“Organic” is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days. We notice the term in television commercials, food packaging, and overheard conversations at farmers markets, but few of us know what it actually means. Before you spend the extra few bucks on something with a certified organic label, here’s what you need to know.
1. THE MOVEMENT BEGAN IN THE 1940s.
Before the rise of factory farming, diners never had worry about whether or not their food was “organic.” The movement against so-called chemical farming was sparked in the early 20th century, and by the ‘70s there was enough public interest to allow organic farms to grow. But it wasn’t until 1990 that Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act and set consistent standards for organic farms across the board.
2. IT HAS TO MEET STRICT CRITERIA.
To receive official USDA certification, farms have to adhere to a long list of specific criteria. A few of the things that might disqualify an operation include the use of synthetic fertilizers, GMOs, antibiotics, growth hormones, and feed made from animal byproducts.
3. THERE MAY BE OTHER REASONS A SMALL FARM IS NOT "ORGANIC."
Even when a farm checks all these boxes, getting an organic seal on their products is sometimes more trouble than it’s worth. To get certified you need to pay a number of fees, so sometimes small, family-run farms aren’t certified "organic” only because they can’t afford to be.
4. NATURAL AND ORGANIC AREN’T THE SAME.
While organically grown food is rigidly defined in the food industry, the word “natural” is a lot more open-ended. According to the USDA, a product can call itself natural if it doesn’t contain any synthetic additives or preservatives.
5. NEITHER ARE FREE-RANGE AND ORGANIC.
Just because a carton of eggs or a package of chicken breasts is labeled organic, that doesn’t mean the chicken was raised in a free-range environment. While organic chickens are required “reasonable access” to the outdoors, free-range certification is a whole different story. To qualify as free-range, chickens must be granted free, continuous access to outside space for more than half their lives.
6. DEMAND IS ON THE RISE.
Organic food is gradually working its way into the mainstream. The revenue from organic food has tripled over the course of a decade, raking in a record $36 billion in 2014. The state leading that change is California. In 2014, the money Californians spent on organic food was close to quadruple that spent in Washington (America’s runner-up in organic sales).
7. IT’S MOST APPEALING TO YOUNG PEOPLE
In the U.S., more than half of 18 to 29-year-olds reported actively trying to incorporate organic food into their diets, according to a 2014 poll, while only 13 percent said they actively try to avoid it. On the other hand, just a third of Americans 65 and older reported going out of their way to buy organic.
8. ORGANIC FARMS ARE STILL THE MINORITY
According to 2012 U.S. Census data, America is home to more than 16,500 organic farms. But organic farming still has a long way to go before it catches up to conventional farming: That number only makes up 0.7 percent of the total farms in the country.
9. ORGANIC FARMS CAN STILL USE PESTICIDES.
While most synthetic pesticides are banned from organic farming, a long list of more “natural” substances are allowed by the USDA. Some pesticides commonly used by organic farms include copper, sulfur, dairy cultures, and vitamin B.
10. ORGANIC FARMS DON’T JUST PRODUCE FOOD.
Buying organic doesn’t have to be limited to the supermarket. The cotton that’s grown on organic farms can be found in products like clothing, feminine hygiene products, and cotton swabs.
11. IT’S GOOD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT.
While there’s no noticeable difference in nutrition between organic and conventionally farmed food, buying organic offers other benefits. Organic practices like regular crop rotation and minimum tillage is good for the soil, and helps to cultivate land that’s more sustainable and rich in nutrients. Issues like groundwater pollution, carbon emissions, and threats to local wildlife are all reduced when farms go organic.