the food is produced, processed and handled. You may find that organic fruits and vegetables spoil faster because they aren’t treated with waxes or preservatives. Also, expect less-than-perfect appearances in some organic produce including odd shapes, varying colors and perhaps smaller sizes. In most cases, however, organic foods look identical to their conventional counterparts.
—Pesticides. Conventional growers use pesticides to protect their crops from molds, insects and diseases. When farmers spray pesticides, it can leave residue on produce. Some people buy organic food to limit their exposure to these residues. Most experts agree, however, that the amount of pesticides found on fruits and vegetables poses a very small health risk.
—Environment. Some people buy organic food for environmental reasons. Organic farming practices are designed to benefit the environment by reducing pollution and conserving water and soil.
—Cost. Most organic food costs more than conventional food products. Higher prices are due to more expensive farming practices, tighter government regulations and lower crop yields. Because organic farmers don’t use herbicides or pesticides, many management tools that control weeds and pests are labor intensive. For example, organic growers may weed vegetables by hand to control the weeds, thus you may end up paying more for these vegetables.
—Taste. Some people say that they can taste the difference between organic and non-organic food. Others say they find no difference. Taste is a subjective and personal consideration, so decide for yourself. But whether you buy organic or not, finding the freshest foods available may have the biggest impact on taste.
For more information on organic agriculture, visit ams.usda.gov.