Sustainable and Organic Food Labels: What Are You Actually Buying?

Organic food has really taken off in popularity in recent years. As people have become more health-conscious and environmentally friendly, they have often looked for that organic label as a sign that their food is healthy and sustainable. However, many people don’t know what the organic label means or what it entails for the producer of that food to call it organic. Hopefully, this post will help clear up a few things. 

Organic farming is all about the actual inputs that go into the food a farmer produces. For instance, organic farms must:

  1. Not use synthetic pesticides or fertilizer
  2. Not use genetically engineered seeds
  3. Use natural soil enriching practices for their crops

Question 1: So, if that is what the organic food label means, what does the sustainable food logo mean and how are they different? 

Answer: Well the difference is that organic food is much more focused on making sure that what goes into the food is natural whereas sustainable food is more centered around making sure the farming practices benefit rather than harm the planet. Furthermore, the process of becoming certified organic is long and costly and not every farmer can afford to spend the time and money to get their organic certificate even if they use practices that would be considered organic. This contrasts with the sustainable food label as there are no regulations around this label. 

Question 2: Which one is better?

To be honest, there is no easy answer to this question. While this may be an annoying answer, consider two scenarios of how you might see these labels in the real world. 

Scenario 1: A small local farmer becomes worried about the healthiness of the tomatoes she grows and sells as she uses a lot of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides and has read these are being linked to many health and environmental problems. She decides she doesn’t want to keep using these practices and seeks to become a certified organic farm. To do this, she must spend 3 years planting trees around her fields, rotating a variety of different crops from season to season to naturally improve the soil, encouraging the predators of her crops’ pests to take up residence on her property, and hiring her niece to help her hand-pull the weeds out of her fields. After this period of 3 years, she becomes eligible to apply to be certified organic and she has the time and money to complete the certification process. Her farm is not far from where you live and she delivers to the local restaurants near you.

Scenario 2: A large corporate farm sees that there is more profit in selling organic fruits and vegetables so it decides to convert to farming practices that allow it to label itself as certified organic. Furthermore, since it has more money and resources than small farms, it decides to grow fruits and vegetables indoors so that it can sell the produce in the winter when consumers wouldn’t normally have access to these seasonal products. To accomplish this, it uses vast amounts of electricity generated by a local coal plant in order to grow its crops with artificial light and temperatures. Being a massive corporate farm, it supplies numerous grocery stores around the country and many of its vegetables travel hundreds of miles before making its way to you. 

If you're purchasing from the farm in scenario 1, you can sleep easy because you are helping save the planet while also eating very high quality, healthy food. However, if you are buying from the farm in scenario 2, you might be harming the environment even more than if you purchased conventional, non-organic fruits and vegetables. The point that I am trying to get across is that these labels don’t always mean what you think that they mean and its way more important to see the farms actual processes instead of just judging them by a label. Furthermore, if you look at the practices of farms, you might be pleasantly surprised that some farms who are not certified organic, actually still have all the same practices as those that do. So remember to always look out for their practices!

Read more

Chapter 4: The Revolution

Chapter 15: Conclusion

Chapter 5: The Consequences

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