Know Your Food Label: Natural, Organic, Non-GMO and Beyond
Natural, organic, non-GMO, cage-free, grass-fed: if you’ve ever had analysis-paralysis while trying to decide between nearly identical packages at your local grocery store, know that it’s not your fault.
It was designed that way to confuse you, and thereby to extract the most money possible from your wallet.
Over the last two decades we’ve witnessed the meteoric rise of “certified organic” produce, which now claims a fairly substantial share of the market thanks to its promise of a safer, healthier alternative to conventional—chemical—agriculture. But how much different is it, really?
Misconceptions are the norm in this realm, and again, I want to stress that this is by design. Food producers—at least those represented at the supermarket—don’t want you to make informed decisions, so they use the most vague, misleading and contradictory language possible to describe their products.
Well, I’ve spent enough time scouring the literature and tediously comparing food packages to know a thing or two about how this purposefully perplexing jargon works, and I’d like to share what I’ve learned in order to help others make informed decisions.
Along the way, I’ll explain why “organic” produce isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, and I’ll make yet another case on this blog for seeking out trustworthy, small-scale producers in your community whose farming practices align with your own values and preferences.
Without a doubt the most widely used term of the bunch here, it should come as no surprise that “natural,” in the context of food labels, is essentially meaningless. Sometimes you might be led to believe that “natural” means “without artificial flavors, colors, or other synthetic substances,” and indeed, some food producers use it in this sense. However, the FDA has no official definition for this term, which means that producers are free to use it to mean whatever they want.
Generally, if you see “natural” on a label, it’s because there was no other buzzword that the producers could legally use to try to persuade you to purchase their product.
Touted as the safer, healthier alternative to conventional produce, the “certified organic” label has come under scrutiny in recent years. The concept has been around at least as long as synthetic agricultural chemicals, though it was not formalized by government agencies until the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Today, in order to legally call your product “organic,” you must obtain certification from the government. In order to do so, you must comply with their regulations barring synthetic chemical inputs and genetically modified seeds; keep torturously detailed written records; submit to periodic inspections; and of course, pay a sizable annual fee of anywhere from $400 to $2000. By and large, the regulations serve to crowd out the little guy in favor of the very factory farms that the organic movement sought to replace.
Many people believe—or rather, are led to believe—that organic produce is more nutritious than conventional, or that organic farmers don’t use pesticides. The reality is that it's debatable whether “certified organic” produce is truly more nutritious than conventional produce. And organic growers use pesticides, too – it’s just that their pesticides are supposed to be derived from non-synthetic sources (though even this stipulation has been relaxed in recent years, so that growers can spray conventional chemicals “when necessary” and still keep their certification).
Frankly, I don’t care whether the apple in my hand was sprayed with glyphosate (RoundUp) or copper sulfate (the organic alternative) – I don’t want to eat pesticides, period, and I definitely don’t want them to be sprayed across the landscape.
The state of the organic movement in 2017 is a far cry from its local, small-scale origins. Massive, corporately owned factory farms now operate under “certified organic” regulations, and their systems are virtually indistinguishable from industrial farms, aside from the fact that they apply a different set of chemicals to the land and the food – and then charge you twice the price of their conventional counterpart. A monoculture is a monoculture, and whether it’s 1000 acres of conventional blueberries or 100 acres of certified organic blueberries, it’s still an aberrance of nature.
And don’t even get me started on “organic” meat! A cow whose diet consists of just 30% grass can be labeled “organic” and “grass-fed.” OK, sure, you fed the cow some grass; but what the hell else did you feed it, and why was it anything other than grass? And “cage-free” does not equate to “pasture-raised”; it simply means that the animals were stuffed into dark, dirty, impossibly close quarters without being separated into individual cages.
Ultimately, my biggest gripe against organic production is that it approaches agriculture with essentially the same perspective as conventional industrial farming: it’s all about applying external inputs in the futile effort to swim against the current of natural order – always a losing battle. There is no ecological understanding of the way that plants—food crops or otherwise—interact with their environment; instead we just steamroll any impediments with toxic chemicals.
Now, don’t take this anti-“certified organic” diatribe to be an argument in favor of conventional agriculture: if I have to choose between the two, I’ll pick organic every time, because at least I can rest assured that I’m (probably) not supporting Monsanto with my dollars. But the realm of organic foods is absolutely teeming with misconceptions and misleading information, and dammit, somebody’s gotta dispel these myths if we’re ever going to take the next step forward.
Here’s another area where we run into a great deal of confusion. Genetically modified foods appeared on the landscape very, very recently, and the truth is that we don’t really know how they are affecting our health and the health of the planet.
If a product is “certified organic,” then it must be non-GM by definition; but if it’s non-GM, it’s not necessarily organic. Get it?
Today, virtually all conventional corn and soybeans grown in the US are genetically modified, which means that essentially every non-organic food product on the market contains GM foods: corn and soy derivatives are ubiquitous in this realm.
Do you know how organisms actually come to be genetically modified? I always ask people this question when the topic arises, and it turns out that very few are aware.
Here’s how it works: First, scientists isolate a gene from an organism—a fish, for example—that they believe will be beneficial to their crop. Then they insert this gene into a virus which will serve as the vector for modification. This virus is allowed to infect the host plant so that it will theoretically implant the foreign DNA directly into the plant’s genome in exactly the right place for it to be expressed exactly as the scientists intended.
Once the researchers have demonstrated that this Frankenfood will not spontaneously combust in the fields, it’s ready to be disseminated across the landscape, where it remains the intellectual property of Monsanto in perpetuity – to the point that if one farmer’s GM crop “outcrosses” with his neighbor’s non-GM crop, the neighbor’s crop (or rather, the crop’s genome) is now owned by Monsanto, too, which means it’s illegal for him to save the seed from his own fields.
Chemical-Free / Beyond Organic
Whenever possible, this is the produce that I seek out. Both of these terms tend to be used more or less interchangeably by permaculturists and those interested in regenerative agriculture to indicate that their products have been grown as ecologically friendly as possible.
Of course, you won’t find anything labeled “chemical-free” or “beyond organic” at your local supermarket anytime soon. You have to visit a farmer’s market to find the food that hasn’t had any chemicals—organic or otherwise—sprayed on it, or else grow your own.
These terms have only recently come into common parlance thanks to folks like Joel Salatin, and there is no set standard for what it means to be “more than organic.” But what Salatin had in mind when he popularized the term “beyond organic” includes chemical-free fruits, vegetables and grazing for livestock; no antibiotics or hormones; compassionate treatment of animals; and sustainable land and soil management, e.g. improving rather than reducing soil fertility over time.
“But wait,” you might object, “if ‘beyond organic’ has no real guidelines for its use, then what makes it any better than ‘natural’ which we know to be meaningless?” Well, this is the part where you have to take action.
You see, if you want to acquire the healthiest, safest, most ethical and ecologically produced foods available, then you’re going to have to step outside of the paradigm of supermarkets and packaged food products and instead seek out growers in your area. You’re going to have to approach them at farmer’s markets and pick their brains about their practices and their values. You might even take the opportunity to visit their farms (if they’re kind enough to invite you) to see exactly how they do what they do, and what kind of impact it has on their land.
Could you be duped by an unscrupulous farmer? Sure, but you’re far more likely to be misled by the jumbled mess of buzzwords found on most grocery store products. The era we live in could be defined by the unprecedented amount of deliberate misinformation that surrounds us, which means that trust is one of the most valuable commodities that we possess. Know your farmer, trust your farmer, and most importantly, educate yourself. After all, the best offense is a good defense.