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What are sustainable and organic?

Posted Apr 24 2009 9:03am

(This is the second installment of Diane Hatz’s series – Sustainable Table’s Guide to Good Food.)

Exactly what are sustainable farming and/or sustainable food, and what is organic agriculture?  Those are questions I hear quite often.  A general concept of organic has been seeping into the mainstream, but many people are still confused by both terms.  And to make it even more confusing, organic can be sustainable and sustainable can be organic, but they don’t have to be.  What?

To start with, sustainable farming is more of a concept or a philosophy than a literal definition.  With sustainable farming, food is raised that’s healthy for consumers, does not harm the environment, is humane for workers, respects animals, provides a fair wage to the farmer, and supports and enhances rural communities.  At Sustainable Table, we also believe that sustainable food should be grown as close to home as possible.  

Yes, that is a bit of a mouthful – a shorter answer would be to say that sustainable farming provides food that’s healthy for consumers, farmers, the environment, animals, and local communities.  

The challenge with sustainable is that there isn’t a government approved label or certification system, so you need to educate yourself and ask questions before you buy.  Also, there is no standard for what’s healthy for consumers or humane for workers.  There is no chart saying when the environment begins to be harmed, and so on.  That means that each of us has to learn as much as we can about the issues and decide what we think is best.  We’re not here to tell you what to do – we’re here to give you information, encouragement and perhaps advice; but it’s up to you to decide what you think is best for yourself.  

Since 2002, organic food has been regulated by the government.  The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines organic agriculture as “an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity.  It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”

Another mouthful.  To put it more simply, with organic farming

  - most synthetic (and petroleum derived) pesticides and fertilizers are prohibited;
  - all antibiotics, genetic engineering, irradiation and sewage sludge are prohibited;
  - all organically produced animals must have access to outdoors and be fed organic feed; and
  - all processed products labeled organic must have 95% organic ingredients.

They look rather similar, don’t they?  But there are differences….  Let’s do a comparison.

Certification. Organic farms must be independently certified every year and approved by the USDA.  Sustainable farms are not certified.

Animal Welfare. Though most organic farmers raise their animals in a sustainable manner, the organic standards only require “access” to outdoors.  This means that an organic farmer could have an open door leading to a cement patio and not actually let their animals out on pasture.  In a sustainable system, animals are allowed to carry out their natural behaviors and are given ample room to move around naturally.  So even with organic food, it helps to know your farmer and to ask questions about how the food was raised or produced.  

Antibiotics.   Organic farmers cannot use any antibiotics on their animals.  Sustainable farmers can choose not to use antibiotics at all, or they can use them if the animal gets sick.    

Artificial hormones.   Neither organic nor sustainable farmers can give artificial or added hormones to their animals.

Corporate involvement.   Organic food can be raised by large companies, whereas sustainable food is raised by small family farmers.

Farm size.   With organic agriculture, the farm can be any size.  Sustainable farmers plant crops in relatively small, mixed plots.

Food miles.   Organic food can travel thousands of miles before reaching your dinner plate.  Sustainable food is grown as close to home as possible.

An important point to remember is that many organic farmers are also sustainable.  In the past several years, as organic has become more popular, large industrial farms have started raising organic food, which is not sustainable.  

How do you know if something is organic or sustainable?

That’s a good question.  Consumers must educate themselves if they want to eat the best food possible.  We do research when we shop for cars and computers, so shouldn’t we also do some research when buying our food?

In a supermarket or health food store, you will find the USDA certified organic label on packaged organic food.  In addition, most produce will also be labeled organic.  At a farmers’ market, organic farmers will have a sign saying they’re organic, which you can generally trust because most, if not all, farmers markets will research and approve farmers before letting them sell at the market.  If you’re wondering if the organic food you want to buy is sustainable or not, ask your store manager if the food was raised locally on a small family farm.  You can also look at any labels on the food to see where it came from.  

Sustainable is another issue.  Because it’s more of a philosophy, we might have slightly different definitions of sustainable.  And this is why learning about our food is so important.  We’ll go through some of the major issues in future posts, but for now, know that you need to learn where your food came from in order to know what’s best for you.  Were pesticides used? (You might be surprised to learn that some sustainable farmers use zero pesticides, whereas organic farmers are permitted to use a certain class of pesticides.)  What kind of fertilizer was applied?  What were animals fed?  How were they raised?  We’ll give you tips on the right questions to ask in a few weeks.  For now, just know that you do need to commit a little time to learning about the difference between sustainable and organic, as well as what industrial agriculture is.

How should I start?

There are different ways to start on the road to eating sustainably, but, for me, it was easiest to start with organic food.  I didn’t understand local, sustainable, industrial organic or any of the other terms you’ll quickly become familiar with, so to start, just looking for an organic label was easiest for me.  I knew that if it was labeled, I was getting a certain type of food (that we explained above).  I also shopped at a large supermarket then, and there was no such thing as local or sustainable in the store, but I could find some organic items.  So organic was easiest to begin with.

I quickly realized that organic can get very expensive, and not having that kind of budget, I knew I had to figure something else out.  So as I started incorporating some organic food into my diet, I also found a couple of farmers’ markets (not realizing that by doing this I was shopping locally and eating seasonally).  At the same time, I also started researching sustainable food and started asking questions.  That gave me enough knowledge so that I was able to decide whether I wanted sustainable, organic or sustainable organic.  (Industrial food is not an option for me when I’m shopping in a grocery store.)

Don’t worry about having all this figured out yet.  If you’re looking for somewhere to start and are unsure, try to incorporate one or two organic items into your food purchases.  Don’t worry about trying to change everything overnight – one or two items are a great start.  And if you’re wondering what you should shift to organic, remember, it really is up to you; but if you have no idea, I would suggest milk or dairy products.  

We have a lot of information to cover over the course of this series, so, for now, I hope you have some understanding of what sustainable and organic food is.  Next week, I’ll explain what industrial agriculture or factory farming is.  And please let me know if you have any questions.  

Here’s to healthy eating!

(Diane Hatz is the Founder of Sustainable Table, Executive Producer of The Meatrix movies and co-Founder of the Eat Well Guide.)

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