Ode to Organics

There has been a lot of debate about organically grown foods. What does it mean, does it matter?

To begin with: Organic vs. Conventional = HUGE business and money battles. Sadly, over a decade ago when I began to dive deeper into nutrition research, I was so disheartened to see that money and lobbyists are often driving forces behind a lot of health recommendations and pushes, not necessarily actual health science nor ethics.

The definition for Organics gets specific when it comes to processed foods, and I can touch on that in the future. But for now, we’ll look at fresh produce – fruits and vegetables. Fruit and vegetables basically are either organically grown, or they are conventionally grown.  Other terms you may see, such as “Rainforest Alliance” or “Fair Trade,” etc, are nice and worth supporting – but don’t necessarily have anything to do with the organic growing practices. 

So back to those two main questions: what does “organic” mean, and does it matter?

I have a hunch that once we talk about what it means, you will be able to decide for yourself the answer for the latter query.

There are some key points laid out in the USDA Organic Standard rules [1] that crop growers must meet in order to be “certified organic”:

  • Land must have had no prohibited substances applied to it for at least 3 years before the harvest of an organic crop.
  • Soil fertility and crop nutrients will be managed through tillage and cultivation practices, crop rotations, and cover crops, supplemented with animal and crop waste materials and allowed synthetic materials.
  • Crop pests, weeds, and diseases will be controlled primarily through management practices including physical, mechanical, and biological controls. When these practices are not sufficient, a biological, botanical, or synthetic substance approved for use on the National List may be used.
  • Operations must use organic seeds and other planting stock when available.
  • The use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation and sewage sludge is prohibited.

It’s that last one that really gets most people. Think that that means if you’re NOT getting organically grown foods!

I personally and professionally recommend people do their best to avoid genetically engineered foods, irradiated foods, and sewage sludge.

If you shop at local farmers markets, just ask them about their growing practices, and how long their soil has been chemical free. The official “Certified” labels are expensive, so sometimes they may forego the inspections but still follow good practices.

If you shop at a grocery store, foods will be labeled.  Often, if you look at the number code sticker on produce, it will start with a 9.  For example, conventional bananas at my store have code number 4011; organic bananas are 94011. Then the sticker also states, “organic.”

Opponents of organic labeling continue to put pressure on the government. Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at NYU, writes in her book What to Eat [2]:

“Opponents of organics – and there are many, work hard to make you doubt the reliability of organic certification, to weaken the Organic Standards (so you really will have something to doubt), and to make you wonder whether organics are any better than conventionally grown foods.”

She goes on to say:

“But as for attempts to weaken the rules, think ‘relentless.’ Political appointees at the USDA are always looking for loopholes that might favor conventional growers. Just before issuing the Organic Standards, for example, the USDA said it would be fine for farmers to use genetically modified seeds, irradiation, and sewage sludge, and still call their crops organic. After a barrage of 275,000 outraged letters, the agency backed off this peculiar idea.”

Fortunately, for now, the term “organic” is still meaningful thanks to those Organic Standard rules, though companies that work with GMO foods are constantly pushing to be allowed to introduce their foods into the “organic” sector.

I consider it an investment in my future health as well as the health of the soil and the earth to pay the extra for organics whenever possible. But, if money is tight, I encourage my clients to at least treat themselves to the organically grown versions of the “dirty dozen,” the top 12 pesticide-rich produce items; and worry less about those that have become known as the “Clean 15”  The Environmental Working Group updates this list annually.

So give yourself the best! Your healthy is worth protecting!

**Side notes:

The new addition of lines such as “When these practices are not sufficient, a biological, botanical, or synthetic substance approved for use on the National List may be used” do have me concerned. That line was not in the USDA Organic rules when I first researched Organics back in 2010 and wrote a similar post to this one. The vagueness of that line is the crack in the door that may later allow for “approved” controls that are money-driven. Something to watch.

The movies “King Corn,” “Future of Food,” and “Food, Inc.” are great documentaries going over the dangers of GMOs and what’s happening to our food sources!

[1] USDA Organic Standards. Accessed 30 March, 2020.
[2] Nestle, Marion, What To Eat. North Point Press, 2007.
[3] Environmental Working Group, 2020 Ditry Dozen and Clean 15. Accessed 30 March 2020.

Published by Kate Cline, RD

Registered Dietitian with a focus on Gut Health, Inflammation, and Functional Nutrition. Personal Trainer with a focus on corrective exercise. Yoga teacher, traveler, empowerment coach.

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