Have you picked an organic food option for you or your family at least once in a while? Chances are, you have. You’re part of the growing consumer demand for organics, as a wellness-focused lifestyle you may or may not consider “green” is going more mainstream. Leaders in the organic movement have been discussing this with FlourSackMama.com, and we’re bringing the latest information to you as part of our special series Green Goes Mainstream!
If you pick only one or two varieties of organic produce, chances are it’s apples, since US government data shows they’re consistently coming out of conventional orchards with some of the heaviest pesticide residues. The Environmental Working Group interprets this data each year to share with the public via its well-known Dirty Dozen list. How are farmers growing apples without toxic pesticides? One solution is kaolin clay, which research farmers at the Rodale Institute use to coat their apple trees and repel pests. The farmers outsmarts apple-loving moths with cleverly timed pheremones that disrupt their mating cycle and keep codling moth larvae out of the orchard.
Rodale Institute is a leader with decades of research in best organic practices, sharing research data and educational opportunities for farmers and the food industry. This non-profit has supplied a wealth of information for the $35-billion organics industry. “It’s good business to go green, it’s good business to take organic mainstream,” said the Institute’s Executive Director “Coach” Mark Smallwood when we visited its Pennsylvania farms. “What we call it at the Rodale Institute is creating a massive awakening. We’re going to do that first of all by focusing on soil and soil health and then focusing on good, healthy organic food. The idea that healthy soil creates healthy food; and healthy food, as part of our mantra, creates healthy people.”
If you’re a parent buying baby food, chances are you’re looking for the USDA Organic seal at the grocery store. The Organic Trade Association says nearly nine out of ten parents who buy baby food say they choose organic these days, while nearly three quarters of daycares give organic options. This trend, sometimes trivialized as part of so-called mommy wars, is not elitist, but rather the result of educated consumers seeking better nutrition and food safety.
“Everyone would agree there is a growing awareness of the relationship between health and what we eat,” said spokeswoman Katherine Paul of the Organic Consumers Association. Not only do numerous studies, including those published by the National Institutes of Health, point to concerns such as cancer from pesticide use, but a peer-reviewed study published in the British Journal of Nutrition shows organic foods can provide many more antioxidants than conventional food. Growing health concerns about unlabeled use of genetically modified organisms in American food are another reason consumers want USDA Organic foods that don’t allow GMOs.
“Never feel guilty if you cannot buy all organic food,” stressed OTA spokeswoman Barbara Haumann. “Remember, anytime you buy an organic product, whether food or non-food, you are supporting a system of agriculture that is healthier for the farmer and farm family, the soil, water and air, and our communities. Organic agricultural practices build healthy soils which help combat climate change, and lower people’s exposure to pesticides, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, genetic engineering, and heavy metals. They are good for the overall health of our planet and that of our families.”
Who owns that boutique labeled organic food you’re picking at the health food store? It might not be the family that founded the company, as small organic businesses are quickly being snatched up by large multinationals. Organic food sales grew 11% last year, more than three times the growth rate of conventional foods. And now the biggest chunk of organic foods isn’t at your favorite health food store, but instead at mass market grocery chains, per a recent OTA industry survey.
This trend for large companies to own a bite of the organic pie has led to skepticism among purists, concerned about growing and labeling standards. Some organic enthusiasts prefer to grow their own garden or buy from the neighborhood farmer, boosting the local economy. Paul cautioned that local doesn’t necessarily mean organic. “Know your farmer. Ask some questions. Ask whether or not that farm follows organic standards even though they aren’t certified.”
Chemical farming has been dominant for so long that many farmers don’t believe they can afford converting to organic practices. There is typically a three-year transition period that involves revitalizing the soil as part of the farm’s healthy ecosystem and current US farm programs don’t help much with this. Yet, via their 33-year-long Farm Systems Trial, the Rodale Institute has tracked data and created best practices that any farmer can try. Smallwood said confidently, “This idea that organic can’t feed the world, we’ve proven that’s just not true. We can and quite frankly, we can do it much better!”
Smallwood also advocates for the USDA Organic seal and for encouraging more farmers to strive for its standards. Despite some criticism of USDA for the standards not being strict enough, Smallwood, Haumann and Paul all seem to agree that these standards are worthy of consumer trust. OTA’s Haumann explained that some evolution of organic rules is because of a need for producers to keep up with growing consumer demand — a possible reason for a particular ingredient being allowed that might be disallowed at a later time. OCA’s Paul stressed, “We continue to advocate on behalf of consumers, on behalf of stronger, not weaker, organic standards.”
Many of us are picking organic foods because we want taste and nutrition. Our choices are also helping reduce air, water and soil pollution. Rodale Institute research shows organic agriculture can even help slow or reverse climate change.