Truth is, things have changed. Run out of organic milk and you don't need to make a special trip to the natural-foods co-op -- your local supermarket most likely has several brands. From ice cream to salsa to peanut butter, the organic supply keeps proliferating. So have the places that sell these foods; mainstream retailers now account for nearly half of all organics sales.
The numbers underscore the industry's success: In 2005, we bought about 55 percent more organic meat and poultry than the year before, nearly 25 percent more organic dairy, and more than 10 percent more organic produce -- to the tune of $13.8 billion. That's still less than 3 percent of the overall market, but compared to 1997, the figure has tripled. And consumers keep clamoring for more.
But along with growth comes change -- and often confusion. We dug up the facts, stats, and expert opinions to answer the 10 most burning questions about this important issue.
1. What does the organic label really mean?
There's a federal standard for what makes a product organic, but there's also a deeper ideal and belief system that the government's wording does not encompass. First, the standard: Outlined by the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, it applies to "any agricultural product from livestock or crop marketed as organic in the United States," says Joan Shaffer, a spokeswoman for the National Organic Program. (Standards are under review for seafood.) Unlike conventional producers, organic farmers can't use fertilizers made with sewage sludge, sow genetically modified (GM) crops (foods inserted with the genes of a different organism -- like a tomato with a fish gene), or sterilize goods by irradiation (which reduces spoilage and kills bacteria and pests). They also can't use most conventional pesticides. In addition, organic meat, dairy, poultry, and egg farmers must use only 100 percent organic feed, allow their animals access to the outdoors, and avoid using growth hormones and antibiotics.
Organic processed foods follow guidelines as well: If you see the "100% Organic" label, the product contains only organic ingredients; the "Organic" label means it has at least 95 percent organic ingredients; and a "Made With Organic Ingredients" label indicates at least 70 percent of the ingredients are organic. All other products can't use the term "organic" anywhere on the front of the package; it can only be used to identify individual ingredients in the small print near the nutrition information.
Of course, standards don't mean anything unless they're enforced. Farms undergo yearly inspections and unannounced spot checks by USDA-accredited third-party certifiers. Farmers need five years of records, including invoices, and a plan that explicitly details their methods of pest control and fertility management. Companies that handle or process organic food have to be certified as well.
But for many fans of organics, the seal represents something that transcends labels and inspections -- the spirit of a now decades-old movement. "There's the actual standard itself, but then there's the idea of a holistic system -- trying to be in harmony with nature rather than tame it," says Theresa Marquez, chief marketing executive for CROPP Cooperative and Organic Valley Family of Farms. "One of the key thoughts behind organic is that there's a balance between what you need to do to farm and what's good for the earth."
It doesn't say anything about food safety or nutrition, and it covers treatment of animals only to a degree. For example, farmers must give their animals "access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, and direct sunlight suitable to the species, its stage of production, the climate, and the environment"; ruminants also require "access to pasture." But exactly what "access" means isn't specifically defined. If animals are confined but the barn door is open, does that still count as access to the outdoors? How long should cows be allowed to graze -- five minutes or five hours? The standard also doesn't address fair-trade issues like decent working conditions for farmers and their workers and fair prices and wages. Only a Fair Trade Certified label vouches for that.
3. Are organic foods more nutritious?
Intuitively, many would offer an emphatic "yes!" -- but such claims are hard to prove. Historically undersubsidized compared to conventional agriculture, the organics industry hasn't had the funds to support extensive research on this issue. Nevertheless, a few studies have shown higher levels of nutrients in certain items -- more vitamin C and phytochemicals in oranges, for instance, and higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in milk. Studies or no studies, the tenets of good nutrition still apply: Organic junk food (think: "organic Oreo") isn't good for you.
Local and organic is best. "Nutrients get lost the second fruits and vegetables are harvested," says Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation -- so local can mean fresher. But that same local, nonorganic farmer may also spray pesticides. "Who cares if it's locally grown," says Marquez of the CROPP Cooperative, "if they're using methyl bromide on their strawberries?"
Some point out that local has the edge when it comes to transportation, since less mileage to reach the consumer means less fuel -- and a lower toll on the environment. But that's not always the case, says Gary Hirshberg, chairman, president, and CEO of Stonyfield Farm. "When we started our company in New Hampshire almost 25 years ago, we had customers in Burlington, Vermont; New York City; and Washington, D.C. We sat down and assessed the energy it would take to get our yogurt to those places," he says. "As it turned out, the energy required to get it to Burlington was about twice what it took to get it to New York, even though Burlington was much closer." The reason? The trucks going to New York were full, so the amount of energy was spread over more cups of yogurt. "It was kind of a shocker," he recalls.
For those who'd argue that organic always trumps local, Anna Lappe, cofounder of the Small Planet Institute and coauthor of "Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen," says the USDA seal doesn't always tell the whole story. "It's not just about ecological sustainability. It's also about social sustainability -- creating and supporting ways to grow food that provides adequate income back to farmers," she says. "The organic seal is important, but I look for other things, too. A lot of farmers who aren't certified organic have as much of a sustainable practice as those who are."
5. What are the benefits of organic foods?
By eating organic, you lessen your exposure to antibiotics, GM crops, hormones, irradiated foods, and pesticides. Organic production also helps the environment by not polluting groundwater with pesticides, contributing to widespread antibiotic resistance, or encouraging the spread of GM seeds, the future consequences of which still aren't clear. The science behind these issues varies, though, with some claims and studies more convincing than others. We know that overuse of antibiotics contributes to the development of drug-resistant bacteria, for example, but we don't know whether trace amounts in food have detrimental health effects on individuals. Given the lack of clarity on some issues, it makes sense to err on the side of caution and go organic -- especially while we await more long-term studies. For more information on specific foods, see "The Complete Organics Buying Guide," below.
The hand labor required for pest and weed control ($400 to $1,200 an acre) costs far more than most pesticides (about $40 an acre), Scowcroft says. And organic feed for animals is pricier because it's comparatively scarce. In fact, supply has a lot to do with the cost of organics. At times there hasn't been enough of a product to satisfy demand, thus driving up prices. "As the volume goes up, organics should become less and less expensive," says Hirshberg. "Our organic sugar, for example, actually is now close to the same cost as conventional sugar. Five years ago, it cost 100 percent more."
There's more to the issue, however, than the laws of simple economics. The government inequitably subsidizes conventional agriculture, un-naturally dropping the price of conventional food. "You're not necessarily comparing apples to apples," says Holly Givens, public-affairs adviser for the Organic Trade Association. "Plus, the nonorganic farmer might be using a pesticide that gets into the water, and he's not paying the cost of cleaning it up." Instead, she says, taxpayers get cheaper food, but they end up paying for the cleanup efforts.
7. Can I trust organics from other countries?
In this globalized era, organic strawberries may come from Mexico and organic milk powder from New Zealand. But no matter where it originated, all organic food sold in this country must adhere to the USDA standards. Because of this, about 40 USDA-approved third-party certifiers are based abroad. Despite these efforts, however, rumors persist over whether China, in particular, is playing by the rules. For instance, watchdogs at the Cornucopia Institute, a farm-policy research and advocacy group, assert that organic production there is not being properly monitored. For consumers who can only go by what they hear in the media, it's difficult to know who to trust.
Stonyfield's Hirshberg says companies serious about being part of the organics industry will take the necessary steps to make sure their products and reputation are solid. Stonyfield Farm once had to buy strawberries from China, he says, and so engaged three independent auditors to inspect production before purchasing them. "When you put 'organic' on your label, you're entering a good-faith contract with your consumer," Hirshberg explains. "On the one hand, that contract says that I, the consumer, will pay you a little more for it -- but you damn well better be straight with me, because if I find out you're not, you'll never be forgiven."
It's always a good idea to wash fruits and vegetables, if only to remove the dirt. "But since some pesticides can penetrate the skin of the plant," notes Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), "washing won't remove them."
9. What's the problem with big business?
Some activists fear the organics industry will lose its integrity. For one, there's the specter of large corporations pressuring the government into watering down its standards. "Big players may decide they don't like the rules as the organics market continues to grow," says Scowcroft.
There's also the fear that some bigger companies will try to dodge the standards. Case in point: Last September, Mark Kastel, cofounder of the Cornucopia Institute, accused Wal-Mart of incorrectly labeling nonorganic yogurt as organic, and of placing nonorganic processed products in a cooler meant to contain organic produce. In November, the institute filed a legal complaint with the USDA against the company. Adds the OCA's Cummins: "There's tremendous pressure to drive down prices and standards and import cheap, dubious organic food from [places like] China." This, warn advocates, would tarnish the organic label for everyone. And some activists believe importing any organics or even transporting organic products across the country goes against the spirit of the movement.
With the growing consumer demand for organic dairy products, large-scale organic dairies have been particularly singled out lately, with critics decrying both the inadequate access to pasture given to cows and the large amounts of grain (albeit organic) fed to them, instead of grass. Although these practices aren't outlawed by the standard, they go against the spirit of the movement, say activists, and run counter to the growing call for more humane treatment of farm animals across the board.
Their involvement should help bring down the price of some organic foods, opening the market to an entirely new (and huge) group of people. And customers who first encounter organics at big retailers might eventually end up buying them elsewhere, making the big retailer something of a gateway.
Currently, there aren't enough supplies of raw materials for some organic foods, says Givens of the OTA, but more big players will mean more facilities and shipping channels that can also be used by small farms.
More organic demand also means more organic products -- and that translates into more organic farmland. "Imagine 5,000 acres with no chemicals on them," says Scowcroft of the OFRF. "Remember that after 30 years of being a passionate movement, organics are still only 2.5 percent of the food supply. I've gotten some heat for saying this, but we're not exactly in a position to dictate who buys from us."
What are you really getting when you pay a little extra for organic? It depends on the food. Here's an expert list of what to buy organic -- and when.
Fruits and Vegetables
Why Buy Organic? When you eat conventional produce, pesticides and chemicals tend to show up in your body. The long-term health effects are unclear, but why risk it? The nonprofit Environmental Working Group studied 43 fruits and vegetables and ranked them according to contamination. Choose organic versions of the 12 worst offenders and you'll reduce your exposure by almost 90 percent: peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, grapes (imported), spinach, lettuce, potatoes.
Do You Know? A diet containing the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables exposes a person to an average of 15 pesticides a day.
Peanuts, Soybeans, and Corn
Why Buy Organic? Peanuts rank among the top 10 foods contaminated with persistent organic pollutants, says the Pesticide Action Network. These chemicals linger in the environment for years and can also build up in the body's fatty tissues. As for soybeans, 85 percent of the 2004 crop was genetically modified (GM). Experts warn against buying GM foods since their effects haven't been adequately studied -- on us or the earth. The same warning goes for corn. nearly half of all corn planted in America in 2004 was GM.
Do You Know? Americans eat about 2.4 billion pounds of peanuts every year -- about half as peanut butter. From 2000 to 2005, more than 2,100 new foods containing soy hit the U.S. market.
Why Buy Organic? To enhance growth, conventional farmers often give their cows hormones. The FDA says they're safe, but the European Union disagrees -- and has banned their use. Farmers also give cows antibiotics even when they're not sick, contributing to antibiotic resistance. Cows excrete antibiotics and hormones into the environment, too, potentially harming local ecosystems. Finally, the "food" conventional cows eat (like manure) would make your stomach turn. Organically raised cows eat organic feed and grass.
Do You Know? In 2004, consumers spent more than $70 billion on beef. In 2005, sales of organic beef totaled nearly $49 million, according to the OTA.
Why Buy Organic? The red flag here is recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), a synthetic drug given to cows to increase milk production. Milk from these cows contains higher levels of a natural growth factor called IGF-1. Some experts link excess levels of it in humans to breast and prostate cancers. Although the FDA says it's safe, the European Union has banned the drug. Use of rBGH also increases infections in cows, prompting farmers to administer even more antibiotics.
Do You Know? Large farms with 500 or more milk cows represented less than 4 percent of all dairy farms in 2004 but produced nearly half of America's milk.
Pork, Poultry, and Eggs
Why Buy Organic? Farmers use antibiotics on these animals in the same preventive way as with cattle, again contributing to the rise of resistant bacteria and potentially harming local ecosystems. And, like cattle, conventional hogs and poultry eat a range of stomach-turning "foods." In a 2006 study by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) of supermarket chicken products, more than half of the samples tested positive for arsenic. One of the IATP's recommendations? Buy organic.
Do You Know? Healthy U.S. hogs and poultry ingest about 20 million pounds of antibiotics annually; in comparison, 3 million pounds treat sick people.
Chocolate and Coffee
Why Buy Organic? Both crops naturally grow in the shade. But to meet increasing demand, farmers favor sun-loving varieties, resulting in clear-cutting and heavy pesticide use. Cacao, which is used to make chocolate, is one of the world's most heavily sprayed crops, according to the United Kingdom's Soil Association. The Commission for Environmental Cooperation tells us that if half of North America's 15 million college students chose organic, shade-grown coffee, they would prevent 3,885 tons of chemical fertilizers and 660 tons of pesticides from poisoning the earth.
Do You Know? The organic standard doesn't cover fair trade. To ensure just compensation for farmers, look for both the Fair Trade Certified label and organic seal on chocolate and coffee.
Text by Mary Carmichael; photography by Jonathan Kantor. Mary Carmichael is a contributing writer at Newsweek.
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