What's Organic Produce?

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, August 15, 1997

Last week, I talked about my 25-year involvement with organic agriculture and the rapid growth and acceptance of environmentally-friendly food production. Then, last Tuesday, The Connecticut Post featured organic food on its front page. Supermarkets now offer organic produce and landscapers feature organic lawn programs, as our society awakens to the dangers created by the widespread use of fertilizers and pesticides. It's a hopeful sign: Like the evolution of society's attitude toward smoking, it indicates that we can make a dramatic change in our collective behavior when it comes to the way we grow our food.

However, as the mistakes in The Connecticut Post's article show, this growth in interest hasn't been accompanied by commensurate growth in understanding about what organic food really is.

Strictly speaking, organic relates to materials made of carbon and to matter that was once alive. For more than 50 years, however, the name has been applied to agricultural methods which use compost, ground rocks, cover crops and green manures to build soil fertility. Organic farming and gardening don't use synthetic, chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Plants which grow in healthy soil have fewer problems anyway. Damaging pests are managed with non-toxic mechanical, biological or cultural methods, instead of with synthetic, chemical controls. Organic agriculture takes its inspiration from nature - the cycling of nutrients among plants and animals, the natural composting on the forest floor and the diversity and balance of organisms in a healthy ecosystem- and also from the best traditional agriculture in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas.

Care for the soil is at the very heart of organic agriculture. By building up organic matter and the diversity of the soil's life, the organic grower makes it easier for the plants to obtain what they need for healthy growth.

Protecting the life in the soil is one of the reasons for not using strong chemical fertilizers or toxic pesticides. The latter are frequently as effective at killing helpful and benign organisms as they are at killing the pests. In many cases, the insects soon become resistant to the chemicals anyway. In the long run, chemicals just don't work. Yet, they leave their residues in the air, soil and water, as well as in farm workers and produce-eaters. Avoiding these chemical residues may be especially important for the young, the elderly, and those who are seriously ill or allergic to manmade chemicals.

How do you know you're getting organic food? The best way is to grow it yourself. If you buy from a farmer, ask about the growing methods that were used. Both of these require some knowledge on your part.

In a store or at the Farmers Market, you often see the term "Certified Organic." Certification is a process designed to assure customers that the grower of an item has followed specific guidelines in producing that crop. Organic food is grown and shipped all over the world.

Here in Connecticut, the Northeast Organic Farming Association (or NOFA) Certification Standards list recommended, permitted and prohibited materials and methods for soil preparation, planting, weed and pest control, harvesting and packing.

Farmers who want their farms' produce or livestock to be certified organic must fill out an application form which details the history of and future plans for the farm, as well as the crops to be grown, rotations used and even seed sources. After an inspection, a soil test and approval by NOFA's Certification Committee, the farmers' produce carries that certification with it to market.

The standards and certification agencies vary in different states and countries in the number of years that must have elapsed since pesticides were used, and on specific products, for example, but all certification standards have a component which deals with building healthy soil.

The federal government's National Organic Program is expected to bring greater consistency to the various state and private certification agencies when it becomes a reality in the very near future.

If you are interested in knowing more about organic agriculture or where to buy local organic food on Long Island and in Connecticut, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Organic, WSHU, 5151 Park Avenue, Fairfield, CT 06432.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.