There’s been an organic boom over the last decade or so, both within the United States and globally. In fact, the 2016 count of certified organic operations noted 24,650 domestic operations, an increase of 13% from the previous year and nearly 350% since 2002.
Why Organic Certification Isn’t Everything
Consumers buy organic products for a variety of reasons, including the belief that it’s innately healthier and fuller of nutrients than conventional counterparts. Organic certification guarantees – in most cases, anyway – that regulations are being followed with verification, inspection, and record keeping. It means that the farmers, manufacturers, and distributors have an organic systems plan (OSP) detailing the practices and procedures they use to comply with organic regulations. And it allows consumers to feel confident that the products they’re buying are GMO-free.
But organic certification isn’t the be all and end all when it comes to healthy food – and it isn’t the same thing as ‘sustainable’ or ‘humane.’
Let’s be clear: organic certification isn’t bad. But if you’re in search of healthy food that comes from farmers who care about how their animals are raised and strive to lower their environmental impact, it’s certainly not the only thing you need to consider.
So, if you want to source fresh, high quality food that’s grown without pesticides, prioritizes animal welfare, and follows eco-minded practices, what other factors should you look at?
- The size of the operation. Sometimes you simply can’t know which farm your food comes from. But if this information is available, smaller farms are nearly always more sustainable choices than large ones. These farmers tend to grow more diverse crops on smaller parcels of land to help enhance the soil and conserve land resources.
- Water conservation efforts. Organic certification doesn’t require farmers to take steps to conserve water resources. Many sustainable farmers use reclaimed water for some crops, plant drought-tolerant crop species, or use reduced-volume irrigation systems.
- Energy efficiency. Both conventional and organic farms tend to rely on non-renewable energy like petroleum, and organic standards permit this. More sustainable farming methods strive to conserve energy and incorporate more solar, wind, and water power.
- Use of synthetic ingredients. The only organic products that are guaranteed completely free of synthetics are those marked ‘100% organic.’ Products labeled ‘certified organic’ can have up to 5% synthetic ingredients, while anything labeled ‘containing organic ingredients’ is allowed up to 50% synthetic ingredients.
- Animal welfare. The USDA does not mandate animal welfare standards through the National Organic Program (NOP), and it’s permissible for even organic livestock to be confined much of the time. Sustainable livestock systems provide animals with plenty of outdoor space to engage in natural behaviors (like grazing), as well as comfortable indoor spaces.
- Product packaging. Organic standards don’t cover packaging, and it’s not uncommon to see beautiful, organic foods packed in tons of plastic. Packaging can have a significant environmental impact, and it’s something that eco-minded consumers probably want to consider. Sustainable packaging means using the least amount of resources necessary.
It bears repeating that organic certification isn’t a bad thing, and it isn’t a sham. There is a misconception among many consumers that organic also means sustainable and humane, though, and that just isn’t the case.
If you’re looking for food that’s grown according to specific standards, mostly free of synthetic ingredients, and completely free of GMOs, look for the organic label. If you want sustainably produced food, however, there are certainly other factors to consider than whether the farm is certified organic.