Certified Organic Food: What is it? Who Grows it?


Certified Organic Food

Start FREE Course: In front of me, as I write, is a can of organic soda. It’s a hot day. The can’s empty. It was a good drink. Besides the big “Organic” on the can’s label are three bold claims: “Grower Certified, Facility Certified, Product Certified”. Those are easy for a consumer to spot. But what, exactly does “certified” mean? If you are a careful student of labels you’ll find the smallish logo of Quality Assurance International (QAI) in the lower, less visible, regions of the can. Just above the QAI logo is the claim, “Certified Organic by Quality Assurance International”. And finally, just above “Product certified”, you’ll find a lot number imprinted on the can.

The label on this delicious organic drink is confusing, not particularly informative to the average consumer, and hard to figure out. What exactly is Grower, Facility, and Product certified? Did QAI certify all of them? Who is QAI? And what does certification really mean to me from a personal health stand point? Does certification have an environmental impact or an impact on the farmers and workers who grew, harvested, and processed the food for me? My own research as a journalist has shown that this company, along with numerous others, are interested in selling you all the hype associated with organic products but they are not particularly interested in helping you become a better informed consumer.

Yet, at the heart of organic certification, is a decades old attempt to connect well informed consumers to ethical food processors and farmers. Unfortunately, as the organic food industry has grown by leaps and bounds, the gap among consumer, processor, and farmer has been widening. This course will close that gap for organic consumers who are interested in learning how food on the shelves at their grocers obtains the prestigious “certified organic” label. They will find out the “certified organic” label is more than a clever marketing ploy but that it’s their job to hold farmers, processors, and grocers accountable to the claim “certified organic”. After all, you are more than likely to pay more for organic foods than you do non-organic foods. And you no doubt believe the extra cost is justified.

“Food is one of the three largest consumer related causes of environmental damage, along with cars and home energy use,” write Warren Leon, Caroline Smith Dewaal, Michael F. Jacobson in Is Our Food Safe?: A Consumer’s Guide to Protecting Your Health and the Environment . . . When compared with nine other big consumer-spending categories (in The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices) such as health care and housing, food scored stunningly high. It was responsible for more water pollution, water use, and land related impacts than any of the other categories.” “The most important actions individuals could take (to reduce these impacts) would be to eat less meat, choose organic foods, and promote sustainable fishing,” the authors continue.

When my wife and I started eating certified organic food in 1971 we knew about the positive environmental impact of eating organic that the authors of Is Our Food Safe write about. And since we’d discovered some of J.I. Rodale’s work we knew eating organic was also likely good for us. So we saw buying organic as a way to be good to ourselves and to the environment at the same time. After all, we thought, we are part of the environment.

Then, in 1985, when we began to grow a lot of our own fruits and vegetables we went through the same thought process. There were some added layers to the conceptual onion, however. Growing fruits and vegetables without chemical fertilizers and pesticides was good for the environment on our farm, good for us as farmers, good for us as eaters, and good for our customers. There was one other consideration: since we didn’t have to buy chemicals, we kept some money in our pocket that other farmers give to the chemical companies.

But! We never became certified organic. Another vegetable farmer, Greg Reynolds, feels exactly the same way we do. However, he became certified organic and we didn’t. In this course you’ll get to tour Greg’s farm and learn why he is certified. I’ll tell you why we’re not, also. Along the way we’ll discuss how organic milk and cotton is produced, who certifies it, and who is ultimately responsible for the integrity of organic food. In the process you’ll meet some other farmers, including goat farmers who make their own organic goat cheese and an organic farmer who gives his junk mail to his pigs.

Greg, the organic cheese maker, the pig farmer, and my family have known for years that organic farming was a win-win for everybody except for those who insist on trying to sell farm chemicals to farmers. Before there were studies some of us just figured it was common sense. But what do the studies say?

Simply put, studies have confirmed our common sense feelings. Studies have found that food grown organically is more nutritious and actually tastes better. That makes sense because organic agriculture acknowledges that the soil is alive with biological activity that nurtures plant health and growth. Industrial agriculture, the Rodales asserted thirty years ago, has generally treated soil as merely a prop for plants that utilize the synthetic chemicals applied to the soils.

Since that assertion was made, in Organic Gardening and Farming magazine in the early 1970s, industrial agriculture has adopted some of the methodology of organic farmers, such as green manures, but the basic assertion remains true. Industrial agriculture still relies on synthetic, chemical, and now genetic engineering, whereas organic agriculture relies on biological processes. In this course we’ll look more closely at the studies that show food produced with organic methods are more nutritious and tasty.

By the time students have completed this class they will have learned the ins and outs of certification of farms and processing plants and they’ll meet some organic farmers. They’ll also study some of the details of actual certification rules and get a good idea how the new United States Department of Agriculture Program works. And they’ll find out how organic farmers produce food organically so that it’s more nutritious and tasty than conventionally produced food.

When you’ve completed the course you’ll be a smarter, and more informed, organic shopper. I encourage you to take the next step and register for either the quick course or the next interactive instructed course. If you do take that step I look forward to continuing the discussion with you.

By Kenneth Joergensen Articles in this Topic Discussions in this Topic
Botanical gardens are public places were plants are grown both for display and for scientific study and where educational programs are often arranged for both adults and children. An arboretum, for example, is a type of botanical garden which is devoted primarily to the growing of woody plants such as shrubs and trees. The plants in botanical gardens are often diverse and arranged in habitat groups, such as rock gardens, aquatic gardens, desert gardens, tropical gardens, and rose gardens.

Mixed borderSome of my favorite day-trips are visits to local botanical gardens several times during the year. Repeat visits can be very interesting as the plant material varies from flower bulbs, forsythia and rhododendron in the spring, annuals, roses, and lilies in summer, and tree foliage and chrysanthemum in the fall. Besides the plant experience, most botanical gardens also have enough green grass areas to allow playtime for a family for a whole day.

About one hours drive from where I live, you find the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens which is the subject of this visit report. Some of the key features are the Cranford Rose Garden, The Japanese Water Garden, and the Scent Gardens. It also have an area exclusively for kids where they grow plants in their own plots. If you visit in spring, you do not want to miss the areas dedicated to rhododendron, daffodils, and lilacs (Syringa). I visited in mid summer just as the roses, lilies, and summer annuals were blooming.

Cranford Rose Garden

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