You can tell a lot about the concerns of society regarding science by the kinds of topics that bring people to sites like ours. Not a day goes by that people don't arrive using Google searches looking for answers about organic food. The top query is something like 'what is organic food?' and it seems odd that after hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising and $20 billion in sales, no one is sure what organic food is.
There are two sides to the organic food issue to most people; genetics and chemicals. I don't worry too much about organic food from a genetics standpoint, for example, but I am not a fan of most chemicals. I am not even a fan of other people touching my food. If I had my way, I would grow, kill, clean and cook everything my family eats but that isn't always practical. I can't grow my own coffee beans, for example, so there has to be some some level of trust that other people aren't using poisons in our food but generally I have no problem with pesticides.
What is organic food?
The genetic-organic issue occupies a different segment. There are people rightfully concerned that genetic modification of fruits or vegetables can lead to unknown consequences. I understand that concern - messing with genes or weather or economies when you aren't absolutely certain what will happen can lead to disaster - only activists insist some action is better than no action regardless of consequence. In looking at the history of agriculture, almost everything is 'genetically modified', they just use a different name for it. Tomatoes would be the size of our thumbs without genetic modification.
A genetically modified, or even cloned, cow that digests grain and produces milk is not in any way producing 'genetically modified' milk that can harm anyone. Anyone believing otherwise believes that there are different elements that compose the 'natural' world and the world of science and that just isn't the case. It's all living matter, built of the same carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms.
Professor Lee Silver is a columnist here and author of Challenging Nature: The clash of biotechnology and spirituality(2006) and he put it much more succinctly than I can:
... organic food is defined not by any material substance in the food itself, but instead by the "holistic" methods used on organic farms. Furthermore, the physical attributes of the product and any effects it might have on environment or health are explicitly excluded from U.S., European, and international definitions.
The implicit, unproven assumption is that organic agriculture is -- by its very nature -- better for the environment than so-called conventional farming.
Well, if you are convinced that organic food is better for the environment and for your health it introduces a third organic issue; honesty. If you choose to believe that genetically modified corn that has been engineered to kill pests naturally will harm the ecosystem of rivers or that instead genetic modification can make crops grow in places it otherwise wouldn't and therefore feed more people capitalism has a solution for you. And you should know what food meets your standards and get what you pay for; that takes us outside the science realm and into policy but even then science can try to help. In a recent study (1), scientists used nitrogen isotopic discrimination to determine if synthetic fertilizers were used on sweet pepper plants.
Yet the study ran into some problems; soils in various climates with varying biotic and abiotic factors could exceed an arbitrary designation of 'organic fertilization' even if no fertilizer at all was used.
The US government doesn't make it any easier. Last summer, the definition of 'organic food' was extended to include 38 more inorganic ingredients. I am not knocking the USDA for allowing celery powder and frozen lemongrass but it makes the point that a lot of people talking about 'organic' food don't know what it means. It's made even more difficult when the definition is in flux.
I'll boil it down. All food is organic and no one has gotten e. Coli from a genetically modified food, unlike 'organic' spinach(2). I am not too concerned about genetically modified corn or purple roses. If we want to have less global warming we clearly need to genetically engineer cows that fart less. It will make no difference at all in the milk they produce. None. Nature does not work that way.
Is my food 'organic'?
We've already established that all food is organic but there is a science definition and a colloquial one and the colloquial one means 'free of pesticides.'
So if you buy some organic food and it says the pesticide was Pyrethrin or Rotenone, should you watch out? They're certainly toxic chemicals. Except organic farmers use them all of the time, because Pyrethrin is made from chrysanthemums and rotenone comes from a native Indian vine. You may still get Parkinson's Disease but you will have gotten it 'organically.' Go with Strycnine instead. It is organic too and it will kill you faster.
If you truly want organic food you had better know the farmer. And you're going to pay a lot if no pesticides of any kind, natural or synthetic, were in use.
So be prepared to accept the following(3) if you are paying extra for organic food and you didn't personally watch the farmer weed the rows.
First, and most important, the 'organic' label has nothing at all to do with the food itself.
The national organic standards address the methods, practices, and substances used in producing and handling crops, livestock, and processed agricultural products. The requirements apply to the way the product is created, not to measurable properties of the product itself.
Preference will be given to the use of organic seeds and other planting stock, but a farmer may use non-organic seeds and planting stock under specified conditions. Crop pests, weeds, and diseases will be controlled primarily through management practices including physical, mechanical, and biological controls. When these practices are not sufficient, a biological, botanical, or synthetic substance approved for use on the National List may be used.
So your organic food can have synthetic fertilizers as long as it's on the list. And the seeds don't have to be organic if the farmer doesn't have any.
Vaccines to prevent illness in animals are organic yet antibiotics to cure illness are not. Vitamin and mineral supplements are allowed.
It's that pesky 'organic if it's available' qualification again.
Products labeled as "100 percent organic" must contain (excluding water and salt) only organically produced ingredients.
However, below is the list of non-organic ingredients that actually qualify as organic. Please keep in mind that the 'organic' label really means '95% organic' - the list of non-organic things you could be ingesting is quite extensive.
And the list of completely natural ways you can come to harm, namely getting e. Coli from all-natural manure, means you should examine your food with more than just your reactionary cap on. Common sense and some knowledge of how the science and the politics are reconciled on policy making will allow you to maintain a critical perspective on what 'organic' really means to you and your family.
Inorganic ingredients allowed in organic food
- Casings from processed intestines.
- Celery powder
- Chia (Salvia hispanica)
- Colors derived from these 19 extracts, juices and spices: Annatto extract, beet juice, beta-carotene derived from carrots, black currant juice, black/Purple carrot juice, blueberry juice, carrot juice, cherry juice, chokecherry-aronia juice, elderberry juice, grape juice, grape skin extract, paprika, pumpkin juice, purple potato juice, red cabbage extract, red radish extract, saffron and turmeric.
- Dillweed oil
- Fish oil stabilized with organic ingredients or only with ingredients
- Frozen Galangal
- Water-extracted gums, such as Arabic, guar, locust bean and Carob bean
- Insulin enriched with oligofructose
- Kelp, when used as a thickener or dietary supplement
- Konjac flour
- Frozen lemongrass
- Unbleached orange shellac
- High-methoxy pectin
- Peppers (Chipotle chile)
- Starches, including cornstarch, unmodified rice starch and sweet potato starch for bean thread production
- Turkish bay leaves
- Wakame seaweed
- Whey protein concentrate
(1) Francisco M. del Amora, Joaquín Navarroa and Pedro M. Aparicio, Isotopic Discrimination as a Tool for Organic Farming Certification in Sweet Pepper, Published in J Environ Qual 37:182-185 (2008) DOI: 10.2134/jeq2007.0329