As a child, I grew up on an organic farm, so organics to me are just “food”. My father struggled with the pressures by “The Bank” and his neighboring farmers to turn to conventional farming with all the pesticides and large tractors involved in modern farming. But he held his course for several years, rewarded with abundant crops and a healthy environment. Along with the typical West Texas crops of cotton and grain sorghum, he experimented with fields of sunflowers and that strange-at-the-time crop of soybeans, which a neighbor farmer gladly purchased to feed his livestock. He rotated crops, used ground cover to kill weeds, left certain areas of land fallow (left un-sown for a period in order to restore its fertility as part of a crop rotation or to avoid surplus production), watered discriminately, “rented” pieces of land to be enriched by cattle. It was a beautiful way to grow up.
I know he read information from J.I. Rodale, founder of the Rodale Research Institute and Organic Farming and Gardening magazine, commonly regarded as the father of the modern organic farming movement. Rodale provided the main source of information about “non-chemical” farming methods and was heavily influential in the development of organic production methods. I’ve discovered that Rodale drew many of his ideas from Sir Albert Howard, a British scientist who spent years observing traditional systems in India. Howard advocated agricultural systems “reliant upon returning crop residues, green manures and wastes to soil, and promoted the idea of working with nature by using deep-rooted crops to draw nutrients from the soil”.(Sare.org)
But even more than these two forerunners of the current organic/environmental movements worldwide, my father was inspired by Rachel Carson and her thoroughly researched book “Silent Spring“. Carson’s alarm over the widespread and indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides struck a cord with my father. And when I read “Silent Spring” a couple of years ago, I realized we’ve made little progress except for a growing awareness and resulting growth in farmers markets and organic sections at stores such as Walmart. But organics are still a small part of typical American shopping habits.
Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990 to develop a national standard for organic food and fiber production. OFPA mandated that USDA develop and write regulations to explain the law to producers, handlers and certifiers. “Organic” now is a labeling term that indicates that food has been grown following the federal guidelines of the OFPA. Any farms or handling operations with less than $5,000 a year in organic agricultural products are exempt from certification. Those producers may label their products organic if they follow the standards, but they are prohibited from displaying the USDA Organic Seal. The EU also has a strict organic program.
Requirements vary from country to country, and generally involve a set of production standards for growing, storage, processing, packaging and shipping that include:
- avoidance of synthetic chemicals such as synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives, or irradiation, or sewage sludge;
- avoidance of genetically modified seed;
- use of farmland that has been free from prohibited chemical inputs for a number of years (often, three or more);
- for livestock, adhering to specific requirements for feed, housing, and breeding;
- keeping detailed written production and sales records (audit trail);
- maintaining strict physical separation of organic products from non-certified products;
- undergoing periodic on-site inspections.
In the US, USDA organic regulations define standards that “integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” Organic agricultural operations should ultimately maintain or improve soil and water quality, and conserve wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife.These standards echo Rodale’s, Howard’s, and Carson’s vision of an environment in balance, though there are many disagreements as the whether the USDA goes far enough in protecting and nourishing our environment.
Some reasons I steadfastly reach, and pay more, for organics today are 1) pesticides stay in your body for years (some banned decades ago are found in our bodies and our children’s bodies), 2) surface water contaminated with pesticides run off into lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and oceans affect wild animals, fish, and birds, 3) organic farms help control soil erosion through tillage, cover crops, wind breaks and other organic farming practices (for the adverse effects of soil erosion, read about the Dust Bowl here http://www.history.com/topics/dust-bowl), 4) organic farming may use 23% to 56% less fossil fuels.
And if you’d like to feed yourself more organics, a great list from EWG.org and in “Print” form on our website under “Why Organics?” gives you lists of which fruits and vegetables are fine not organic and which ones you should splurge on only buying organic. It’s a great list to carry with you to the market.