Chances are you’re aware of the organic alternative when you shop for food in Metro Detroit; either you know someone who is a faithful "organic" disciple, or you noticed the section devoted to the products in your local supermarket. According to a 2006 article in Business Week, organic products now make up 2.5% of all grocery spending.
Agricultural & Technological Advances
Since World War II, traditional farming and livestock ranching have been influenced by agricultural and technological advances aimed at increasing mass production. In addition to the use of pesticides to fight insects, antibiotics and growth hormones are used in the livestock and dairy industry.
Consequences of Rapid, Cumulative Change
While the advances resulted in lower labor costs, higher yield per acre and longer shelf life for the food products, they also had negative consequences. According to OrganicFoodInfo.net, the typical apple at a grocery store contains as many as 30 pesticides and a much lower level of Vitamin C than its World War II counterpart. In other words, our diet has changed radically in 60 years. We are now exposed to a lot of synthesized foods and chemicals that over time replaced traditionally high-nutrient foods in our diet.
Organic Methods: No Pesticides, Antibiotics or Hormones
The “organic” philosophy grew out of the desire to return to basics, slow down the head-long plunge into modern, new-fangled, relatively untested methods of food production. The original movement, however, was broader than what we now understand as “organic.” In addition to shunning pesticides, antibiotics and hormones, the organic philosophy incorporated a respect for the environment, including land, natural water sources and animals.
Government Standards for "Organic" Foods
As the organic movement continued to grow, it gained government recognition. The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 required that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) enact standards regarding organic products. Rules followed in 2002 that defined the “organic” label. Now foods labeled “organic” must be at least 95% organic. Note: the USDA only certifies the “organic” label, not “natural” or “hormone free.”
Nutrition & Health Benefits
While the USDA regulates the organic industry, its focus is on ensuring that food is “grown, handled and processed” in a certain way. It does not certify that the resulting product is any more nutritious. The organic industry itself, however, makes claims regarding the relative nutrient levels in organic versus conventional foods.
According to OrganicFoodInfo.net and GrinningPlanet.com, organic foods have more minerals and 50% more nutrients and anti-oxidants than conventional foods. Additionally, several studies link pesticides to cancer, obesity and birth defects.
While the link between the ingestion of pesticides and health dangers seems almost obvious, the organic method responsible for the differing level of nutrients often goes unnoticed or misunderstood by many consumers. Simply put, conventional farming is concerned with the crop, a short-term focus; and organic farming is concerned with the soil, a long-term focus. Conventional farming methods arguably leach the nutrients from the soil, reducing the hardiness of crops over time.
Faith, Philosophy or Fad
The long-term focus of the organic movement represents a kind of faith or philosophy to many consumers, embodying not only a better health alternative but a responsible environmental stance -- at least that is the "organic" party line. The promise of redemption that may or may not come from buying organic products depends on what statistics you accept and from which producer you buy.
For instance, the information concerning the relative merits of organic food is often supplied to us by organic producers trying to sell their products. These health claims are, in fact, hotly debated. For instance, Alex Avery refutes the veracity of the health claims, point by point, in his book “The Truth About Organic Foods.”
Disadvantages: Yield and Shelf Life
In shunning pesticides, antibiotics and hormones, organic food producers sacrifice the efficiencies they represent, such as lower labor/production costs and lengthened shelf life for food products. Opponents also argue that organic methods result in less product yield per acre -- a fact universally accepted until a recent University of Michigan study created dispute.
These disadvantages arguably affect other causes valued by the organic product consumer, such as the conservation of fossil fuels, ability to fight world hunger and protection of natural habitats from commercial encroachment.
Big Business Exploitation
Organic farming is affected by natural cycles, making it inherently inconsistent. This means that the ability to meet demand for the products may be a chronic problem. This factor, however, doesn't stop traditionally conventional food producers from being attracted to the high-priced, highly demanded products. Over time, the focus can easily shift from a philosophy of responsibility to the dollars-and-cents bottom line of meeting supply. For instance, while standards apply to the industry, many practices are not addressed that go against the ethics of the organic concept itself rather than the rules enforced by the USDA.