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My friend Ruth couldn’t come to sauna the other night. She said she had food poisoning from the nitrates in the bacon she had eaten earlier in the day. I looked up nitrates and learned that sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are used to keep red meat looking red, and with limited scientific proof, to inhibit botulism. The nitrates wouldn’t have been in the bacon had it been certified organic.

What is in our food these days, and what does the certified organic label really mean?

First, let’s look at the labeling system. The Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) was passed by the US Congress in 1990. Their objective was to ensure that all agricultural products marked as organic would meet consistent and uniform standards with the USDA Organic label. In 2002 imported products labeled organic had to meet the US standards as well.

USDA Organic Standards

The ‘organic standards’ describe the specific requirements that must be verified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent before products can be labeled USDA organic. Overall, organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.

Organic crops:

The USDA organic seal verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms were not used.

Organic livestock:

The USDA organic seal verifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors.

Organic multi-ingredient foods:

The USDA organic seal verifies that the product has 95% or more certified organic content. If the label claims that it was made with specified organic ingredients, you can be sure that those specific ingredients are certified organic.

The extensive standards that the Certified Organic Label covers include both the growing and the handling of products. Farmers wishing to be certified must find non-toxic, biological or mechanical ways of reducing pests, weeds and disease. Minimal tillage is usually practiced to maintain soil fertility, with the addition of natural fertilizers, mulch, composts and manures that help build the soil. They must use careful management techniques, such as crop rotation, crop selection, and the introduction of beneficial insects that create a balanced predator-prey relationship. For livestock, care must be taken to promote animal health by providing living conditions with enough space for the animal’s behavioral needs, organic feed, and careful management of water and waste.

All these practices are aimed at protecting the environment, minimizing soil degradation, and optimizing biological diversity and productivity while promoting healthy conditions.

All these practices are aimed at protecting the environment, minimizing soil degradation, and optimizing biological diversity and productivity while promoting healthy conditions.

Now comes the list of forbidden products. They include: GMO’s, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, sewage sludge, growth regulators, synthetic veterinary drugs and antibiotics, food additives – including nitrates, radiated ingredients, cloned animals or their descendants, and nano-technology.

With all these do’s and don’ts, who is looking at the farms and their practices? How do we know these labels, and their higher prices, mean something?

Eighty five certifying agents are currently USDA-accredited and authorized to certify operations to the USDA organic standards. Of these, 49 are based in the U.S. and 36 are based in foreign countries. These private companies must certify that the farm complies with the standards, often hiring a collector in the area to send samples to a lab. Secondly, the National Organic Program (NOP), and in Canada the CFIA, perform random sampling as well. However, a nagging problem exists with these private companies who certify our food. They are funded by the farmer, who wants the labeling. As the certifiers get paid by the farmers to certify them, there is a direct disincentive to take away the label. Thankfully, in some states, the farmer can apply for 75% reimbursement for their certification costs.

**Update: As of March 2014 the US Farm Bill increased the amount of support that farmers can get for transitioning to organic farming from 22 million to 57.5 million. The nation’s organic food program doubled to 75 million over five years. Traditional commodity subsidies were cut by more than 30 percent while funding for fruits and vegetables and organic programs increased by more than 50 percent. 

Both the USDA Organic seal and the Canada Organic Biologique logo may be used on certified products from both countries, in addition to the certifier’s logo. There are numerous other state, province, and private organic labels as well, which confuse people when they are looking for something familiar.

As the certifiers get paid by the farmers to certify them, there is a direct disincentive to take away the label.

One of the most pervasive things in food today are pesticides. These toxic chemicals are sprayed on primarily vegetables and fruits, some with the noxious organophosphate insecticides. Even after washing, residues can stick to the skins or be contained within the plant, because if applied more than once, as it grows it will take in the chemical. With cancers and other forms of modern disease increasing by as much as 75% in developed nations , why take the risks of introducing known toxic elements?

If you want to select which fruits and vegetables to buy organic check out the list of the 12 most contaminated foods tested in 2012 and posted by Environmental Working Mothers. Fruit and fruit products, are among the top pesticide laden foods worth buying organic. Corn and corn products, which are primarily GMO, unless they are labeled certified organic, are notable as well.

Roundup® is another commonly used pesticide, especially on potatoes. It contains glyphosate, which has been proven persistent (up to 1 year later), can drift (up to 800 meters from applied location), kills beneficial insects, earthworms and amphibians and is acutely toxic to humans. Further to these deadly facts, it can increase the spread of plant diseases and reduce nitrogen fixing.

Some good reasons to choose certified organic food

Good for wildlife:

Rachel Carson pointed out in her ground-breaking book, Silent Spring, that we are killing far more than just the target species that pesticides and herbicides are meant to destroy. And the pesticides don’t just stay over the farm where they are applied, they drift far and wide and persist over time. One study revealed that a typical organic field has 57% more insect and animal species, and 44% more birds.

A new study led by a preeminent Canadian toxicologist identifies acutely toxic pesticides as the most likely leading cause of the widespread decline in grassland bird numbers in the United States…

A new study led by a preeminent Canadian toxicologist identifies acutely toxic pesticides as the most likely leading cause of the widespread decline in grassland bird numbers in the United States… “The American Bird Conservatory released information on this 2013 study concluding that we ‘need to rein in the use of lethal pesticides in agriculture, and that we need to be especially careful about any new pesticides we introduce into these ecosystems such as the neonicotinoid insecticides.’ It reminds us that the poisonings of birds and other wildlife chronicled a half century ago by famed biologist and author Rachel Carson are by no means a thing of the past.”

Good for the soil:

Organic fields have deeper vegetation and more mulch cover, protecting the soil and reducing weeds. The use of manures, composts and natural fertilizers improve soil health, rather than deplete soils with chemical fertilizers and herbicides. Organic practices leave soil with more earthworms, soil insects and pest-eating spiders and beetles.

Good for reproduction:

Chickens, rabbits and mice have been studied and proven to have 28% higher egg production and fewer perinatal deaths. Pesticide residues can reduce the fertility of humans as well as animals and the health of their offspring.


Genetically modified crops do not meet organic standards.

Farming benefits:

There have been several US and British studies ranging from 15 years to 150 years showing that organic foods can feed the world. Some say that conventional farming is cheaper, but this just isn’t true. In the US, studies show grain and soybean production of organic growers produced higher yields than conventional methods. When you factor in the costs of the chemicals there were equal yields shown for conventional farming (using chemical fertilizers and pesticides) as those using organic crop rotation systems and natural manure as fertilizers. In drought conditions, organic soils hold more water. Finally, farmers and migrant workers were tested for cancers and melanomas, and those working in conventional fields suffered abnormally high rates of these diseases.

Good for humans:

Financial support for organic research is minor compared to significant financial support for new chemicals and new technology. Thus you can find research claiming that nutritional value in organics is no greater than in non-organic food. A UK peer-reviewed research team viewed the 10 greatest food myths, and concluded that food produced organically contains fewer contaminants, and that there are more beneficial nutrients in organically produced food. A cancer specialist has found that organic food has higher amounts of vitamins A,C,E, and B, plus they contain more essential nutrients, such as zinc, calcium, magnesium, iron and chromium, and cancer-fighting antioxidants. And numerous studies of potatoes reveal that over the last 50 years this common food has lost 100% vitamin A, 57% vitamin C and iron, 28% calcium, 50% riboflavin and 18% of its thiamin. More research is clearly needed.

What about the higher cost of organic food?

Why should you eat organic food when it costs more? Some products like dairy can be two to three times the price when labelled “organic”. It can take a while to figure out where to get organic food at reasonable prices. My local health food store sells all their products at lower prices than those posted for the same items at the regular grocer. So it takes a little shopping around to find the outlets near you that suit your healthy choices and your budget. Unfortunately, some small farmers can’t afford the annual costs of certifying their crops, produce and handling practices. Consequently, small farm produce and products labeled organic may be just as good as the certified organic ones. Local products are often a good choice as well if you know the grower and their practices. Eating produce and fruit in season also saves transportation costs and helps reduce the associated carbon emissions.

Now that spring is here, if you are growing your own food, it’s worth growing with organic and heritage seeds as well. Did you know that corporate industrial farming is pushing to make seed saving and growing illegal? That’s a frightening trend in today’s competitive and increasingly corporate world.

When you look at the benefits of eating organic food, for ourselves and the other species we keep alive and healthy by going organic, what’s a few extra dollars more for your food instead of the gizmo’s you could buy and may not need to keep your family’s essential health? Let’s choose local and organic food, seeds, and keep our community and our families healthy!


According to French researchers, the incidence of cancer is expected to increase by more than 75% by the year 2030 in developed countries, and over 90% in developing nations.