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Organic Food Production

An introduction to the debate surrounding food production, and especially the choice between organic and conventional food production models.


A lot of people are confused as to which type of food is better between organic and our regular conventional foods. For a lot of people, they are of the belief that regular conventional food is healthier and more beneficial than organic food. For others, reverse is the case and there are also a handful of people who are indifferent as to which they prefer.

Organic Foods

Organic foods refer to agricultural products that are grown and processed without the use of fertilizers, growth regulators, livestock feeds, pesticides, additives, bio-engineered genes (GMOs). Organic farming is controlled by regulations which differ from country to country. The main concept of organic farming is to grow food without the use of synthetic materials or genetically modified crops.

Conventional Foods

In conventional farming, farmers utilize chemical fertilizers to enhance plant growth. Conventional foods are made using pesticides, chemical herbicides. In animal rearing, conventional farmers administer antibiotics and growth hormones to improve the growth and well being of the animals.

The Diabetes Council

Decorative image: tomatoes growing on the vine.

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The word "organic" refers to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat. Organic farming practices are designed to meet the following goals:

  • Enhance soil and water quality
  • Reduce pollution
  • Provide safe, healthy livestock habitats
  • Enable natural livestock behavior
  • Promote a self-sustaining cycle of resources on a farm

Materials or practices not permitted in organic farming include:

  • Synthetic fertilizers to add nutrients to the soil
  • Sewage sludge as fertilizer
  • Most synthetic pesticides for pest control
  • Irradiation to preserve food or to eliminate disease or pests
  • Genetic engineering, used to improve disease or pest resistance or to improve crop yields
  • Antibiotics or growth hormones for livestock

Organic farming practices for livestock include:

  • Healthy living conditions and access to the outdoors
  • Pasture feeding for at least 30 percent of livestock's nutritional needs during grazing season
  • Organic foods for animals
  • Vaccinations

Organic or Not? Check the Label

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established an organic certification program that requires all organic foods to meet strict government standards. These standards regulate how such foods are grown, handled and processed.

Any product labeled as organic on the product description or packaging must be USDA certified. If it is certified, the producer may also use an official USDA Organic seal.

The USDA makes an exception for producers who sell less than $5,000 a year in organic foods. These producers must follow the guidelines for organic food production, but they do not need to go through the certification process. They can label their products as organic, but they may not use the official USDA Organic seal.

Mayo Clinic


Consumers navigating grocery store aisles have many choices, and food labels are one way in which food manufacturers compete for attention. The label “all natural” or “100% natural” can be found on diverse food products ranging from peanut butter and cereal to “all natural” sodas, and may bring to mind images of wholesome, minimally processed foods. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), responsible for regulating and supervising food production, does not define or regulate use of the label “natural” on food products. Instead, the FDA official policy is that “the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances,” an ambiguous policy that leaves interpretation of “natural” largely up to the food industry.

Without a formal definition of what “natural” means, let’s examine what this label does not mean. First of all, foods containing natural flavors, sweeteners, or other plant-derived substances can be labeled natural. In addition, foods containing highly processed high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) can also be labeled “natural”, since the synthetic materials used to generate HFCS are not incorporated into the final product. Finally, foods containing genetically engineered or modified ingredients can be labeled “natural,” something California’s recently defeated Proposition 37 tried to prevent. Although far from an exhaustive list of what can be labeled a “natural” food, these are a few examples of how “natural” may mean something different than consumers think.

In contrast to the FDA, the United States Department of Agriculture does regulate use of the word “natural” when applied to meat, poultry, and eggs, stating that a “natural” food is “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed." Although consumers purchasing “natural” meat, poultry, and eggs can be confident that there are no artificial ingredients or colors added, it’s important to note that “natural” does not necessarily mean hormone-free or antibiotic-free; these are separate labels, also regulated by the USDA.

Unlike “natural,” which has no clear definition, use of the “organic” food label and seal is strictly regulated by the National Organic Program, which is administered through the USDA. Foods with an organic seal are certified organic and contain at least 95% organic content. Organic food is produced using approved organic farming methods “that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Specifically, “synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used” to produce organic food, meaning that organic food products are not genetically modified and have not been treated with synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.

Unless the FDA adopts a stricter definition of “natural,” consumers trying to make informed decisions should be wary of the “natural” food label and pay close attention to ingredient lists, or choose organic foods that have been produced through a closely regulated process.

American Society for Nutrition

"GMO” stands for Genetically Modified Organism and refers to plants, animals or other organisms whose genetic material has been changed in ways that do not occur naturally. The “non-GMO” claim means that the food is made without ingredients that were derived from genetically engineered organisms.

The use of genetic engineering, or genetically modified organisms, is prohibited in organic products. This means an organic farmer can’t plant GMO seeds, an organic cow can’t eat GMO alfalfa or corn, and an organic soup producer can’t use any GMO ingredients.

To meet the USDA organic regulations, farmers and processors must show they aren’t using GMOs and that they are protecting their products from contact with prohibited substances from farm to table.

United States Department of Agriculture

An antibiotic is a medication that is used to destroy bacteria that can be the source of infections and diseases. These medications have been used for both human and animal health for decades as prescribed by a doctor (veterinarian or physician). Antibiotics are only used in times of sickness and with veterinarian supervision. According to revised guidance, FDA does not permit using antibiotics for growth promotion in animals.

With the prolonged or high-dose use of antibiotics in humans or animals (and via the general nature of bacteria for survival), bacteria can evolve to be resistant to antibiotics over time. These resistant bacteria are often called “superbugs,” and they can lead to serious infections and diseases. In addition, other “good bacteria” (natural bacteria in the body that can fight off the presence of “bad bacteria”) in the body can be negatively impacted. This can leave room for bad bacteria to thrive. This could also cause further sickness or new ailments.

Consumers are at little-to-no risk in consuming antibiotics from a previously treated animal. Whenever an antibiotic is used to treat a food animal, the animal is withdrawn from the food system by farmers and not will be used for a food production until the antibiotic has cleared its system. In addition, USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) conducts a monitoring program to ensure that antibiotics are effectively eliminated from animals’ systems and that no unsafe residues are detected in all meat, poultry and dairy products before they are sold.

This reminds us to note that for meat and other food products labeled “no-antibiotics used ever,” there is no antibiotic avoidance advantage. As noted above, food animals and animal products that are being processed for consumption do not enter the food supply chain with antibiotics in their systems.

International Food Information Council Foundation

  • Pesticides are used to protect crops against insects, weeds, fungi and other pests.
  • Pesticides are potentially toxic to humans and can have both acute and chronic health effects, depending on the quantity and ways in which a person is exposed.
  • Some of the older, cheaper pesticides can remain for years in soil and water. These chemicals have been banned from agricultural use in developed countries, but they are still used in many developing countries.
  • People who face the greatest health risks from exposure to pesticides are those who come into contact with them at work, in their home or garden.
  • Pesticides play a significant role in food production. They protect or increase yields and the number of times per year a crop can be grown on the same land. This is particularly important in countries that face food shortages.
  • To protect food consumers from adverse effects of pesticides, WHO reviews evidence and develops internationally-accepted maximum residue limits.

Pesticides are among the leading causes of death by self-poisoning, in particular in low- and middle-income countries.

As they are intrinsically toxic and deliberately spread in the environment, the production, distribution, and use of pesticides require strict regulation and control. Regular monitoring of residues in food and the environment is also required.

WHO has two objectives in relation to pesticides:

  • to ban pesticides that are most toxic to humans, as well as pesticides that remain for the longest time in the environment.
  • to protect public health by setting maximum limits for pesticide residues in food and water.

People spreading pesticide on crops, in homes, or in gardens should be adequately protected. People not directly involved in the spread of pesticides should stay away from the area during and just after a spread.

Food that is sold or donated (such as food aid) should comply with pesticide regulations, in particular with maximum residue limits. People who grow their own food should, when using pesticides, follow instructions for use and protect themselves by wearing gloves and face masks as necessary.

Consumers can further limit their intake of pesticide residues by peeling or washing fruit and vegetables, which also reduces other foodborne hazards, such as harmful bacteria.

World Health Organization


When it comes to the climate impacts of our diet, it pays to be particular.

One bowl of rice can have six times the climate impact of another. Beer from a bottle can result in more greenhouse gas emissions than beer from a keg. One cup of coffee's carbon footprint may be 15 times bigger than another's. Those are some of the findings in a sweeping study published in the journal Science, that looked at the complexities of the world's food and agricultural systems to determine the environmental impacts of food production.

It found that if the world's consumers want to put a genuine dent in greenhouse gas emissions from food production, they should make one choice above all: Switch to a plant-based diet.

The world's food and agricultural systems produce more than a quarter of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, the study notes, and nearly two-thirds of those emissions are linked to animal products. If consumers switched to a plant-based diet—or even cut their consumption of animal products in half—the shift could have substantial environmental benefits.

That's especially true for Americans, who consume about three times more meat per person than the rest of the world.

The authors of the study, from Oxford University and a Swiss government research institute that specializes in life-cycle assessments, attempted to calculate the impact of individual producers across the globe by looking at thousands of studies on the impact of food production, from the farm to the consumer. Ultimately, they focused on 570 studies, covering nearly 39,000 farms and 1,600 processors across 119 countries and 40 products, representing about 90 percent of global calorie and protein consumption.

The researchers found that shifting from current diets to a diet without animal products would cut greenhouse gas emissions by nearly half, or about 6.6 billion metric tons. In the U.S., shifting to a plant-based diet would cut emissions by 620 million metric tons, or about 61 percent of the country's emissions from food.

"Today, and probably into the future, dietary change can deliver environmental benefits on a scale not achievable by producers," the authors write. "Moving from current diets to a diet that excludes animal products has transformative potential."

(Access this article to read more about the study.)

Inside Climate News

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Food Processing

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National Institute of Food and Agriculture

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U.S. Department of Agriculture

Provides leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues based on public policy, the best available science, and effective management.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for protecting the public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, and medical devices; and by ensuring the safety of our nation's food supply, cosmetics, and products that  emit radiation.

World Health Organization

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