“Organic” is a legal term, as defined by the USDA. According to regulations, there can be NO use of synthetic herbicides and pesticides for at least 3 years prior to harvest. For meats, the USDA requires that the animals have living conditions that “accommodate natural behaviors” of the animal, such as grazing for cows. Animals also are fed 100% organic forage and feed, with no administration of antibiotics or hormones.
Oh, and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) are not allowed.
Who cares about GMO’s?
There is a lot of confusion over GMO’s, what they are and why some people (including myself) hate on them so much. Here is why I avoid GMO’s like the plague: the majority of GMO’s were engineered specifically to be resistant to herbicide. Specifically, glyphosate, otherwise known as “Round-Up”. This means that farmers can spray glyphosate all over crops, at any time and at multiple times during the growing season. Any weeds will die (Well, most. There are “super weeds” that are beginning to emerge as herbicide use increases, but, I digress.), but the crop itself is unaffected. Once you see evidence of broad spectrum herbicide use on a GMO crop field, you can’t unsee it. Go driving out in the country, anywhere in the midwest during summer. Take a look at that corn field, with it’s nice, green, tall stalks. That’s GMO corn. Know how you know? First, almost ALL corn grown here is GMO corn so I’d be very surprised if you were to actually stumble upon one that was not. Second, take a look at the edge of the field, where the grass grows. That grass is brown and dead, isn’t it? That’s evidence of a little overspray of a broad spectrum herbicide like glyphosate. I never looked at a corn field the same way again after learning that.
Since GMO’s were introduced, the use of herbicides, usually glyphosate, has gone up fifteen fold. In 2013, the EPA quietly raised the allowable levels of glyphosate (known also as Round-up) in our nation’s food supply. These numbers represent, sometimes, as much as a ten to fifteen fold increase over previously allowed levels.
So what are the most common GMO crops, and therefore, the ones most likely to be contaminated with glyphosate?
- Nearly ALL corn, soy, and cotton grown in the United States is GMO
- Sugar cane and sugar beets
- Canola (also known as rapeseed), for the production of canola oil
- Dry beans
- Grain crops such as wheat, oats, barley
There’s a little extra bit that we haven’t discussed yet that makes GMO grains especially problematic. Grains are, by nature, dried crops. They are harvested after allowing some drying time in the field, then immediately further dried in large grain elevators and silos. If not properly dried, moisture will increase the likelihood of spoilage. Glyphosate is also marketed as a “desiccant”, which is an agent that is applied to crops right before harvesting to encourage drying. How handy is that? (eye roll) Coincidentally, grain crops have some of the highest allowable levels of glyphosate.
What about meat and dairy?
Organic doesn’t just apply to the produce we buy. It applies to meats and dairy as well. Organic meat would have to meet the USDA specifications. Which means that the animal was given all organic feed or forage. If you haven’t already, go ahead and muster some courage to take a look at that list that the link above will take you to (I’ve put it here again, just in case). Take a look at the allowable levels of glyphosate for animal feed and “forage”. Notice anything? Yeah, so did I. To say that those numbers are substantially larger than the rest is an understatement. Those animals eat all of that chemical laced feed, then we slaughter and eat them. So we’re eating a concentrated source of herbicides.
Same goes for dairy, in the form of milk, cheese, butter, etc.
What about “Organic” everything else?
As consumers have begun to learn more about food quality, those that market food products to us have picked up on this trend. Enter: organic everything! You can find everything from organic candy, snack cakes, cheese doodles… But of course, slapping “organic” on a label doesn’t mean those chips are healthy. It does mean that the majority of the ingredients are organic. But junk food is still junk food, let’s be clear on that.
What should I buy, then?
I do understand that everyone has a budget to live within, and this forces choices. So here are my thoughts about what to concentrate on, and what to consider “sacrificing” in the name of better quality food.
- If you have to choose between organic produce and organic meat and dairy, go with meat and dairy. Hands down, no contest. Stretch your dollar by eating less meat, and using less dairy, and add in more produce. Meal plan, buy only what you need, and ensure that very little of your expensive and high quality food gets wasted.
- Strongly consider switching to organic grains. Organic flour, oatmeal, rice, etc. Fun tip: when you cut processed foods out of your diet, you’ll also cut out a lot of GMO grain.
- Another reason to cut out processed food: it’s expensive! It only seems to be cheap. But, because it’s filled with nothing but a bunch of empty carbohydrates, it’ll fill you up for about all of 5 minutes before you’re hungry again and reach for the next bag of chips. It’s amazing how much less money you can spend on groceries when you cut out processed foods and “food products”.
- Sugar! Most of our sugar here is made from sugar beets, almost all of which are GMO. Organic sugar is more expensive, so you’ll use less, which I think everyone can agree is probably better for us anyway.
- Another area where I made an effort to switch to organic was my dried herbs and spices. It seems insignificant, but a lot of herbs and spices have higher allowable levels of glyphosate.
Believe it or not, it IS possible to have a reasonable food budget, and eat high-quality food. I average our family size to be 4 people (since Abby and Parker only live with us 50% of the time), and I am able to keep our weekly food costs to about $150. I would estimate almost all- 95% or better- of our meat and dairy to be organic, and around 50% for everything else.
What concerns do you have about affording higher quality food for your family?