Pop quiz: According to the USDA regulations for organic food labeling, how much of a food must be made with organically-produced ingredients before the word "organic" can be used on the label?

A. 70%
B. 95%
C. 100%

The correct answer is A. A product containing up to 30% non-organic ingredients may still be labeled as being "made with organic (whatever the organic ingredients are)."

Perhaps you thought the question was worded a bit misleadingly. If you answered B, you may still consider yourself correct. The food itself may be labeled plainly as "organic" if it contains up to 5% non-organic ingredients.

There is something in the regulations that appears to be a curious contradiction. § 205.301(c), the paragraph describing requirements for foods labeled as "made with organic" ingredients, states: "Nonorganic ingredients may be produced without regard to paragraphs (4), (5), (6), and (7) of § 205.301(f)." However, § 205.301(f) says it applies to "all ingredients identified as 'organic,'" and § 205.301(f)(7) says the ingredients must not "Include organic and nonorganic forms of the same ingredient." Thus it appears that a food "made with organic" ingredients is both permitted and forbidden to mix organic and non-organic ingredients.

Reference: http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/nop2000/Final%20Rule/regtext/reg-labeling.htm (5 Jun. 2001).

Back to basics: Eating just a little bit greener

If there was ever any doubt as to whether people are interested in their health, look at the number of gym memberships sold every year. The market for personal trainers, nutritionists and books on healthier living is accelerating at a mind-numbing pace. No wonder, then, that more and more people take more interest and care in what they eat on a day-to-day basis.

If you have been in a supermarket the past five years, you can’t have failed to notice the influx of organic produce on the shelves: Milk, eggs, vegetables, meats and even ready-meals labelled organic are readily available. Often, the price tag on organic products is slightly heavier than the non-organic equivalent. We can’t help but ask ourselves if it is worth it. For an increasing number of people the answer seems to be “yes”.

Why organic?

People eat organic food for many different reasons, including environmental concerns, health and taste. We spoke to Allia Cole, a 23-year old student at the University of Liverpool. “I started eating Organic food about 10 years ago, because I was worried about my health”, she said, “I felt I was sensitive to the pesticides and preservatives that are used to produce vegetables, and my aunt pointed out there was an alternative: Organic food”.

Allia has a point: By the time a non-organically produced lettuce makes it to a supermarket shelf, it has been sprayed with a variety of chemicals more than 20 times. A standard apple may have up to 30 different artificially introduced poisons on its skin – even after rinsing. “I am a student, and hence I am on a limited budget”, Allia admits, “You can’t put a price on health. I feel it is important enough to go out of my way to find it, and I am happy to pay the extra money food I can trust.”

Apart from claims that organic food tastes better, many aficionados will tell you that it is far better for you, too: Organically farmed fruit and vegetables can have up to twice the amount of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants than high-intensity farmed produce.

Other arguments for eating organic food include animal protection: non-organically farmed animals are often kept on a steady diet of genetically modified food intermixed with antibiotics, growth hormones and medicines – regardless if the animals are ill or not. This has an effect on the milk, eggs and meat products many people eat every day.

It seems that Britons are discovering organic foods in a big way: In the past year, sales of organically certified foods have increased by 10 % – in the past ten years, sales have increased hundred-fold. Today, nearly three out of four households occasionally buy organic produce.

Where did organic foods come from all of a sudden?

When humans started domesticating animals about 14,000 years ago and invented agriculture roughly 4,000 years later, farming was organic simply because there were no growth hormones, pesticides or genetic manipulation. As early as 400 years ago, farmers started using natural pesticides such as the Pyrethrum Daisy, but more and more chemical pesticides were introduced over time.

From the mid-1930s onward, more and more farmers (especially those running smaller farms and selling their goods locally) decided that they would rather sacrifice some of their profits, and stick to more natural ways of food production. This movement was essentially the beginning of organic food as we know it today.

In the UK, organic foods have been promoted since the mid-1940s. The Soil Association was started when The Living Soil was published in 1943. This book, written by Lady Eve Balfour, and argues for a more sustainable approach to farming – a concept that is currently known as organic agriculture.


What does the label mean?

To adorn itself with the Organic label in the UK, the production of the foods has to follow certain regulations set out by the EU.

Meat and poultry products, for example, have to come from non-genetically modified (GM) animals that are fed on at least 70 % organically produced feed free of antibiotics, growth hormones and similar additives. The regulations further to promote high standards of animal welfare.

For natural produce such as potatoes, farmers may not use artificial fertilisers or pesticides to control the crops. Processed foods (such as pasta, cookies, and ready meals) labelled organic have to consist of certified organic produce.

In order to be Organic certified, farmers are subject to a legal framework: Organic businesses are licensed by law, and are inspected at least once a year. Most of the inspections and guidelines are set and upheld by an independently funded charity: the Soil Association.


Where can I buy organic foods in the UK?

80 % of organic foods are currently sold through supermarkets: Tesco stores generally have a separate section for organic foods, while Asda, Safeway and Woolworths have organic foods clearly marked side-by-side with their non-organic foods. The supermarket will often only have a limited selection of organic foods, but these are also likely to be the foods you need most often.

Local produce markets will often sell organic foods, either exclusively, or side-by-side with other produce: Ask your greengrocer which foods are organic.

There are also specialty stores that not only sell the produce, but where the staff will be able to answer your Organic food questions


Groan. I would have thought the citizenry of E2 would be at least partially immune to this sort of woo-woo delusional nonsense. But alas, it is now my lot in life to, shall we say, correct the record.

Technically, all food is "organic." This is because it consists of compounds with either a carbon-carbon or carbon-hydrogen bond in them. That is what organic substances are (alright, there are some compounds essential for life which aren't organic, such as compounds of calcium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, and so forth). The definitions of what "organic" food is, which differ from place to place to place with no rhyme or reason, are completely unrelated. That's because of the following:

Organic food is a big fuck-off marketing exercise.

See, the world has an overabundance of those people who have disposable income but no disposable intellect and as such an entire industry has sprung up in favour of manipulating said rich idiots into giving away all their money to said industry. They do this by convincing them that "normal" foods are full of chemicals (which they are - EVERYTHING is a chemical and I don't see your local Tesco's selling quark-gluon plasma bars) which will give them cancer, autism, diabetes, or even totally made up ailments such as Morgellons or Chronic Lyme Disease and that you have to switch to "organic" foods instead. They're advertised as being healthier, more environmentally friendly, and alleged to "just taste better." And of course they aren't smeared in pesticides, fertilizer, or nasty E-numbers, and aren't made with genetically modified ingredients. Ergo, they MUST be worth the tripling of the price tag, mustn't they? Mustn't they?

Ahhhh no.

Every single one of those claims is demonstrably false.

We'll start with the easy ones - they "just taste better." I can't see how it's possible to quantify this because anyone who thinks this does so because the crunchy granola lobby has spent vast sums on ingraining this falsehood into the public conscience, sort of like a culinary placebo effect. They don't taste any different, in fact. Not to me anyhow, but I defy you to measure this claim because I can't work out how.

Yes, organic foods aren't likely to have residues of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Thing is, even the most horrifically toxic of same have never been shown to get into the food chain in sufficient quantities enough to have any effect on people's health. "Oh, but would you swallow a glass of pesticide?" says the weave your own muesli brigade. No, but you're not going to ingest that much any how in one go. And it also depends on the pesticide. Capsaicin is extremely toxic to certain insects and discouraging to mammals but I happen to like it. It is, of course, found in great quantities in hot chilli peppers. Copper sulphate, on the other hand, is a different matter. But even if this were a valid point, think on this - organic produce is, by their logic, obviously smeared in shit and nibbled on by disease-riddled insects. Yay for organic. And in any event, the dose makes the poison; you can swallow a ton of pesticide over your life but not die or have any real negative health effects from it because it's metabolised over time. Though said weave your own mueslis don't admit this because then they couldn't sell you a fad detox diet.

As an aside, let's briefly discuss that one pesticide that is the source of more autistic screeching on social media than anything else. Glyphosate. It has a lower LD50 than salt and caffeine, and is a "probable" human carcinogen according to the WHO. Thing is, there are lots of "probable" carcinogens. Living in a city, for one. Going on the London Underground for another. Cats, for a third, but you don't see the beard and sandals mob reeeeeing about how their lully fluffball should be euthanised in accordance with the precautionary principle, do you. Then there's some definitive human carcinogens - ultraviolet light, which comes out of the sun and there's nothing you can do about and couldn't ban even if you wanted to. Alcohol. Tobacco. In fact, smoking anything is probably carcinogenic because at the end of the day you're breathing in smoke which is likely to contain benzene or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. But no. They choose to focus on glyphosate, while at the same time swilling their organic fairtrade frappucino (containing caffeine, which is a definitive carcinogen). And that's because glyphosate is associated with Monsanto, who in nutty crunchy land are kind of the Antichrist. It's almost as if they hear those three syllables - Monsanto - and turn off their critical faculties, like how a thirsty teenaged virgin with rage disengages his big head and engages his little head when dangled the prospect of any sexual activity whatever. Yes, Monsanto are a large corporation and as such have probably engaged in more than a little skulduggery, but the stories about how they seem to do things for the evulz are just that, stories, usually pushed by the organic lobby as a boogeyman - and besides, since they became so large and dominant because of the woo-woos insisting that GMOs become so regulated that only the really big players can afford to market them, this making Monsanto a rod for their own backs.

While on the subject of Monsanto, "organic" foods aren't genetically modified, I hear you say? Wrong, say I. And even if it was true, what's the big deal. Humans have been genetically modifying plants and animals for thousands of years. The "organic" banana you get from your sawdust-smeared co-operative grocer didn't evolve to be like that. A plant whose fruits have no seeds nine times out of ten would never evolve normally because that way extinction lies. No, over many generations humanity selectively bred the current banana from wild seeded bananas to have the traits they thought would be most useful to them. Your lovely loyal doggo has a family tree that started out as a wolf that was probably slightly more comfortable about humans than its compatriots. All of this is genetic modification as much as DNA recombination or CRISPR gene editing. None of these species would have evolved naturally but for human intervention and are every inch as artificial as, say, the Arctic Apple, Bt cotton, golden rice, or similar. And what's wrong with genetically modified stuff anyhow? It's Frankenfood? May I remind you that Frankenstein's Monster wasn't a monster until the ill-understanding mass of humanity made him so. Moreover, genetically modified foods can be made to have traits such as lasting longer, including key vitamins in crops that can grow in areas where foodstuffs containing those vitamins are not otherwise possible to grow (thus reducing the need for importing and food miles and thus meaning lower pollution in general), and even, in the case of the sadly-doomed-by-short-sighted-regulators Enviropig, which was a pig that was genetically modified to excrete less phosphorus and thus reduce eutrophication attributed to soil run-off. More mundanely, they can have greater yields and thus constitute more efficient land use than "organic" crops, can produce their own pesticides (which certain plants such as chillies already do), and similar, thus meaning that less external pesticides have to be sprayed on them and thus less pollution in general.

This is usually the point at which the sandal-wearers move the goalposts and claim it's actually about large businesses "controlling" the food supply. And there is a valid grain of truth in this, but that is a problem of patent laws, not of genetic engineering being a bad thing in and of itself. A species of living being, genetically modified or not, can be patented and has been even before genetic engineering in the modern sense was known. The problem there is one of the law of intellectual property having been developed in such a way that it allows such silliness as allowing the same chemical compound to be patented twice, once for each enantiomer (i.e. venlafaxine and desvenlafaxine) to artificially extend one company's patent upon it to twice the length the law otherwise would allow. However that is off topic for this writeup and I am neither an industrial chemist nor an intellectual property lawyer so I'd not really be in much of a position to comment upon it.

Anyhow. Back to the hippies. E-numbers are basically regulatory codes for permitted food additives, not secret poisons that THEY are putting in your food. E300 is ascorbic acid, better known as Vitamin C. And I guarantee that right now you, dear reader, are surrounded by E941 and E948. (I bet that'll make the crystal-wavers paranoid, which is why I've deliberately not told you what they are.)

So why, then, if "organic" food is so conclusively no different to "inorganic" food, for want of a better term, do so many people swear by it? Well, I have an answer to that, and it is this - virtue signalling, and as a Veblen good. See, a person who goes out their way to buy organic because it's "better" or "healthier" or "greener" is most likely doing so because they want to demonstrate to others how virtuous or wealthy they are. That they are the Glorious Organic Master Race and everyone else is a filthy GMO peasant. It is a marker of being posh but in a tasteful way, not a blingy loadsamoney way. It is a marker of being concerned and thus the Right Sort of Person. I bet that if I were to insert similar quantities of both "organic" and "inorganic" food of the same variety and brand into a mass spectrometer the readings would come out just the same.

This, of course, matters not to the organic lobby because they know that there's enough people out there who will treat all things genetic engineering and chemical with snide jeering and booing, and all things branded "green" even when they aren't with seal-like clapping, so they still make vast sums out of the general ignorance of the populace.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go and collect my shill cheque.


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