Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Does Certified Organic Mean What We Think It Does?

Food
Organic carrots and radishes at a farmers' market. carterdayne / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Brian Barth

There's something of a civil war brewing in the organic movement.


On one side are industry boosters boasting about how organic has gone mainstream. These folks are fine with a Big Ag version of organic agriculture — enormous monocrop fields and global distribution to every Walmart across the land. On the other side are purists who feel that the spirit of organic — building healthy soil, promoting biodiversity, focusing on small producers and distributing regionally — is no longer represented by the USDA certified organic label (hence the various alternative organic labels popping up).

The USDA certification has never explicitly required any of those things, however. Instead, organic rules focus primarily on substituting natural fertilizers and pest control methods for chemical ones. But even here things aren't quite as they seem.

Does Organic Mean Toxin-Free?

Not entirely. USDA standards allow the use of several dozen synthetic chemicals on certified organic farms, although most are fairly benign substances, and those that aren't tend to be heavily restricted in the ways that they can be applied (certain synthetic fertilizers are also permitted in limited circumstances). More of an issue is that some of the naturally derived substances permitted for use as pesticides are used in unnatural concentrations that make them highly toxic (to creatures such as bees, for example). Rotenone, a notoriously toxic but naturally derived pesticide, was on the list of permitted substances until last year.

Does Organic Mean Local?

Not at all. Organic products constitute around five percent of food sales in the U.S., but only about one percent of U.S. farmland is organic, suggesting that most organic food is imported. Organic certification does not take carbon footprints into account — and it's fairly clear that organic grapes flown in from Chile have a larger environmental impact than their locally grown but conventional counterparts.

Does Organic Mean Grown on a Small, Diversified Farm?

The organic standards say nothing about size and little about diversity. Things such as hedgerows for habitat are encouraged by the standards, but there is nothing in the rules that prevents organic farmers from planting monocultures fence line to fence line.

Does Organic Mean Livestock Roam Free and Forage on Grass?

This is an extremely contentious topic between Big Organic and the purists. Organic livestock must be provided access to the outdoors and, depending on the species, must receive a portion of their diet from foraging. But there are a lot of convoluted rules — some would call them loopholes— regarding how those requirements can be met. The bottom line is that it's possible to stick to the letter of the organic law and run a livestock operation that differs little from a confined animal feeding operation, aka factory farming.

Does Organic Mean Topsoil is Restored?

Rebuilding topsoil that teems with microbial life was the foundation of the organic movement in the 1960s. This was a response to the sterile, eroded soil that 20th-century conventional agriculture methods left across the planet. The inconvenient truth is that organic agriculture requires frequent cultivation to control weeds, leaving it bare and susceptible to erosion. In the 21st century, conventional agriculture is increasingly based on the use of herbicide-tolerant GMO crops that have vastly reduced the amount of tillage required, cutting down significantly on erosion (at the cost of greater herbicide use, however). Erosion as a result of frequent cultivation isn't much of an issue on a small diversified farm, but large monocultures of organic produce are likely to lose more topsoil each year than well-managed conventional ones.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Modern Farmer.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

The Pile River flows into the northern end of Lake Iliamna. The lake and its tributaries are the headwaters of the Bristol Bay region, one of the richest salmon fisheries in the world. Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wrote a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers last week to say that it would not oppose or put a stop to a huge copper and gold mine near the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery, as The Washington Post reported.

Read More Show Less
A crowd of protestors on May 31, 2020 in Washington, DC. Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images

The nationwide horror at the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police has triggered protests in 75 cities. People are demonstrating against the systemic racism that has made people of color targets of lethal actions by law enforcement. In response, elected officials and public health experts are walking a fine line of affirming the rights of protestors while simultaneously worrying that the protests will lead to a new wave of coronavirus infections.

Read More Show Less
Increasing your exercise intensity is fairly simple to do. You can still participate in your favorite activities — just at a more vigorous pace. SrdjanPav / Getty Images

By Sara Lindberg

Whether you've hit a workout plateau or you're just ready to turn things up a notch, adding more strenuous exercise — also known as high-intensity exercise — to your overall fitness routine is one way to increase your calorie burn, improve your heart health, and boost your metabolism.

However, to do it safely and effectively, there are some guidelines you should follow. Keep reading to learn more about the benefits of vigorous exercise and how to safely dial up the intensity of your workouts.

Read More Show Less
As restoration managers repair damaged corals, sound recordings can help jumpstart the process of restoring vibrant – and noisy – coral reef ecosystems. CC by 2.0

A healthy coral reef is a noisy place.

Read More Show Less
While it's often dismissed as stuff for kids, a lot of grownups secretly savor it. TheCrimsonMonkey / Getty Images

By Jeffrey Miller

In January 2015, food sales at restaurants overtook those at grocery stores for the first time. Most thought this marked a permanent shift in the American meal.

Read More Show Less
A man observes the damages caused to his neighborhood from Tropical Storm Amanda on May 31, 2020 in San Salvador, El Salvador. Guillermo Martínez / APHOTOGRAFIA / Getty Images

At least 14 people were killed when Tropical Storm Amanda walloped El Salvador Sunday, Interior Minister Mario Duran said.

Read More Show Less

Trending

About EcoWatch

A fire in Greenland on July 10. Zombie fires smolder underground for months, notably in dense peatlands, and then flare-up when it grows warmer and drier. NASA

By Mark Kaufman

Some fires won't die.

They survive underground during the winter and then reemerge the following spring, as documented in places like Alaska. They're called "overwintering," "holdover," or "zombie" fires, and they may have now awoken in the Arctic Circle — a fast-warming region that experienced unprecedented fires in 2019. The European Union's Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service is now watching these fires, via satellite.

Read More Show Less