Thinking Organic? Think Again

By Meggan Hill
Originally published on Food Politic.

Organic foods have a halo effect. They are seen as more nutritious, better for the environment, and safer for families. Consumers get warm and fuzzy feelings about organic foods and are willing to shell out a lot of money to make their organic dreams come true. But is all this praise justified?

You can count on some guarantees if you buy certified organic foods. But just like anything else, there are always loopholes. The standards indicate that livestock must have access to outdoor pastures or grazing land. However, some large corporate farms have found ways to get away with simply providing a window in a pen so the animal is otherwise always confined.

Although organic farmers use no synthetic pesticides, some of the natural pesticides are just as (or even more) harmful. In some cases, twice as much of a natural pesticide must be used compared to its synthetic counterpart, and being natural doesn't make a pesticide inherently safe or better. Mercury is natural, but that doesn't mean it's good for us. Have you ever heard of organic cigarettes? They are just as bad as the regular ones, I assure you.

Organic certification has no provision for fossil fuels with regard to planting, harvesting, or transporting organic foods. So although organic farms need to adhere to certain environmental standards when they plant and rotate their crops, the certification does not prevent them from growing produce in South America or China and shipping it all the way to North Dakota.

In case you imagined that all the beautiful organic produce you see at your local Whole Foods Market was hand-picked by smiling, happy farmers, consider that the interest in farming jobs continues to drop because of the long hours and hard work required.

The organic tomatoes at your local Whole Foods Market are not quite the same as the ones you could grow in your own backyard. But what alternative do we, as well-intentioned consumers, have?

Because the process of being certified as organic is labor-intensive and costly, many small farms do not even engage with the system. However, they can still care passionately about their farms, the environment, and agricultural production in general. In my experience, these farmers are thoughtful, knowledgeable, and provide a better product for the right reasons through sustainable farming.

Sustainable farmers do not focus on the tiny little green and white symbol on their foods; they look at their circumstances and try to make the best decisions for their farms as they can.

I spoke to one farmer who avoids all pesticide applications, including organic pesticides, in favor or using pest management solutions. But when push comes to shove, this farmer will use pesticides rather than lose an entire crop and their livelihood. After all, farmers are people too and need to make a living. He likened it to treating a disease instead of dying.

If you truly care about what you are eating and feeding your family, look to sustainable farms. Shop at your local farmers' market, talk to the farmers, and ask them what they are doing. They may not be certified organic, but they probably know more about organic farming than you could ever imagine. The farmer I spoke to was extremely knowledgeable on current legislation, articles recently published in a variety of publications, not to mention the history of farming.

He lives and breathes this stuff and he doesn't do it just to cash in on the popular organic food trend. As he said, "Farming health is like human health. Provide a good environment for the plants to grow and they will be healthy."