What Does Organic Mean?

And Should You Be Buying it?

What exactly does “organic” mean?

Most of us hear the term “organic” and our minds immediately translate to healthy, high quality, or expensive. I won’t lie, those are mostly correct, but there’s a lot more to know…

The USDA certifies that organic foods follow strict guidelines regarding soil quality, animal raising practices, prohibited substances, and genetic modification. Essentially that boils down to these 5 points:

  1. No synthetic or chemical fertilizers
  2. No herbicides
  3. No pesticides
  4. No growth hormones or antibiotics
  5. No GMOs

So far so good, but does it justify the extra 60 cents?

Generic products are cheaper, there’s no doubt about it. But, the relative savings come at a hidden price.

Let’s just hone in on the chemicals for a minute:

Chemicals effectively kill off weeds and pests which increases yield.

More product = lower prices

Lower prices = happy customers!

Here’s the catch

Chemicals also create unsafe conditions for workers who are sent into the field too soon after being sprayed. Studies also show evidence that organic farmers and their families generally report better health compared to their conventionally farming neighbors.

Further down the line, more persistent chemicals make their way into natural bodies of water and have been known to cause deformities and high death rates in frog populations!

That’s not all, they similarly disrupt native fish populations and, when transferred into pollen, are believed to be a leading cause of colony collapse disorder. So if you have a tote bag with “Save the bees!” printed on it, you should make an effort to fill that thing with at least a few organic items. 

The last stop on these chemical’s grand tour is often our own bodies, where they’re associated with increased rates of cancer and lowered sperm count. Whether they settled in our bodies through drinking water or the food chain, it’s hard to tell; certain chemicals can live on in the soil and fatty tissue of the animals we consume, only becoming more concentrated as time goes on.

So is organic the only way to eat sustainably?

No way! It’s just one environmental indicator to look out for.

When you see “100% organic” on a product it simply means it was produced entirely following rigorous USDA production guidelines.

However, in multi-ingredient products, the following has to be true:

“organic” = 95% of the ingredients must be certified organic.

“made with organic ingredients” = at least 70% the ingredients have to be certified organic.

But here’s where it gets messy: the use of chemicals isn’t the only unsustainable practice we need to worry about when purchasing food. Organic certification guidelines focus on production and not distribution.

Shipping:

When you see “organic” on a product you can do a little happy dance knowing that that purchase won’t put a slew of chemicals into the environment. BUT, you should pay close attention to where that item was grown or produced.

If you live in New York, it’s rather unlikely that your organic mango was grown down the street. Shipping food across the world in refrigerated containers burns a whole lot of fuel. All said and done, if your organic food has to travel around the world to reach your plate, it may negate the initial environmental benefits of the production phase.

Now, I’d still argue that conventionally produced food often travels just as far and uses harmful chemicals, so keep that organic mango in your cart if your only other option is an inorganic mango.

But, if you want to be a real eco-superstar I’d head to the local farmers market and see what fruits can be grown a little closer to home. If you’re willing to ignore your tropical fruit craving to support a sustainable local apple farm instead, you deserve high-fives from at least six strangers. Those are the rules.

Or, if mangoes grow locally where you live, I’m jealous and coming to visit.

Packaging:

I’m not going to go into crazy detail here, basically, the same thinking holds true for packaging.

Say there are two identical spring salad mixes that have both been shipped from Arizona and stored in plastic containers. One is organic, one is not. If you want to be a friend to the earth, you choose organic.

However, if you want to be an even better friend to the earth, you go for the secret third option – an unpackaged head of lettuce. Or, better yet, hop on your bike with some reusable bags in hand, and fill your basket with plastic-free lettuce that’s been grown locally.

Next Steps

I’d be a massive hypocrite if I told ya’ll to eat locally, organically, and zero-waste all the time.

I don’t even own a bike with a basket to ride to the farmers market. I do daydream about that lifestyle, though and when I get the chance to roll up to my local co-op I do it with Ilana-level enthusiasm:

The purpose of thinking through these options is so that we can become more conscious consumers and choose which practices align with our lives and our personal values.

You’re totally allowed to read this and decide that reducing your carbon footprint by eating locally, even if that means eating conventionally grown local food, is more your speed (or budget).

Personally, I’m afraid to make direct eye contact with Whole Foods. Every time I’m within 50 feet of one I swear I can hear my credit card faintly screaming in terror. So, when I reach for organic foods it’s usually at a store like Aldi and when I’m at a farmers market and I see some gorgeous beets, I won’t *beet* myself up if they’re not organic. Food puns, nice.

It’s all about making small, thoughtful changes in your life that you can stick to. If you think organic is something you can begin to prioritize, let me know in the comments!

Your sustainable lifestyle coach,

Should you buy organic?
Yes!
If it's within your budget, you should definitely be prioritizing organic food. To boost the eco-impact of organics, be sure to keep an eye out for local and unpackaged options as well.
Cost
3
Impact
9
Wellness
10
Pro
Better for the environment
Better for farmers
Better for human health
Con
More expensive
Shipping
7.3