Organic vs. Non-Organic, What’s the Difference?
I am going to be honest; the title is a question I have often wondered myself while wandering through the store buying food for either myself or my dog. I have been told that I should choose organic because it is better for me and my pets, but I have never really examined why. I’d like to take a deeper look into what the term organic means and how that applies to the food on the shelves of grocery and pet food stores. How is it regulated and is choosing one over the other significantly better for the health of me and my pets?
What Does Organic Mean?
According to the USDA the term Organic;
“is a labeling term found on products that have been produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”
Basically, organic food is food that has been grown without the use of hormones, antibiotics, artificial chemicals, and GMO’s.
Instead, these farmers use practices that are more biologically based and relying on natural substances and growing in soil that has had no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides used for 3 years prior to harvesting crops.
Natural and plant-based pesticides are allowed to be used with organic practices as long as they do not contain any substances that are not on the approved list.
What is Non-Organic?
Food produced that is considered non-organic is due to the use of synthetic or human-made pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. However, while these farmers may also use organic farm practices in conjunction with non-organic they do not have enough of a percentage of their operation using organic means to be certified as such.
While organic food production is on the rise, most of the food you see in grocery stores is considered non-organic as it has been made with predominantly non-organic means. Organic farming practices may have been used, but not enough to certify use of the term by regulating officials.
Categories of Organic
There are four categories used to classify organic food.
100% Organic – Which is used on produce, meat or dairy if all items are certified organic with the exception of salt and water. This may have a USDA Seal.
Organic - Which is used to label foods that have at least 95% of the ingredients certified to be organic. These may have a USDA seal.
Made with Organic – If the product has at least 70% certified organic ingredients it can be labelled, “made with organic”. It must list what items are organic on the ingredients list. These products cannot carry a USDA seal.
Organic Ingredients – If the product has some ingredients that are certified organic but the amount is less than 70% the product can’t be labelled as organic. It cannot carry a USDA Organic seal. It can list the ingredients that are organic on the ingredients list.
Who Regulates Organic?
The guidelines for organic are set out by the USDA to be regulated by third party certifiers working privately by state and internationally. Producers who have received their certification must re-apply annually to remain certified and list any changes that may have happened in the last year to their farm production.
They must also submit to regular annual inspections verifying their practice falls within the regulation to be classified as organic.
Testing is also carried out for residue on organic products to ensure no synthetic or unapproved substances have been used on foods certified as organic.
In Canada, these regulations and guidelines are put out by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency or CFIA.
The regulations of the CFIA are very similar to the regulations of the USDA and there is a mutual agreement called the United States-Canada Organic Equivalence Arrangement or USCOEA which recognizes both national systems as equivalent.
Are Organic Foods Safer?
It is important to note that organic farming still uses pesticides and herbicides in their farming practices, but they are using substances approved by the USDA or other regulatory bodies such as the CFIA.
According to Health Canada, “To date, there is no scientific evidence to show that there is a health risk from eating conventionally grown produce because of pesticide residues, or that organic foods are safer to eat than conventionally produced foods.”
Are Organic Foods More Nutritious?
There have been studies which have shown the benefit to eating more organic foods in your diet. Since most studies have been done in regard to people, you can extrapolate the results and expect to find similar outcomes with animals. The main benefit is the lessened exposure to chemicals frequently used on food throughout the farming process. However, even with these studies, there is still insufficient evidence to show “meaningful” health outcomes and more studies are needed.
Does Washing Produce Reduce Pesticides?
It is recommended that you wash all fruit and vegetables with water before consuming. This will remove dirt, germs, and pesticide residue from the surface of the produce. Not all traces of pesticides can be removed with washing. You can reduce the residue of pesticides further by removing outer leaves and/or peeling the item. In some cases, with some foods, removing the peel may reduce the nutrition. Thicker peeled fruit such as melons, can be scrubbed with a brush. According to Health Canada “Natural or plant-based pesticides may still be used in organic food production.” Meaning there may still be pesticides present on the food that you consume, albeit an organic one approved by the regulating bodies.
Produce Pesticide Levels
Here is a list of fruits ad vegetables found to have the highest levels of pesticides:
Here is a list of fruits and vegetables found to have the lowest levels of pesticides:
-Avocados -Sweet Peas
-Sweet Corn -Asparagus
-Pineapple -Honeydew Melon
Organic Meat, Dairy and Poultry
Animals used in organic farming for meat or eggs are required to be raised in more natural environments closer to what they would have naturally; they are not given antibiotics or hormones.
It should be noted, there is a myth that animals raised on organic farms, if sick, cannot be treated by antibiotics and are left to suffer, this is untrue. According to USDA Organic regulations;
“the producer of organic livestock must not withhold medical treatments from a sick animal in an effort to preserve its organic status. All appropriate medications must be used to restore an animal to health when methods acceptable to organic production fail…”
These animals may not be labelled organic and sold as such.
One of the main concerns when looking into the use of antibiotics, is that the overuse of them can increase antibiotic resistance. While the use of antibiotics for animal health is vital in agricultural settings, caution should be taken. Studies have shown an impact and there have been recommendations for reducing the amounts used in farming animals and for following stricter guidelines as to when they should be used.
What Does this Mean for Pet Food?
There are no specific guidelines for organic pet food, but the ingredients must comply with the regulations set out by the USDA for the labelling of human foods to be organic. The same labelling requirements would apply classifying the food into one of the four organic sub-groups outlined by the USDA that I have mentioned above.
Organic vs. Non-Organic which is Better?
After all this research, it really does seem like it comes down to personal choice when choosing organic versus non-organic foods. That is not to say the are not benefits to nutrition, pesticide residue, and taste, with choosing foods farmed organically; none of these factors are enough to say that one is largely better than the other. Furthermore, while organic farming does tend to use less pesticides, it is not pesticide free.
For most consumers, the decision really comes down to cost as organic foods are usually the more expensive choice. Also, it is important to remember when it comes to the topic of pesticide residue, proper cleaning of fruits and vegetables before consuming can reduce the amount of some pesticides found on the surface and in turn, reduce the amount of pesticide consumed. I hope this has given you a little more information to help you make decisions the next time you purchase food for you and your dog.
It should be said that while looking at this topic I found compelling arguments that showed negative sides to both types of farming. I think the takeaway from this is we can benefit from amalgamating more organic and sustainable farm practices with the current ones to offer a more balanced approach to health, food safety and long-term stability.
Emily Charlton is a lifelong animal lover drawing on more than 12 years experience in a veterinary clinic.
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