Organic Food is, in general, food produced without the use of artificial pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and in many definitions genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In common usage, the word organic can apply equally to store-bought food products, food from a home garden where no synthetic inputs are used, and even food gathered or hunted in the wild. However, the term organic is increasingly associated with certified organic foods, which are produced and labeled according to strictly regulated standards.
In many countries, including the United States, Japan and in the European Union, certification is a matter of legislation, and commercial use of the word organic, outside of the certification framework, is illegal. The specifics of certification are the subject of wide debate and disagreement among organic producers and consumers; at present, there is no universally accepted definition of organic food.
Types of organic food
Organic foods can be either fresh or processed, based on production methods, availability and consumer perception.
Fresh food is seasonal and perishable. Fresh produce — vegetables and fruits — is the most available type of organic food, and is closely associated with organic farming. Farmers' markets, farm stands, specialty food stores, and community-supported agriculture (CSA) projects are just a few places where you can buy organic food. Unprocessed animal products — organic meat, eggs, dairy — are less common. Prices are significantly higher than for conventional food, and availability is lower.
For fresh food, "organic" usually means produced without extensive use of synthetic chemicals (e.g. fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones), substantially free of genetically modified organisms, and often, but not necessarily, locally grown.
Processed food accounts for most of the items in a supermarket. Little of it is organic, and organic prices are often high. Despite high prices, supermarkets mainly purchase organic processed foods. Most processed organics comes from large food conglomerates, as producing and marketing products like canned goods, frozen vegetables, prepared dishes and other convenience foods is beyond the scope of small organic producers.
Processed organic food usually contains only (or at least a certain specified percentage of) organic ingredients and no artificial food additives, and is often processed with fewer artificial methods, materials and conditions (e.g. no chemical ripening, no food irradiation). However, a recent amendment to the US organic legislation has allowed some synthetic processing agents classified as "organic,” so the exact composition of certified organic processed food may vary according to regional regulations.
Identifying organic food
The National Organic Program (run by the USDA) is in charge of the legal definition of organic in the United States and does organic certification. It administers the Organic Seal to products and producers that meet strict requirements.
Definitions of organic food vary. Organics can be difficult to explain by empirical measurement. Food industry research over the last 50 years has focused on developing chemical agriculture and modern food processing. Also, organics is concerned in large part with what NOT to do -- "as much as possible, let Nature do its thing" -- rather than in devising precise formulas for organic production. A strictly rules-based definition of organic farming and organic food, consisting of approved inputs and practices, created and maintained by regulatory agencies, is inevitably subject to "exceptions" and to special interest pressures to modify the rules. As organics become "whatever the rules say it is,” the line between organic and conventional food can get blurred.
Early organic consumers looked for chemical-free, fresh, or minimally processed food, and they had to buy directly from growers: Know your farmer, know your food. Organic food at first comprised mainly fresh vegetables. Personal definitions of what constituted "organic" were through first-hand experience: talking to farmers and seeing farm conditions and farming activities. Small farms could grow vegetables (and raise livestock) using organic farming practices, with or without certification, and this was more or less something the individual consumer could monitor.
As consumer demand for organic foods continues to increase, high volume sales through mass outlets, typically supermarkets, is rapidly replacing the direct farmer connection. For supermarket consumers, food production is not easily observable, and product labeling, like "certified organic,” is relied on. For assurance, government regulations and third-party inspectors are used.
With widespread distribution of organic food, processed food has also become dominant over fresh, confusing the issue further. Modern food processing is complicated. Commercial preparation methods, the use of additives, the effects of packaging and storage, for instance, are outside the first-hand experience of most people, including organic farmers. Traditional, minimally processed products, baked goods, and canned, frozen, and pickled fruits and vegetables, are easier for consumers to understand by comparison with home preparation methods, although home and mass-production techniques are quite different. For convenience foods, like frozen prepared foods and cooked breakfast cereals, ingredients and methods are quite a mystery to most consumers. A "certified organic" label is usually the only way for consumers to know that a processed product is "organic.”
The official seal of USDA certified organic foods.
In the United States, agricultural products that claim to be "organic" must adhere to the requirements of the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 (found in 7 U.S.C.A. § 6501-22) and the regulations (found in 7 C.F.R. Part 205) promulgated by the USDA through the National Organic Program ("NOP") under this act. A USDA Organic seal identifies products with at least 95% organic ingredients, as defined by the National Organic Program.
Unfortunately, there are no natural models for preserving food the way it's found in supermarkets. Food with a long shelf life is the cornerstone of the food industry, providing most of the revenue and profits. In wealthier locales, an impressive array of technologies is used to make food last longer: home refrigerators and freezers at the consumer end, and industrial and chemical practices applied along the food production chain, from seed to field to fridge or table.
In general, organic standards cover this entire process, specifying what is an "organic" ingredient or practice. However, as there is little natural reference for preparing, for example, a precooked, frozen dinner, a "certified organic" label may be hard to understand. The main ingredients are one thing, the processes and additives used are quite another.
Thus, in developed nations: most of what is in supermarkets today can never be called "organic", in the broadest, "all-natural", fresh or minimally processed sense. The idea is not new, and whole foods have long been part of the health food diet. However, if demand for organics intensifies, agribusiness interests dictate taking as much control as possible of the definition of "organic food,” by including production practices that facilitate food preservation, in order to maintain the existing industry infrastructure.