Is it Organic? And Is That Even The Right Question?
“Is it Organic?” we hear you ask. It’s one of the most common questions we get about our products – and rightly so. An interest in how ones’ food is produced, and what goes into it, is often a strong motivator for growing your own. It’s an important topic and a big part of the reason why Urban Leaf was formed.
The best answer we have to the organic question however, is “No it’s not USDA Certifiable Organic, but with all due respect we think you’re asking the wrong question.” Allow us to explain…
Personally, we place very little weight on an ‘Organic’ label when making food choices. ‘Organic’ tells us nothing about a long list of issues that are becoming increasingly important to those of us wanting to make smart food choices. Yes, Organic might tell us that certain types of pesticides haven’t been used (which is important) but there’s more to the story than that!
As a food identification label, ‘Organic’ tells us very little about sustainability, nutritional content or the social impact of our food choices. The ‘Organic’ label has, in many ways, become a food industry marketing gimmick, and that really frustrates us. Consumers’ desire to feel like they are doing the right thing, but confusion around what that actually means, has resulted in a food-marketers’ jackpot.
Here in New York, ‘Organic’ produce can command a price premium of as much as 100% over ‘conventional’ produce. But is it really worth the extra money?
What Does ‘Organic’ Mean?
The word organic is Greek in origin, coming from organon, which comes from the same root as erg, “work”, and which had the linked meaning of “implement, instrument, tool”, that is – something one works with. It’s been used to describe food produced without the aid of chemical fertilisers or pesticides since the early 1940’s.
Here in the US, the term has become synonymous with the USDA’s produce certification label that bares the same name. For those wanting to dive into the details the USDA website contains a ton of information about what their Organic certification means, but from a consumers’ perspective the important parts are:
- When packaged products indicate they are “made with organic ….”, this means they contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients. Yep, it’s not 100%.
- At the core of organic farming is the principal of soil maintenance via crop rotation and composting. Rotating crops provides the soil with an opportunity to self-replenish its nutrients. The (primary) alternative is industrial monoculture farming (which represents >90% of US farm production), where often the same crops are planted year after year. Without crop rotation, the same plants extract the same nutrients from the soil continually, and therefore replenishment has to come in the form of synthetic fertilizers. Where do synthetic fertilizers come from? The Oil & Gas industry. But that’s a story for another time…
- No prohibited substances have been applied for at least 3 years. Prohibited substances include most (but not all) synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
What Organic Does NOT mean
Should You Be Eating Organic?
- Both farms will likely be pesticide free. The ‘Organic’ label tells us nothing.
- One farm (the soil based) can require up to 10x more land to produce my food. That’s land that had to be cleared and would have otherwise had natural vegetation. Does buying organic mean I am supporting land clearing?
- Bringing the lettuce from California involves over 3,000 miles of trucking. I might be able to ride my bicycle over to pick up the other one. Does buying organic mean I am supporting fossil fuel consumption?
The True Believers
The point is that making food choices is not as simples as Organic = good and non-Organic = bad. It’s more nuanced than that.
Like we said at the beginning, when you ask “Is it Organic?” our best answer remains “no, the USDA would not classify this as Organic, but with all due respect we think you’re asking the wrong question.” Hopefully our answer makes a little more sense now?
With the benefit of having read this article, you might instead ask “Is it pesticide free, nutrient dense, does it offer peak flavor and freshness, is it packaging free, is it low on food-miles, is it sustainable and better for both my own health and that of the planet?”……. And if you did, our answer would be a resounding “YES!”