When the USDA Organic Standards were passed into law last October, many consumers of organic products had but one response: What took so long?
Mostly grown by small family farmers who use natural ecological processes rather than antibiotics, hormones, or conventional pesticides to build soil and protect crops from pests, organic foods are now guaranteed by the new Organic Seal. The seal confirms, via a certification process, that a product marked "100 percent organic" is, in fact, just that. Any food labeled "made with organic ingredients" must contain at least 70 percent organic contents. With less, its organic items can be detailed on the ingredient list, but the product itself cannot be called "organic." Terms like "all natural," "free range," or "sustainably harvested" are not regulated by law.
How does this affect those consumers who spend approximately $10 billion annually on organic products? "These new standards encourage an economy of scale, that allows the organic produce to compete with the conventional products and thus reach more people," says Robert Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, California. However, due to the costs of certification, he adds, "You'll see prices lower on bulk items like carrots, apples, and salads, but there may also be higher prices on herbs or seasonal fruits, such as peaches, which are grown in smaller quantities and have to travel."
Even with new label guidelines, it is important to realize that there can never be a guarantee that any food is 100 percent chemical-free. Pre-existing environmental pollution reaches everywhere in America, even to the most remote location. But still, by choosing organic, "you are minimizing exposure to the 8,000 to 9,000 chemicals used in conventional farming," says Scowcroft. More concentrated in food, these chemicals also linger in the soil and leach into the water supply, some with "half lives of 50 to 100 years," he adds. Organic farming is actually an excellent way to clean this up—but that's one of the main reasons organic foods usually cost more. "If agri-business had to pay for its own environmental cleanup, conventional broccoli wouldn't cost 18 percent less than organic," says Scowcroft. The demand for organic food speeds environmental cleanup by increasing the use of organically farmed acreage, which now accounts for less than 1 percent of cultivated land in the United States. Every organic purchase helps to reclaim this land. "We still have 50 years of cleanup ahead," he adds.