While the organic movement originally started as an effort by small farmers to return to a more natural way of growing food, without the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, hormones, and antibiotics, a growing number of large food producers are participating in this type of agriculture as well. Increasing levels of awareness about the hidden costs of food are leading some consumers to wonder about whether buying organic food is always best, or if there is a rubric of issues to consider. The truth is that while organic food is often superior to other food, this is not always the case.
To be labeled organic, food must meet a rigorous set of requirements. Chemicals and hormones cannot be involved, the food needs to be harvested and raised sustainably, irradiation and sewage sludge are not permitted, and farmers cannot raise Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The full list is lengthy, and the certification itself is often modified. For consumers concerned about their health and the health of the environment, however, buying organic is a good choice when they have no other information about the food.
Certification does not mean that a food was raised humanely, without the use of illegal labor, or in safe working conditions. It also does not mean that the food was raised locally, which is an issue of growing concern to consumers who are worried about fossil fuel consumption. It often takes more calories to ship a piece of produce to someone than that produce will provide nutritionally. Some food activists would like to see a reshaping of the organic label to reflect changing values about food production.
The certification also does not always imply higher quality. A conventionally raised apple grown and raised within 100 miles of a person's home will probably taste better than an organic apple which has been picked, chilled, and shipped 5,000 miles. Organic produce may also not always be in season, because it can be shipped from all over the world to demanding consumers. In addition, many small farmers cannot afford certification, and instead offer their foods as “all natural,” a label which does not have the same clout. Feedlot pork can be labeled all natural, as long as it contains no artificial ingredients or colors, and was minimally processed. A tomato raised on a family farm using compost fertilizer and grown without chemicals can also be natural, which makes it difficult for consumers to make an informed choice.
Some food producers are moving on to a new idea: beyond organic. Food which is raised by farmers who embrace this concept is organic, but it is also humane, more environmentally responsible, ethical, and local. These food producers believe that local agriculture is of paramount importance, and would like to see more consumers supporting locally based farmers. The development of Community Support Agriculture, a cooperative effort between farmers and consumers, is a step in this direction, offering consumers a chance to learn about where their food comes from, meet their farmers, tour the farm, and eat healthy, ethically raised produce year round.