Above: food face.
When I hear “organic”, I instantly think of no pesticides, no growth hormones, and for some reason a shockingly bright green field cultivated full of young crops. Of course, organic foods include not only food crops but also domestic animals, and it is equally important and difficult to define what an organic domestic animal is as it is to define an organic crop.
Organic food, at least to me, is quite simply defined. No pesticides and no growth hormones just about summed up the criteria I have for labeling a food organic. However, a recent article on MSN Health & Fitness titled “The Heart of Organic,” and my subsequent tour of the USDA’s webpage on organic labeling, changed my perception and understanding on organic food. Organic food is defined in a much more complicated way than I had believed.
In the MSN article, Nathan Donahoe, a chef and food activist, shared what he believed to be the definition of organic food. The first part of the definition, which stated that “’Organic’ doesn’t mean there are no pesticides used, just those that are ‘allowed,’” instantly alarmed me as it shattered what I considered as one of the most important criterion for being labeled as organic. Don’t get me wrong, I am not alarmed by the use of pesticides in general. I’ve grown up eating fruits and vegetables that are most likely de-bugged with pesticides, and despite the health problems that pesticide overuse could cause, I still have no grudges buying all my fresh produce from regular, non-organic supermarkets. In a sense, I’ve accepted the use of pesticides based on my belief that current regulations are safeguarding consumer health by ensuring the safe application of pesticides. Therefore, my alarm towards Donahoe’s definition comes from my realization that what I believed to be the definition of organic is actually incorrect. Indeed, I started to wonder how far does my definition of “organic” deviate from the official government definition of “organic.” Furthermore, how many people actually understand what organic really refers to?
With these two questions bugging me, I set out to find the official definition of organic food from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) website. Like Donahoe’s definition, the USDA’s definition also surprised me, both in a satisfied way and an unsettling way. According to the USDA National Organic Standards Board (1995):
- “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.
- “‘Organic’ is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.
- “Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water.
- “Organic food handlers, processors and retailers adhere to standards that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.”
From this definition of “organic,” I feel unsettled by the fact that it did not explicitly state that pesticides are not used during organic food production, but instead it seems to suggest that as long as the ecosystem seems to be balanced and not excessively damaged by the pesticide use, these substances can continue to be used in the production of organic food. This vague suggestion seems to confirm Donahoe’s claim that pesticides are still part of organic food production. Despite feeling unsettled by this fact, I somewhat rejoiced in the definition’s emphasis on sustainable and environment-friendly agriculture. To me, it’s a healthy environment that will produce healthy food.