Organic refers to the way food is grown and processed. All agricultural organic foods must come from farms or processors certified by a state or private agency accredited by the USDA. Instead of conventional chemicals, organic farmers often use insects and crop rotation to control pests that damage crops. They also plant cover crops such as clover to add nutrients to the soil and reduce weeds, and they fertilize the land with compost and other organic matter. Livestock and poultry are raised without antibiotics or hormones. Still, organic foods may contain pesticides and other contaminants. The wind and water can carry contaminants from other fields, and the soil that farmers use to grow fruits and vegetables may contain pesticide residues, although probably very small amounts.
An organic label means food has been grown with minimal impact to the environment, which pleases some people. Others think organic food tastes better. Still others prefer it for their children because organic food is grown without conventional pesticides, and because it contains no artificial ingredients and preservatives. In addition, organic food is not irradiated or genetically modified. Organic foods are not necessarily more nutritious, however.
Right now, organic foods cost more than their conventional counterparts for a number of reasons: most organic food is produced by small farmers in small quantities; crop losses may be higher and yields may be smaller; and organic products must meet stricter regulations than conventional fare, a process that is often more labor intensive and costly. The good news is that as the demand for organic food increases, prices should gradually drop, making organic fare more affordable.
How does the government regulate organic food? The USDA sets the national standards for organic foods. Raw organic products are allowed to carry the USDA's organic seal if they are 100 percent organic. Processed products made from at least 95 percent organic ingredients could also tout the seal; those foods with at least 70 percent organic ingredients are labeled "made with organic ingredients."