“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”

~ Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution

Consumers are becoming more and more conscientious about our planet, what goes on our plates, in our bodies, and the correlation between food as medicine ― or food as disease. However, knowing exactly what we are eating these days can feel like an exercise in futility. It is no longer as simple as consuming whole, unprocessed foods. By learning how to read labels and decipher what ingredients really are, we can be advocates for our health. Below is a guide to the most commonly used farming methods, terminology and food labels to help understand what they mean and how to interpret them.


Food labeled “biodynamic” must be grown in accordance with a holistic view of farming, which includes not using artificial pesticides or fertilizers. The farm must also be as self-sufficient as possible and contribute to the health of the land instead of depleting its nutrients. Another term for biodynamic is Demeter farming, and products labeled with Demeter or Stellar certifications indicate biodynamic farming practices. Like organic farms, biodynamic farms must observe practices for at least three years before becoming certified.


All-natural is one of the most overused terms in greenwashing. Frito-Lay, Capri Sun, Tropicana, Snapple, and Ben & Jerry’s have all been sued for liberally applying the term. All-natural is not an official label, and should not be considered as such. The FDA does not regulate the term and a bevy of less than appetizing ingredients can be included in products with the all-natural stamp such as high-fructose corn syrup and genetically modified organisms, as food producers in the US are not required to label GMO products — yet.


“Cage-free” means what it says: not in cages. Chickens kept in cage-free facilities are spared the heinous confinement of battery cages (which house up to 10 birds in conditions so cramped that the animals are not able to fully extend their wings). Instead, the cage-free animals are usually kept in barns that allow them to move about, however, they are not required to have access to the outdoors, and the birds’ beaks are typically partially amputated (without anesthetic) to keep them from pecking each other. Farms that meet cage-free standards certainly provide better living conditions for their animals, but better is far from ideal.


Animals raised under “free-range” conditions must have some access to the outdoors, but nothing else is specified under the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Therefore, there are no stipulations for how much time these animals really spend outside, nor what “outside” really means — the area could be nothing more than a concrete slab. Though free-range is a very appealing term that conjures up images of grassy pastureland, it does nothing to ensure those conditions for animals. Additionally, since there aren’t more specific standards for what it means, poultry companies can use the term without being accused of false advertising.


Genetically Modified Organism can apply to either plants or animals. Genetically Engineered Organisms also fall into this category – genes are spliced from organism into another, such as when genes from fish are inserted into tomatoes or strawberries to make them more resistant to cold temperatures. Two of the most commonly modified plants are corn and soy, which are fed to animals as feed or to humans directly. In 2011, 94 percent of all the soy frown in the US was herbicide-tolerant due to gene-splicing. up from 17 percent in 1997. Though farmers, particularly in the US, have quickly embraced GMO crops, the long-term effects of transgenic organisms have yet to be determined. Studies have linked GMO crops to everything from sterility in lab animals to Colony Collapse Disorder in bees. Many European counties such as Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg have already banned growing GE crops. While California’s Prop 37 was defeated last November, measure Initiative 522 will appear on Washington’s statewide November ballot.


When the US Congress passed the 2008 Farm Act, it defined “local” food as being grown within 400 miles or in the same state as the point of sale. This is probably the most official definition, but miles on the ground is just one way of looking at local. Whole Foods Market, for example, has a national standard that food must not have traveled more than seven hours by car or truck to be eligible for the local label, though some of the chain’s 11 regions set even shorter maximum distances. According to the USDA, both employment and revenue are bettered in communities that have local food systems.


The USDA has defined “organic” since the passage of the 1990 Farm Bill, which included the Organic Foods Production Act. The National Organic Program, established by the OFPA, sets the standards for what qualifies as organic and certifies products that meet the requirements. There are specifications for what can be applied to the land, how crops must be rotated, and disease management in crops (there are also qualifiers for labeling organic meat products), among others. While nutritionally equivalent to conventionally grown food, organic food is lower in pesticides, which have far-reaching negative effects. However, if an item is labeled 100 percent organic, then it is supposed to contain nothing but organic ingredients and processing aids that are organically produced. It is important to understand that products labeled certified organic are only required to contain 95 percent organic ingredients, meaning that up to 5 percent of the ingredients may be nonagricultural (aka nasty) substances. Furthermore, 70-95 percent organic, labeled “Made with Organic Ingredients,” can contain other substances in the 5-30 percent of ingredients that are not organic. They can be grown with pesticides, but without the sewage sludge, and cannot be irradiated or GMO. 70 percent organic, which is labeled “Contains Organic Ingredients,” can contain other substances along with pesticides, sewage sludge, irradiation, and GMOs. Read your labels carefully!


As far as buzzwords go, sustainable is right up there with organic, but its ambiguity leaves much to be desired. Experts in the field fail to define “sustainable,” often coming to differing conclusions about what the term actually means. Even the USDA has given up trying, saying that sustainable agriculture “defied definition.” Consumers should be wary of products promoted as sustainable, unless there is a secondary, more quantifiable qualifier, such as biodynamic.


As defined and certified by the Veganic Agriculture Network, “veganic” farming takes the principles of organic farming and removes any animal-derived components (such as manure as fertilizer). The aim is both to lessen farming’s impact on the environment, and to cut ties between the production of produce and animal farming. Like biodynamic and organic farming, three years of compliance is required for farms looking for veganic certification, though farms that have used chemical fertilizers or pesticides can be labeled “veganic transitional.”

Image source: Faena Sphere 

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