Organically Grown Food

Organic standards vary wildly. Here's what you need to know.
Last Updated: May 31, 2018

If you want to minimize your exposure to potentially dangerous chemicals, choosing organic food may be the best place to start. Pesticide residue levels have consistently tested lower in organic foods. There is strong evidence that common pesticides can impair cognitive function.

The organic farming movement has its roots in 1960s counterculture. The back-to-the-land sensibilities that emerged during that period cast a skeptical eye on the wisdom of relying on petroleum-based pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. In addition to eschewing these chemicals, organic agriculture as it’s currently defined within the United States forbids GMO crops, irradiation, and sewage sludge. An easy way to spot organic foods is to check its sticker. Organic foods start with the number 9 (conversely, a number beginning with 8 signifies GMO.)

Unfortunately, the organization in charge of setting America’s organic standards is the USDA—which happens to be the very same agency that oversees the nation’s factory farms and slaughterhouses. Given that the USDA thinks it’s acceptable to put just one meat inspector on a slaughter line killing 175 chickens per minute, it’s reasonable to wonder how serious the agency is about setting meaningful organic standards. Their history in regard to organics is troubling. During one particularly dark moment in 1998, the USDA sought to permit organic farms to use treated sewage sludge as fertilizer—despite the fact that the stuff is often thoroughly contaminated with heavy metals and other nasty substances.

While the USDA sets organic standards, it does not oversee enforcement. That task is handled by independent certification bodies approved by the USDA. One of these certification organizations, the CCOF, offers an informative two-page summary of the reasons to choose organic. And here’s an informative interview with CCOF’s first employee, that does a great job of conveying the nuances of how organic standards and enforcement have evolved since the 1970s.

Just as “certified humane” or “cage-free” animal products typically come up short in key areas (even if they are, on the whole, a marked improvement over factory farmed foods), it’s naive to think that every product with an organic seal has been grown without compromise. Whether it’s “cage-free” or “organic,” consumers can be at the mercy of farmers who are motivated more by money than by integrity. And imported organic products arguably deserve an extra level of skepticism.

Industrial Organic vs. Local Organic

It’s obviously beyond the means of individuals to evaluate the relative effectiveness of the various organic standards bodies. So what’s a person to do?

Perhaps the best place to start is to draw a distinction between local organic farmers in your community and the giant organic farms that ship nationwide. A dead giveaway is that the latter often packages their food in containers featuring slick yet homespun-looking logos. You can fairly call this stuff “industrial organic,” and it’s generally a far cry from the quality of organic produce grown locally.

But even when it comes to industrial organics, it’s wisest to avoid an all-or-nothing point of view. On the one hand, industrial organic farms typically use many of the same monoculture practices employed by conventional agriculture, and they frequently rely on underpaid migrant labor. On the other hand, industrial organic is still far better than conventional produce, since it’s free of GMOs, sewage sludge fertilizer, and chemical pesticides.

Nothing in life is guaranteed but you can avoid the worst of the worst by choosing organic, and give yourself a shot at the very best by choosing local organic.

Uncertified Organics

The bigger the organic farm, the more worthwhile it is for a farmer to devote resources to certification. Small local farmers often lack the time and money required to participate in certification programs. They’ve got their hands full actually farming, and aren’t equipped to deal with reams of paperwork for the relatively tiny amount of food they grow. These producers often sell their food at farmers’ markets, labeling it “unsprayed” rather than “organic.”

Under best-case scenarios, “local unsprayed” is much more sustainable than industrial organic, particularly if the latter is being trucked in from thousands of miles away. The downside, of course, is that without certification you’re solely dependent on the farmer’s word. But it’s not as though every food that’s certified organic lives up to its billing either. It wouldn’t take a criminal mastermind to get away with mislabeling conventionally grown foods as organic, especially on a small scale.

Supporting agriculture in your community is incredibly important, and any sort of small-scale local agriculture is likely to be far less dependent on petrochemical fertilizers and herbicides than are mega-farms. Locally-grown produce also has the advantage of being picked riper and delivered fresher than even the best foods grown far away. So don’t turn up your nose at your local farmer selling unsprayed produce—it’s often the best value and most sustainable food you can find, and a stepping-stone to boosting the food security of your community.

The Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen

If you can’t purchase organic every time, you minimize your exposure to pesticides by paying attention to the “dirty dozen,” and the “clean fifteen.” Every year the Environmental Working Group tests pesticide levels in non-organic produce, and announces the varieties that are most and least contaminated. Here are their lists for 2018:

The Dirty Dozen: strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes, sweet bell peppers.

The Clean Fifteen: avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, onions, frozen sweet peas, papayas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplant, honeydew, kiwis, cantaloupes, cauliflower, broccoli.