May 6, 2009

What is organic food exactly? Student activities include two readings, a quiz, a writing assignment and suggestions for further inquiry.

To the Teacher

What is "organic" food? This is a subject of growing interest to supermarket shoppers most of whom probably can't answer the question accurately. Even the USDA definition has gray areas, as does its growers' inspection program. These issues are the subject of two readings. Discussion questions follow each.
Student activities include an introduction to help teacher and students gain some clarity about what students do and do not know about organic food and to consider their questions; a quiz and a writing assignment calling for evidence from the readings to support assertions about organics issues; and suggestions for further inquiry.


Introduce the subject by writing "ORGANIC" in the middle of the chalkboard and ask students to state what the word means to them. Create a list of their responses. After everyone who wishes has had an opportunity to answer, use the list to have students respond to the following questions:
1. Which descriptions do you know are factually correct? How do you know?
2. Which descriptions do you think are factually correct? What makes you think so?
3. Which descriptions are you certain are factually incorrect? How do you know?
4. Which descriptions do you have questions or are uncertain about?
Provide an opportunity for clarification, questions, and discussion. Have students record in their notebooks those descriptions the class agrees are factually correct, factually incorrect, or questionable for later reference.

Student Reading 1:

The organic seal

It is common today to see in a supermarket boxes of vegetables and fruits, or perhaps an entire section, labeled "organic." Many towns and cities now have farmer's markets where "organic" food predominates.
What is "organic" food?
The United States Department of Agriculture's definition states:
"Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation."
Non-organic food, in contrast, is produced by farmers who do not emphasize renewable resources and conservation. Their animals are generally not free from antibiotics or growth hormones. And non-organic food is often produced through the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and the like.
The U.S. and some other countries have established and oversee organic standards. Under the US National Organic Program (NOP), growers selling more than $5,000 a year must apply for certification to use the term "organic." Certification for a grower requires compliance with specified production methods, documentation of farm history and current organization, detailed record-keeping covering all farm activities, and an annual inspection fee of $400-$1,200. For first-time certification, a farm owner must demonstrate that over a period of two to three years the soil has been free of banned substances, such as synthetic chemicals.
Growers selling less than $5,000 a year do not have to apply for certification but may also use the term "organic" for their produce if they meet the same standards and agree to a record audit, if one is requested.
The organic seal of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) covers three levels of products: "100% organic" for those with only certified ingredients; (2) "95% organic"; and (3) "made with organic ingredients" for products with at least 70% organic ingredients.
Regulations and "lofty dreams"
But New York Times food writer Mark Bittman points out that NOP regulations "fall short of the lofty dreams of early organic farmers and consumers who gave the word 'organic' its allure." For instance, he says, the federal regulations don't require "returning natural nutrients and substance to the soil in the same proportion used by the growing process." They don't guarantee humane treatment of animals, for even though animals must be allowed to go outdoors, "for how long and under what conditions is not spelled out." They don't necessarily result in "the most nutritious food possible (the evidence is mixed on whether organic food is more nutritious) in the most ecologically conscious way."
Joan Shaffer, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department notes another way that the term "organic" may fall short of expectations: "People don't realize that 'organic' doesn't mean 'local,' It doesn't matter if it's from the farm down the road or from Chile. As long as it meets the standards it's organic." And, Bittman concludes, this is true "no matter the size of the carbon footprint left behind by getting from there to here."( "Eating Food That's Better for You, Organic or Not," Week in Review, New York Times, 3/21/09)
Another factor affecting NOP regulations is the role of lobbyists for special interests in American government and politics. Lobbyists who work for a huge corporate farm or a big company that uses agricultural products can promise lawmakers substantial campaign contributions and votes in exchange for favorable legislation.
For example, the 2006 agricultural appropriations bill included "38 synthetic ingredients to be used in organic foods. Among the ingredients are food colorings, starches, sausage and hot-dog casings, hops, fish oil, chipotle, chili pepper, and gelatin. This allowed Anheuser-Busch in 2007 to have its Wild Hop Lager certified organic even though it uses hops grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. (For these and other details, see


An Organics Quiz

If you are informed about an issue, you are not only knowledgeable but also able to support what you say with evidence — especially if the issue is controversial. Mark each statement below with an F if you think it is factual or an NF if you think it is not factual. Then state briefly what evidence there is in the reading to support your conclusion.

a. Organic foods contain synthetic substances.

b. Organic food is raised without the use of pesticides.

c. A certified organic grower must pay yearly for an inspection of facilities.

d. The US National Organic Program can assure consumers that all animals are treated humanely.

e. Organic food is more nutritious that non-organic food.

f. Wild Hop Lager is certified organic.

g. Wild Hop Lager is organic.

Discuss student responses and supporting evidence.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. How do organic foods "fall short of the lofty dreams of early organic farmers"?

3. What does Bittman mean by his "carbon footprint" criticism of organic standards?


Student Reading 2:

Problems with inspections

What is a food shopper like Danielle Overstreet, who lives in the Denver area, to do? "I don't really know that my organic food is organic unless it comes from my own garden," she writes. "I just have to put some trust in the certifiers-who of course may well be corruptible. Overstreet feels that her local supermarket "is fairly reliable. I do talk to their produce people when I'm in the store....I put no more trust in the natural foods stores than the supermarkets." Overstreet adds, "I do know that many out-of-USA items, both food and goods, are sprayed with pesticides when they come in whether by truck, air, or ship. So I do check to see if it is USA produced...Also I've learned that in the winter, California-grown organics are often actually grown in Mexico! So I'm careful about which California organic producer I buy from."
Overstreet reached those conclusions through reading material by "investigative journalists" — including Michael Pollan. (Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, a contributor to New York Times Magazine, and journalism professor at the University of California-Berkeley, is a leading critic of corporate farming.) She also cites Dr. Andrew Weil's websites, as well as printed material from some natural food stores. "I tend to trust printed works that are subject to peer review, which most of what is in cyberspace is not," says Overstreet.
Many organic shoppers were shocked by was the recent outbreak of salmonella in products made with organic peanuts. "The plants in Texas and Georgia that were sending out contaminated peanut butter and ground peanut products had something else besides rodent infestation, mold and bird droppings. They also had federal organic certification," Kim Severson and Andrew Martin reported.
"Why is organic peanut butter better than Jif?" said Ellen Devlin-Sample, a nurse practitioner from Pelham, NY, quoted in the New York Times (3/21/09). "I have no idea. Although the rules governing organic food require health inspections and pest-management plans, organic certification technically has nothing to do with food safety."
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) deputizes many dozens of organizations and companies as well as state workers to perform inspections. The New York Times reports: "These certifiers, then, are paid by the farmers and manufacturers they are inspecting to certify that the standards have been met." Inspection fees can be hundreds or even thousands of dollars. This system does not always produce the desired results.
Delays of various kinds meant that a private certifier "took nearly seven months to recommend that the USDA revoke the organic certification of the peanut company's Georgia plant and then "only after the company was in the thick of a massive food recall...Nine people have died and almost 700 have become ill."
There are other issues, too. "Arthur Harvey, a Maine blueberry farmer who does organic inspections, said agents have an incentive to approve companies that are paying them. 'Certifiers have a considerable financial interest in keeping their clients going,' he said. Meanwhile, consumers are becoming more skeptical about certification...Some shoppers want food that was grown locally, harvested from animals that were treated humanely or produced by workers who were paid a fair wage. The organic label doesn't mean any of that." ("It's Organic, but Does That Mean It's Safer?" New York Times, 3/21/09)
There is also a growing tendency for growers to bypass certification standards and label their products "natural" or "authentic," words that, unlike "organic," have no approved governmental definition.
At supermarkets organic sweet potatoes, like other organic produce, usually cost more than non-organic. But can a customer be sure that he or she is paying the extra money for certified organic sweet potatoes and not ordinary sweet potatoes? Can that customer tell by looking at them?
Mark Kastel, co-founder of Cornucopia Institute says: "There are generic benefits from doing organics, It protects the land from the ravages of conventional agriculture," and safeguards farm works from being exposed to pesticides.
Mark Bittman concludes that "questions remain over how we eat in general. It may feel better to eat an organic Oreo than a conventional Oreo, but, says Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University's department of nutrition, food studies and public health, 'Organic junk food is still junk food.'" (New York Times, 3/21/09)
Note: Update on organic foods inspections
On March 19, 2010, the New York Times reported that "Major gaps in federal oversight of the organic food industry" exposed in a report by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Phyllis Fong, "will lead to stricter enforcement of rules and other measures" by that agency. This will include:
Spot testing for pesticide traces in organically grown foods because, despite a 1990
law requiring it, "regulators never made sure the testing was being carried out"
A crackdown on marketers of phony organic products
Reviews of organic products in supermarkets and other stores to determine whether
they meet federal regulations 
Better oversight of some organic food operations overseas
As an example of weak oversight, Fong reported cases in which officials had taken more than a year and a half to act on their discovery that some conventional products had been falsely sold under organic labels. One operator sold nonorganic mint under an organic label for two years after officials knew about it.
Such failures, the USDA report warned, required stricter oversight so consumers know "that products labeled as organic are meeting a uniform standard."
The Obama administration is increasing sharply the budget for the USDA's National Organic Program and allowing expansion of the program to about 40 employees. (William Neuman, "U.S. Plans Spot Tests of Organic Products," New York Times, 3/19/10)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. How good a food shopper and critical thinker do you judge Danielle Overstreet to be? She cites Michael Pollan, Dr. Andrew Weil's website, and printed works subject to peer review among her sources for reliable information. How might you check these sources? How would you rate each and why? What is "peer review"?

3. In general, Overstreet is dubious about cyberspace sources and blogs, in particular. Do you think her skepticism is justified? If so, why? If not, why not?

4. What certification problems are there for the USDA and supermarket shoppers? How serious is the problem raised by Maine blueberry farmer Arthur Harvey, in your opinion?

5. How would you explain the salmonella outbreak in organic peanut products?


For writing

1. Write one paragraph in which you state, with supporting evidence from the reading, three significant conclusions about organic foods.

2. Have students check their notebooks on descriptions the class agreed to in their introductory consideration of the term "organic." Should they make any changes? If so, and in each case, why?


For Inquiry

You and your students might consider further inquiry into one of the subjects listed below. For independent and small group investigations, ask students to prepare two or three questions to guide them in their inquiry. Then they should consult with you for guidance and approval. Ask students to cite what they think would be reliable sources for their work.

1. Organic foods and pesticides and synthetic substances

2. Organic foods and the humane treatment of animals

3. Organic foods and "returning natural nutrients and substance to the soil in the same proportion used by the growing process"

4. Organic foods and nutrition

5. The Wild Hop Lager case

6. Michael Pollan's views on food

7. Dr. Andrew Weil and organics

8. The salmonella case

9. Organic inspections

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: