Sustainable, local, industrial, organic, bio-dynamic, natural, conventional…wow, the list of righteous food labeling goes on. Believe me, I genuinely care about these idiosyncrasies, but food shopping has become incredibly daunting lately, not to mention uncomfortable at times—I received sneers upon asking a local farmers market purveyor whether chemical pesticides are used to grow his farm’s produce. “In moderation,” he quickly responded without making much eye contact.
Each food label represents a collection of farming practices and ideologies that dictates every process from how food is grown to how it gets to our kitchen tables. This is all very important, right? But truthfully at the end of the day or the beginning of my grocery shopping, I just want to know whether the food is healthy, easy on the environment and ethically produced. Wouldn’t it be great if there were only three labels – “Healthy,” “Green,” and “Ethical?” And only used when food meets 100% of the criteria? That’s ambitiously simple, I know.
I do have one more label to add—a label that simply reads, “Food.” Author and Activist Michael Pollan recommends that we create a Federal Definition of “food.”He says, “We need to stop flattering nutritionally worthless food like substances by calling them “junk food”—and instead make clear that such products are not in fact food of any kind.” He continues to suggest that an edible substance labeled as “‘food’ must contain a certain minimum ratio of micronutrients per calorie of energy.”
Now, you don’t have to agree with all of these positions. For example, you may just care about your food’s health quality, or may just be concerned with its environmental impact, or the economical, social and spiritual aspect of the food’s production. Whichever one compels you the most is surely accompanied today by a slew of labels. Here is a guide to some of the more frequently discussed labels, and how they affect what is important to you. And don’t be afraid to mix and match some of the following food methods and philosophies in order to create your ideal plate. Preferably, all of my food would be pesticide and chemical free (organic), produced as close to my kitchen as possible (local), and made on farms that pay its workers an equitable wage (fair trade). But the reality is I don’t always have access to food items that meet this perfect trifecta. So, I’m happy as long as my grocery bags are balanced with items from each of these three categories.
Chemical-derived pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides are not used to cultivate organic food. Instead, organic farms use natural and holistic methods such as compost, crop rotation, and biological agents to produce fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products, and meat over a natural period of time. Organic food products are minimally processed, contain no artificial additives or preservatives, and organic milk, meat or poultry is free of hormones and antibiotics. Crop diversity is typically a distinct characteristic of organic farming, but may not be the case on today’s industrial organic farms.
Did you know that pesticides and fertilizers sprayed across conventional farms are primarily made from fossil fuels like petroleum? After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy, and 28% of the energy used in non-organic agriculture goes to fertilizer manufacturing.
So essentially, consuming organic means we keep pesticides out of our bodies, support farms that keep harmful chemicals out of the ground, and we also happen to decrease our dependence on oil.
Keep in mind there are many organic certifiers, but to be sold in the U.S. they have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Look for these USDA approved label variations:
* 100% organic
* Organic—made with at least 95% organic materials
* Made with Organic Ingredients—the product is at least 70% organic
* Contains Organic Ingredients—less than 70% organic ingredients
The Environmental Working Group explains labeling seafood “organic” is misleading because the USDA has not yet developed organic certification standards for such water-bound fare. For consumers weary of paying a premium for organic items, the Environmental Working Group compiled a list of 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide concentration levels on conventional farms, and advises us to at least buy these items organic whenever possible. This includes apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and strawberries. And check out this great roundup of must-eat-organic foods from Planet Green.
When the U.S. government officially approved standards for organic food, a number of farmers dropped their organic certification because they felt the label had been co-opted by big business. Many of these farmers raise their animals and crops using methods as strict as or stricter than the USDA organic standards. Some call these farms “Beyond USDA Organic”. Ask your farmers questions about their practices at the market to find out what you’re getting.
Large conventional farms produce food with varying levels of chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth, spray insecticides to reduce pests and disease, use chemical herbicides to manage weeds, and give antibiotics, growth hormones and medications to animals in an effort to prevent disease and spur quicker growth.
It is fiercely argued that conventional agriculture is not good for the longevity of our planet and its soil. This is due to conventional methods’ dependence on fossil fuels, soil and water polluting methods, and large amount of carbon emissions.
There is also much controversy around whether pesticides are harmful to our health. Some experts claim pesticides pose a very small health risk .Yet, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 300,000 farm workers suffer acute pesticide poisoning each year. And according to Consumer Reports, since 1996 a dozen formerly widely used pesticides are now federally banned, restricted, or voluntarily withdrawn by manufacturers to meet safety standards for children. Under that law, pesticides are investigated each year. Many are banned or limited to lower amounts thought to be safer.
Additionally, the USDA only bans the use of synthetic hormones in poultry (organic or not). Therefore conventional hogs, beef, or dairy cattle producers are not legally bound to resist using hormones. Today, close to 70 percent of the total antibiotics and related drugs produced in the U.S. are fed to cattle, pigs and poultry, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. These hormones and antibiotics end up in our food chain and eventually our bodies when consumed.
Currently many small farms and food companies are unable to afford the “organic” label which can cost up $2,000 annually. And although they use minimal pesticides, crop rotation, and zero artificial preservatives, their food may still end up on the same shelves as their conventionally grown counterparts. In place of “organic,” these farms may use a label that reads Certified Naturally Grown. To clear any uncertainty as you stride down conventional food isles, carefully review food label ingredients for nutritional information.
At its core sustainable farming is a philosophy not a method that, simply-put, achieves three main goals: environmental stewardship, farm profitability, and social and economic equity. While you may not see a uniform “sustainable” label like you do with the USDA organic stamp, several food labels such as the “Rainforest Alliance” and “Food Alliance” reflect the sustainable philosophy. I often use The Eat Well Guide as an online directory to find markets and restaurants that supply sustainable food in my neighborhood.
Sustainable Table explains, “A product can be considered sustainable if its production enables the resources from which it was made to continue to be available for future generations…without generating negative environmental effects, without causing waste products to accumulate as pollution, and without compromising the well-being of workers or communities.”
Many different agricultural and processing techniques can be utilized to help make food production more sustainable. This includes organic and non-organic techniques. Other commonly used terms to describe sustainable food include: local, antibiotic free, cage free, grass fed, and GMO free (made without genetically-modified organisms).
Sustainable farms rotate crops and animals to enrich the soil and help prevent disease and pest outbreaks, but chemical pesticides may be used when necessary. Many sustainable farms use no chemicals at all.
Rather than shipping food thousands of miles away and increasing carbon emissions, sustainable farms sell their products locally at farmers markets, stands, or to community supported agriculture (CSA) programs.
Because there is no formal regulation or accountability standards for sustainable agriculture, food producers execute this highly environmental and socially conscious philosophy according to their own interpretation.
Industrial operations strive to increase production and maximize profit. These farms can cause much harm to the environment; depend heavily on petroleum and other fossil fuels; typically warrant the use of antibiotics, hormones and chemicals; and typically rely on a lean work force.
The soil eroding practice of monoculture farming is typical on industrial farms—where a single farm only grows one type of crop across their entire area of land. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reports 75 % of our agriculture’s genetic diversity disappeared in this past century. This is during the pinnacle of industrial production. The resulting monoculture crops are genetically limited and far more susceptible to insects, blights, diseases, and bad weather than are diverse crops. All of these consequences amplify the need for pesticides and fertilizers.
Industrial food companies summit the food transport business, relying on vehicles to ship their large quantity of products around the world. It’s reported that a single plate of industrial food is shipped an average of 1,500 miles before reaching our kitchen. What does this matter, you may ask? Well, it means that through purchasing industrial made food we as consumers support a lethal dependence on petroleum.
Unfortunately, the term industrial is not only associated with conventional farming these days. It is also paired with organic agriculture, since some of the largest agribusinesses like General Mills are also the largest producers of organic produce. You can imagine the disdain our non-industrial, organic food pioneers feel about this. And while large industrial organic companies meet the USDA organic criteria, they do rely on shipping their organic fare thousands of miles and in some reports also use the monoculture method of farming.
Demeter is the only certification agent for biodynamic farms, processors and products in the United States. In essence, biodynamic farms must be certified organic, devote 10% of their farm land to biodiversity, uphold very minimal food product manipulation, and possess whole farm certification. The Biodynamic Trade Association explains that this method of farming is distinguished from sustainable and organic agriculture in 4 ways:
- The biodynamic farmer thinks in terms of forces and processes whereas organic and sustainable agriculture farmers think in terms of substances.
- Uses nine homeopathic preparations made of usually mineral, plant, or animal manure extracts, fermented and used to care for the soil, compost, and plants.
- Uses cosmic rhythms to dictate farming, for example the affects of the new and full moons on planting seeds and plant growth.
- Conceives the farm as an individual organism, a self-sufficient entity, and depends very little on nutrients from outside the farm. Emphasis is placed on the integration of crops and livestock, recycling of nutrients, maintenance of soil, and the health and well being of crops and animals; the farmer too is part of the whole.
When I think of biodynamic products, the first that come to mind are wine and beer. According to Planet Green’s Green Wine Guide, biodynamic winemakers remove sediment from the wine during a descending moon to take advantage of the gravitational pull for a cleaner product and stronger scent. But don’t stop there, nuts, produce, coffee, flowers, grains, herbs and animal products are also Demeter certified.
The Fair Trade Certified standards work to ensure farmers and farm workers in developing nations receive fair compensation and healthy conditions for their product. Products must be grown by small-scale producers democratically organized in either cooperatives or unions. Certified organizations are also encouraged to help the community with social development efforts such as education and healthcare. You’ll find this label on widely consumed, and historically exploited, items such as coffee, tea and herbs, cocoa and chocolate, bananas, flowers, sugar, and rice.
TransFair USA, the official U.S. certifier and member of the Fair Trade Labeling Organizations International, explains, “Fair Trade Certification empowers farmers and farm workers to lift themselves out of poverty by investing in their farms and communities, protecting the environment, and developing the business skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace.”
Some consumers are skeptical of Fair Trade practices voicing concern over high prices, potential food miles, overproduction of certain crops, and the farmer’s dependence on hand-outs. Yet Ian Bretman of Fair Trade Labeling Organizations International (FLO) argues that, contrary to the free trade argument, fair trade agreements don’t trap farmers by subsidizing unprofitable production; they help farmers invest in improving quality and diversifying into other crops.
There is no official regulation for the “natural” label except when it pertains to meat and poultry. The USDA has set a new voluntary standard for meat marked “naturally raised,” the animals must be raised without growth promoters, most antibiotics, and animal byproducts. It also can not contain any artificial ingredients or be more than minimally processed, such as ground beef.
And this does get slightly more confusing—Don’t mistake the “Certified Naturally Grown” (CNG) label as a relative of the “natural” or “all natural” label family. Unlike the “natural” label, which is administered solely at the discretion of the food manufacturer, the CNG label is administered by a third-party, non-profit group that adheres to organic farming principles. Some CNG members will even dispute that their methods are stricter than the USDA organic guidelines.