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Buzzword Patrol

What is Organic?

Organic is appearing more and more to be a buzzword in the green movement. The use of the word organic is now highly regulated in the US as well as other countries, as far as use on packaging and as a selling point for products, including but not limited, to food.

Organic, by definition, is the practice of creating, involving or growing something using renewable resources of carbon origin (animal or vegetable) while using environmentally friendly, if not environmental enhancing, methods.

USDA Defines Organic

But what organic mean as it pertains to USDA certification of organic produce? As defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website:

“What is organic food? Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation[1].

Translating USDA’s Definition of Organic

Time out, there’s a lot of terms in that definition that elude to radioactive giant tomatoes taking over the world and fields of crops filled with toxic sludge and littered with the barrels clearly labeled with a scull and crossbones.
I apologize, I have an overactive imagination.

So let’s stop guessing about what sewage sludge, ionizing radiation and growth hormones are and do some digging and research into the topics and how they affect our non-organic (also known as conventional) food.

Antibiotics / Growth Hormone

Antibiotics and growth hormones are given to animals to reduce the time in which it takes for an animal to have enough meat to be profitable or used to keep the cycles for producing milk and laying eggs shorter to increase profitability.

The steroid hormones used in food production are restricted by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Steroid hormones are usually released into the animal from a pellet (ear implant) that is put under the skin of the ear. The ears of the animals are thrown away at slaughter.[2]

Conventional Pestisides

Conventional pesticides are non-organic pesticides. All pesticides are evaluated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) thoroughly before they can be marketed and use in the U.S. This evaluation checks that the pesticides mean with federal standards to protect the environment and human health.[3] Organic pesticides are made from organic products and carbon based solutions where as conventional pesticides are man made and use non-organic chemical compounds.

Over the years pesticides have been linked to different diseases such as breast cancer, infertility and other birth risks and childhood behavior and physiology.

Synthetic Ingredients in Fertilizers

Synthetic ingredients are man made ingredients or ingredients not carbon based or naturally occurring in nature. Remember, the quote form the USDA states “fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients” regarding synthetic ingredients. Some synthetic ingredients are still allowed in USDA Certified Organic food which has caused controversy in the organic community since since the National Organic Standards went into effect in 2002.

Sewage Sludge / Biosolids

Yes, I said sewage sludge, which by definition is waste material from industrial, waste water or water treatment processes. Sewage sludge is treated into a material called biosolids which are then often used as fertilizers or soil conditioners in conventional growing methods.

Though the biosolids go through a complicated chemical process, called the activated sludge process[4] it can still contain toxic material as the process does not always remove 100% of the pathogens (germs) which can regrow after the process is complete and the biosolid based fertilizer/product is created. In order for a product to be USDA-certified organic sludge or biosolids, cannot be used, though it is often used in conventional farming.

Sewage sludge has been under fire for it’s effects on the environment since as 1972 when the EPA authorized regulations on dumping sludge and other waste in the ocean through a permit program, in the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972. Five years later in 1977 the act passed by the U.S. Congress as Public Law 95-153, amending the 1972 act. This 1977 law prohibits ocean dumping that “may unreasonably degrade the marine environment” by December 31, 1981.[5]

Sewage sludge has been under fire for it’s effects on the environment since as 1972 when the EPA authorized regulations on dumping sludge and other waste in the ocean through a permit program, in the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972. Five years later in 1977 the act passed by the U.S. Congress as Public Law 95-153, amending the 1972 act. This 1977 law prohibits ocean dumping that “may unreasonably degrade the marine environment” by December 31, 1981.[5]

The President [Ronald Reagan] on November 18 signed into law the Ocean Dumping Ban Act of 1988, which prohibits all municipal sewage sludge and industrial waste dumping into the ocean after December 31, 1991.[6] The Ocean Dumping Ban Act of 1988 made significant amendments to the 1972 act and now landfill, incineration, composting and pelletization are some of the alternative disposals and uses of the biosolids.

For me this explains a lot about why the USDA won’t certify matter fertilized with biosolids as organic when the EPA deems this matter unsafe to dump in the ocean.

Bioengineering

Bioengineering is when scientist use the modern biotechnology tools to insert new genes into a crop to give it more favorable new characteristics.

To say that bio engineered crops are the only generically modified crops would be inaccurate. For thousands of years horticulturalist have been genetically modifying plants in more traditional (or classical) plant breeding methods. Classical plant breeding uses deliberate interbreeding (crossing) of closely or distantly related individuals to produce new crop varieties or lines with desirable properties.[7]

In additional to bioengineering and classical plant breeding there is also organic plant breeding which follows it’s own set of rules.

Ionizing Radiation

In relation to food, ionizing radiation is used in sterilization, and enhancing mutations of a plant. The growth of a seedling may be enhanced by radiation, but excessive radiation will hinder growth[8]. There are strict regulations from the FDA to prevent the occurrence of induced radioactivity in the food we eat. The FDA’s ionizing radiation regulations can be found in the FDA guidelines Title 21 - Chapter I - Subchapter B - Part 179 on the FDA Website.

Outlined on an online excerpt from Dr. Vanee Komolprasert’s 2007 publication Packaging for Non Thermal Processing of Food you can see a table simply defining the regulations and how they pertain to certain foods (see table 6.2)

Summary

So for USDA certification food must be produced:

  • Without antibiotics (animal)
  • Without growth hormones (animal)
  • Without using most conventional pesticides
  • Without using fertilizers with non-carbon based ingredients or sewer sludge (biosolids)
  • Without any bio engineering
  • Without ionizing radiation
  • With conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality

Find out more about what other regulations there are on USDA certified organic foods on the USDA’s National Organic Program web page.

Additional References

Footnotes


  1. ^ - Organic Production and Organic Food: Information Access Tools - June 2007, Mary V. Gold - Frequently asked questions about organic.

  2. ^ - Consumer Concerns About Hormones in Food - June 2000 - Cornell University

  3. ^ - Pesticide Registration Program Fact Sheet - April 2002 - EPA.gov

  4. ^ - Activated Sludge Method - Encyclopedia Britannica

  5. ^ - Ocean dumping ban act 1988 - Bookrags research

  6. ^ - Ocean Dumping Act of 1988 - EPA press release - November 21, 1988

  7. ^ - Plant breeding - Wikipedia.org article

  8. ^ - Ionizing Radiation - Wikipedia.org article

Discussion
3 Comments for “What is Organic?”
  1. Hey…cool site. We tried to buy either organic or locally grown items as much as we can. I even started trying to replace beauty items such as shampoo/cond, body wash, makeup etc. with earth friendly products, but found it can be very expensive and not a huge selection. We’ve also started to replace dish washing soap, laundry detergent, etc., and I find that’s easier to do than the beauty products. Good luck with the site. I’ll be sure to come back and visit.

    Posted by Michelle | November 29, 2008, 12:46 pm
  2. Nice post. There are lots of reasons to buy (eat and use) organic and locally produced items whenever possible. We can all make small - but ultimately meaningful - contributions.

    Posted by Toby (The Organic Dish) | December 12, 2008, 5:29 pm
  3. […] foods - Pick fresh food over processed foods. Eat organic when you can afford […]

    Posted by Clean, Green Food is Just Around the Corner - Green Behavior | December 10, 2012, 9:51 am
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