For several years now, consumers have trended toward purchasing organic foods. Many traditional grocery chains have an organic section, while numerous specialty stores focus strictly on organic products. This sector of the food economy is growing at a five- to ten-percent annual rate.
How does the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) define the term organic? “Organic food is produced using sustainable agricultural production practices. Not permitted are most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.”
More than 25,000 farmers, ranchers and other operations are USDA-certified as organic—it’s a $35-billion industry and growing. Organic farmers follow a defined set of standards in producing an organic food product. Congress described the basic principles in the Organic Foods Production Act, and the USDA defines specific organic standards which cover the product from farm to table, including soil and water quality, pest control, livestock practices and rules for food additives.
Organic farmers receive a premium for their products, as more intensive management and labor is required; hence, the price at the grocery store is higher. Many consumers feel the additional cost is worth the comfort of knowing it is an organic product.
Another term associated with many food products is natural. “Natural” and “all-natural” foods are widely used in food labeling and marketing under a variety of definitions, most of which are vague. It often implies that foods are minimally processed or do not contain additives, but the lack of standards in most jurisdictions means that the term assures nothing. In some countries, the term “natural” is defined and enforced, but in the United States, it is basically just a marketing tool.
Switching gears… So what is a GMO, or genetically modified organism? This term has received much publicity over the past decade and is often used in food labeling discussions or in association with the word biotechnology. Approximately 90 percent of the corn planted in the United States and 95 percent of soybean plantings use GMO seed. From an agricultural standpoint, genetically modified organisms are simply plants developed by placing a copy of a gene or section of genetic material from one plant or organism into another plant to achieve a desired trait, such as insect resistance or an improved ripening process.
It takes approximately 13 years for a new GMO seed variety to go through the testing and research process before it’s brought to market. The Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture all participate in this rigorous process of testing and research.
Food is abundant in the United States, thanks in part to biotechnology. That’s not the case in many other countries around the world. Depending on consumer demand, some farmers will grow organic products, while others will grow products using biotechnology. There is a desire for both. Meanwhile, farmers throughout the Peoria area are ready for another growing season to put food on your plate and fuel in your car. iBi