Organic Products: What does it mean, and what do I need to know?

Organic. It's a word you can find just about anywhere today, whether it's at the supermarket, at the garden store or even at your local pet shop. Organic agriculture has become a phenomenon in the past two decades. Since the 1990's, the organic food market has seen enormous growth, every year. So what is it and why is it becoming popular?

The common, loose definition of organic agriculture is the use of methods and materials that aren't harmful for the environment. As one organic manufacturer puts it, "It is a commitment to agricultural practices that strive for a balance with nature."

It all sounds very good, and it's not a big surprise that it has caught on with consumers. But the above definition is broad and vague. What does "balance with nature" mean? How do we determine how harmful a particular method or material is? It's not all so straightforward, so let's examine it more closely.

Agriculture under the microscope

Because agriculture deals with a whole array of practices and processes, from planting all the way to harvesting, it's not so simple to determine what's "harmful" and what's not. For instance, many different types of pesticides and insecticides are used on farms. Some are much more harmful than others. Some are fairly safe, but have other disadvantages such as cost or effectiveness. Where do you draw the line?

Advocates of organic food often argue that all pesticides, insecticides, and (in the case of livestock) antibiotics and growth hormones should be completely avoided. They are not natural and may damage the environment, as well as potentially harm our health. Fertilizers should only be natural, they claim, and genetically modified crops are unacceptable. The result is that the plants are grown with much less interference.

What's in a name?

The word "organic" has a long history. It started out as a label for "organic material", which means any material coming from an organism. It later became important in chemistry: "organic chemistry" is a large branch of chemistry which deals with carbon-based compounds. Only in recent years has it been applied to agriculture.

"Organic" is thus already used in other fields. Is it a proper label for what it means? In other languages, other words are used. In French, the term used is the equivalent of "biological". In Swedish and Polish, among others, the word is "ecological".

It becomes clear that the word is, after all, just a label. But taking into consideration what we mean when we use it, the word "ecological" is perhaps the closest to the definition. Organic farming is, after all, an attempt to apply principles of ecology to agriculture.

The benefits of going organic

There are much greater costs and more work involved in organic crops. Is it worth it?

Some experts say, definitely yes. Studies have shown that organic vegetables contain much less chemicals such as those in pesticides. An analysis of blood tests of children was done before and after they switched to an organic diet. The results indicate that the levels of organophosphorus pesticide chemicals in their blood greatly decreased after they started eating only organic foods. While some say that the levels of pesticides in regular crops are far below harmful levels, others caution that even in small amounts, these chemicals could have long-term harmful effects.

Other studies suggest that organic fruits and vegetables contain more healthy nutrients, such as antioxidants. Other sources claim that fruits grown organically are firmer and sweeter. It's not clear how much truth there is to this, but one thing is probable: for most people, the fact that they are eating something naturally grown, without artificial chemicals involved, is satisfaction enough to make their food seem tastier.

Overall impact

One major downside of organic farming is smaller yields. For the same amount of land, 20% less food is produced by organic farms. This makes organic farming an unlikely possibility where farm land is already scarce. This, in part, is why organic foods are, and will continue to be, more expensive. In areas where hunger is a problem, organic farming does not offer a solution.

It's important to remember that organic foods can still get contaminated by pesticides in markets or in transport, or on the farms themselves. Pesticide residue are found on 25% of organic foods. This is a great improvement over the 77% of conventional foods, but it is far from perfect.

A step in the right direction

Organic farming practices have progressed very much in the last decades, and the phenomenon has grown immensely. In the face of the increasing use of artificial products, and new techniques like genetic modification, organic agriculture is a refreshing return to a more natural way of living. Will science end up solving the problems faced by our environment? It remains to be seen, but until then, we can each do our part and contribute to make the world greener and our health better.

What's are your thoughts? Contribute in our discussion forum. We'd love to hear from you. Also, stay tuned for the third installment of our article series, on the topic of genetically modified foods. It's an important subject to understand, with many repercussions, and we'll be looking at what the truths and myths are surrounding it.