Total retail sales of the organic industry have reportedly risen from $1 billion in 1990 to $7.8 billion in 2000 . "Certified" organic cropland production expanded from about 400,000 acres in 1992 to 1,350,000 in 1999 . Despite this growth, the organic industry represents a very small percentage of total agricultural production and sales -- only about 0.3% of U.S. cropland and 0.2% of U.S. pasture was certified organic in 2001 [3,4].
The term "organic foods" refers to the methods used to produce the foods rather than to characteristics of the food themselves. The most common concept of "organically grown" food was articulated in 1972 by Robert Rodale, editor of Organic Gardening and Farming magazine, at a public hearing:
In 1980, a team of scientists appointed by the USDA concluded that there was no universally accepted definition of "organic farming." Their report stated:
Passage of the Organic Foods Production Act forced the USDA to develop an official definition. On December 16, 1997, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service proposed rules for a National Organic Program . The proposal applied to all types of agricultural products and all aspects of their production and handling, ranging from soil fertility management to the packaging and labeling of the final product. The proposal included: (a) national standards for production and handling, (b) a National List of approved synthetic substances, (c) a certification program, (d) a program for accrediting certifiers, (e) labeling requirements, (f) enforcement provisions, and (g) rules for importing equivalent products. The proposed rule defined organic farming and handling as:
The weed and pest-control methods to which this refers include crop rotation, hand cultivation, mulching, soil enrichment, and encouraging beneficial predators and microorganisms. If these methods are not sufficient, various listed chemicals can be used. (The list does not include cytotoxic chemicals that are carbon-based.) The proposal did not call for monitoring specific indicators of soil and water quality, but left the selection of monitoring activities to the producer in consultation with the certifying agent.
For raising animals, antibiotics would not be permitted as growth stimulants but would be permitted to counter infections. The rules permit up to 20% of animal feed to be obtained from non-organic sources. This was done because some nutrients (such as trace minerals) are not always available organically. Irradiation, which can reduce or eliminate certain pests, kill disease-causing bacteria, and prolong food shelf-life, would be permitted during processing. Genetic engineering would also be permissible.
Health-food-industry trade and consumer publications expressed widespread dissatisfaction with the 1997 proposal. The Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture, for example, called it "Fatally flawed."  The Organic Farmers Marketing Association stated:
The USDA received more than 270,000 comments on the proposed rules . One distributors' association official wrote that if the rules are implemented, its members would seek to buy its agricultural products from foreign sources. Others complained that the proposed fees were too high. Other objections included permitted use of amino acids as growth promoters, antibiotics (when necessary to save the animal's life), synthetic animal drugs, food additives, and animal feed from non-organic sources. Certification agencies with "higher standards" objected that they would be prohibited from stating this on their labels. Some poultry farmers objected to provisions enabling intermingling of range-free poultry and other poultry. However, the vast majority of the objections pertain to the provisions that permitted irradiation, genetic engineering, and the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer . The final regulations,published in December 2002, eliminated these three provisions. Canada, which in 1999 became the first country to establish a national organic standard, also excludes these methods .
Premium Price -- For What?
The organic rules are intended to address production methods rather than the physical qualities of the products themselves. In a news release that accompaied the 1997 rules,Glickman stated:
I disagree. Many consumers who "fork over a little more" believe that the foods themselves are more nutritious, safer, and tastier. But the USDA proposal itself noted that, "No distinctions should be made between organically and non-organically produced products in terms of quality, appearance, or safety." In other words, no claim should be made that the foods themselves are better -- or even different! Some consumers believe that buying "organic" foster agricultural practices that are better for the environment. (I disagree, I have eaten organic foods many times in my life and have always believed the foods taste much better. I don't like someone of *authority* to tell me that what I am tasting is not really what I am tasting. I can't believe people of *authority* are telling the masses that pesticide foods are no different than non-pesticide foods as far as nutrition and safety are concerned. -- Dazzle)
Organic foods are certainly not more nutritious . The nutrient content of plants is determined primarily by heredity. Mineral content may be affected by the mineral content of the soil, but this has no significance in the overall diet. If essential nutrients are missing from the soil, the plant will not grow. If plants grow, that means the essential nutrients are present. Experiments conducted for many years have found no difference in the nutrient content of organically grown crops and those grown under standard agricultural conditions. (Notice this statement is not documented -- Dazzle)
Many "organic" proponents suggest that their foods are safer because they have lower levels of pesticide residues. However, the pesticide levels in our food supply are not high. In some situations, pesticides even reduce health risks by preventing the growth of harmful organisms, including molds that produce toxic substances .
To protect consumers, the FDA sets tolerance levels in foods and conducts frequent "market basket" studies wherein foods from regions throughout the United States are purchased and analyzed. Its 1997 tests found that about 60% of fruits and vegetables had no detectable pesticides and only about 1.2% of domestic and 1.6% of imported foods had violative levels . Its annual Total Diet Study has always found that America's dietary intakes are well within international and Environmental Protection Agency standards.
Most studies conducted since the early 1970s have found that the pesticide levels in foods designated organic were similar to those that were not. In 1997, Consumer Reports purchased about a thousand pounds of tomatoes, peaches, green bell peppers, and apples in five cities and tested them for more than 300 synthetic pesticides. Traces were detected in 77% of conventional foods and 25% of organically labeled foods, but only one sample of each exceeded the federal limit .
Pesticides can locate on the surface of foods as well as beneath the surface. The amounts that washing can remove depends on their location, the amount and temperature of the rinse water, and whether detergent is used. Most people rinse their fruits and vegetables with plain water before eating them. In fact, Consumer Reports on Health has recommended this .Consumer Reports stated that it did not do so because the FDA tests unwashed products. The amount of pesticide removed by simple rinsing has not been scientifically studied but is probably small. Consumer Reports missed a golden opportunity to assess this.
Do pesticides found in conventional foods pose a health threat? Does the difference in pesticide content warrant buying "organic" foods? Consumer Reports equivocates: "For consumers in general, the unsettling truth is that no one really knows what a lifetime of consuming the tiny quantities of foods might do to a person. The effect, if any, is likely to be small for most individuals -- but may be significant for the population at large." But the editors also advise, "No one should avoid fruits and vegetables for fear of pesticides; the health benefits of these foods overwhelm any possible risk."
Manfred Kroger, Ph.D., Quackwatch consultant and Professor of Food Science at The Pennsylvania State University, has put the matter more bluntly:
"Organically grown" foods are not inherently tastier than conventionally grown foods. Taste is influenced by freshness, which may depend on how far the products must be shipped from farmer to consumer. What kinds of locally grown fruits and vegetables are available varies from community to community. Whether they are organically or conventionally produced is unlikely to make any difference. (I grew up on organic produce... and I can attest right now that the veggies I purchase at a grocery story DO NOT taste at all like the produce I grew up with! -- Dazzle)
In the early 1990s, Israeli researchers made 460 assessments of 9 different fruits and vegetables and no significant difference in quality between "organic" and conventionally grown samples . The Consumer Reports' study found no consistent differences in appearance, flavor, or texture.
Organically produced ("range-free) poultry are said to be raised in an environment where they are free to roam. To use this term, handlers must sign an affidavit saying that the chickens are provided with access to the outdoors. A recent taste test conducted by Consumer Reports rated two brands of free-range chicken as average among nine brands tested. Its March 1998 issue stated few chickens choose to roam and that one manager said that free-ranging probably detracts from taste because it decreases the quality of the bird's food intake .
Better for the Environment?
Many buyers of "organic" foods believe that the extra money they pay will ultimately benefit the environment by encouraging more farmers to use "organic" methods. But doing this cannot have much effect because "organic" agriculture is too inefficient to meet the world's food needs. Moreover, the dividing line between organic and conventional agriculture is not sharp because various practices are not restricted to one or the other. For example, "organic" farmers tend not to use pesticides, but faced with threatened loss of crops, they may change their mind. If certain patterns of pesticide use cause more harm than good and there is a way to remedy the situation, the people concerned about it can seek regulatory solutions. I don't believe that paying extra for food will benefit anybody but those who sell it.
The Bottom Line
The revised rules went into effect on October 21, 2002. The latest USDA definition states:
From now on, if you want to pay extra for your food, the U.S. Government will help you do so. Violators of the rules can be fined up to $10,000 per violation. But organic "certification," no matter what the rules, will not protect consumers. Foods certified as "organic" will neither be safer nor more nutritious than "regular" foods. They will just cost more and may lessen public confidence in the safety of "ordinary" foods. Instead of legitimizing health nonsense, our government should do more to attack its spread.
Am I off the wall or is this report misleading?
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