What’s the big deal about organics?

I often hear folks dismiss organic foods as either too expensive or not really meaningful, just a marketing ploy, and – at the risk of preaching to the choir – I want to address these ideas.

First, unlike terms such as “all natural”, food that is certified organic has to comply with strict rules. Jim Riddle, of North Carolina State University’s NC Cooperative Extension, wrote a helpful article, “Overview of National Organic Program Requirements” summarizing the rules for produce growers:

“For crop farms:

  • 3 years (36 months prior to harvest) with no application of prohibited materials (no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or GMOs) prior to certification
  • distinct, defined boundaries for the operation
  • implementation of an Organic System Plan, with proactive fertility systems; conservation measures; and environmentally sound manure, weed, disease, and pest management practices
  • monitoring of the operation’s management practices
  • use of natural inputs and/or approved synthetic substances on the National List, provided that proactive management practices are implemented prior to use of approved inputs
  • no use of prohibited substances
  • no use of genetically engineered organisms (GMOs), defined in the rule as ”excluded methods”
  • no sewage sludge or irradiation
  • use of organic seeds, when commercially available (must not use seeds treated with prohibited synthetic materials, such as fungicides)
  • use of organic seedlings for annual crops
  • restrictions on the use of raw manure and compost
  • must maintain or improve the physical, chemical, and biological condition of the soil, minimize soil erosion, and implement soil building crop rotations
  • fertility management must not contaminate crops, soil, or water with plant nutrients, pathogens, heavy metals, or prohibited substances
  • maintenance of buffer zones, depending on risk of contamination
  • prevent commingling on split operations (the entire farm does not have to be converted to organic production, provided that sufficient measures are in place to segregate organic from non-organic crops and production inputs)
  • no field burning to dispose of crop residues (may only burn to suppress disease or stimulate seed germination – flame weeding is allowed)
  • no residues of prohibited substances exceeding 5% of the EPA tolerance (certifier may require residue analysis if there is reason to believe that a crop has come in contact with prohibited substances or was produced using GMOs).’

For organic certification, farms are inspected regularly, and there is a whole lot of paperwork required, which takes up a farmer’s time too. Many farmers feel that it is worth doing, both on principle and in terms of marketing their produce at a viable price. Other small, farmers who know their  customers personally, still follow the rules to the letter, but do not want to spend time and money on certification. The Gould Family Farm is currently documenting all of the products and processes that need to be tracked before applying for certification in 3 years.

Second, in regard to cost, lots of organic food comes from smaller farms rather than agri-industry. Small farmers have less access to affordable loans, crop insurance, and subsidies. But small farms are usually located near you, delivering smaller and fresher batches to markets, and are more accountable as part of your community. The fact that they don’t use chemical fertilizers or pesticides means that their soil is full of nutrients (not chemically dependent), that their run-off doesn’t affect your water, and that your produce is not toxic. But to make up for the cheaper chemical short-cuts, and because big machinery does not work so well on a small farm with diverse crops, organic farming requires human labor. (Having weeded between  organic strawberry plants, rather than spraying poison, I know first-hand how time-consuming and tedious it is!)  That’s where the expense comes in. The good news is that it’s creating employment, and employment that produces goods that are good for you!

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