What Is “Organic”?

Recently we’ve been getting a lot of questions from customers about our choice to source organic ingredients, so I thought I’d take some time here to answer any questions and clear up some common misconceptions about organic food. This is just a basic organic primer, so I encourage you to do some research on your own if the spirit moves you. Alright, let’s start with the definition:

“What is organic?”

Although legal definitions vary by country, organic farming is generally defined as agriculture that refrains from the use of synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and genetically modified organisms (a whole ‘nother can of worms).  It is important to note that this is not the same as “pesticide free”, because “organic” denotes a wider range of prohibited chemicals.

“Isn’t everything organic?”

Too often when I explain the meaning of organic, this question pops up. This confusion stems from our disconnect with the entire food production system. Although we tend to think our food comes from sunny little farms owned by grandpas in overalls, modern agriculture is more similar in nature to a factory. The reality is that our food is sprayed, gassed, “fertilized” with raw sewage, and irradiated before its long journey to the table. So, the answer to that question is a resounding “no”—in fact, mostly everything in our grocery stores is not organic.

“This is just another one of those new-age hippie fads, isn’t it?”

The growing popularity of organic foods is often maligned as a trend. In truth, there is nothing new about organic agriculture—this is the way things have been done for thousands of years. What is new is the notion of intensive chemical treatment in the food process, and the organic movement is just the reaction to this.  It’s more of a revival, really.

“Why does it cost more?”

It’s cheap to douse your crops with toxic chemicals. Responsible alternatives are slightly more costly, such as pheromones, polyculture, trap crops, natural predators, and integrated pest management. Also, “conventional” agribusiness has lobbied effectively for government subsidies that allow them to keep their prices low. Many are pushing for the same privilege for organic growers, which would allow for more affordable prices. For those that can’t afford to always buy organic, the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list (http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary/) is pretty handy. It lists the fruits/veggies with the highest and lowest pesticide residues, so you can prioritize which foods are best bought organic.

“Are there really health benefits to eating organic?”

Organic produce has been shown to have a higher nutrient density (also known as an ANDI score). More important than its benefits, however, are the health risks you avoid by choosing organic. Every year an estimated 3 million agricultural workers experience severe pesticide poisoning, out of which approximately 18,000 die. This is just from handling the substance sprayed on the food, not from actually ingesting the food (and no, pesticide residue isn’t something you can wash off).  Atrazine (which is banned in the European Union, FYI) is known for being one of the most widely used herbicides in the world, particularly in the U.S. It’s also known to be a carcinogen linked to thyroid cancer, ovarian cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma.Methyl iodide, a pesticide and proven carcinogen purported to be “one of the most toxic chemicals on earth”, was just pulled from the U.S. market in March due to overwhelming protest when it was approved for use on strawberries. Recent research has also shown that prenatal exposure to pesticides impacts fetal brain development, which affects behavior, hormones, and attention levels. The bottom line here is that chemicals used to dissuade pests from crops also disrupt numerous processes in the human body in a very serious way. Let’s think about this: there’s a reason the bugs avoid it.

“Is organic better for the environment?”

Absolutely. The adverse effects of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals on the environment are perhaps even more serious than their health risks. Pesticide and synthetic fertilizer runoff has been regarded as the root cause of much ocean ecosystem disruption, such as the 22,000 square kilometer dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico (larger than New Jersey).  Pesticides have been known to destroy delicate ecologies, decrease water retention, drastically reduce biodiversity, cause pollinator decline (linked to Colony Collapse Disorder), and threaten many endangered species. Some pesticides have even been linked to ozone layer depletion.

Pesticides and other agricultural chemicals may seem like a convenient method of pest removal, when in reality the costs outweigh the benefits on a scale so gargantuan it’s kind of ridiculous. And terrifying. Just as with going vegan, there are many reasons for choosing organic, and at Seabirds we find them to be pretty convincing. What do you think?

As always, if you have any questions feel free to shoot us an email at SeabirdsTruck@gmail.com.

-Dirty Bird

Sources:

Miller GT (2004), Sustaining the Earth, 6th edition. Thompson Learning, Inc. Pacific Grove, California. Chapter 9, Pages 211-216.

http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/2005/1291/

http://www.chem.unep.ch/pops/ritter/en/ritteren.pdf

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