Improvements in technology occur every day. The horse was replaced by the automobile, rotary phones were replaced by smartphones, and black-and-white televisions were left on shelves in favor of high-definition flat screens.
Today’s food production is no different. In every sector you will find new products and techniques that boost yield, improve efficiency, increase safety, and grow more food with less land, water, pesticides, and fertilizer.
With change comes questions. Here are three major food related topics that consumers seem to want to know more about – organic foods, natural foods and GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The answers below come from experts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Organic foods have seen a rapid rise in popularity over the past 10 years. Once hard-to-find items, major retailers have picked up on the trend and offer a wide variety of organic products ranging from fruits and vegetables to meat, ready-to-eat meals and everything in between. Sales during this time period have grown from $3.6 billion to $21.1 billion and now account for over 3 percent of all U.S. food sales.
What does organic really mean?
Let’s start with the fact that there is a difference between products marketed as organic and those that are actually certified and marketed as organic. Stop at any local farmers market, and you’ll be able to find foods marketed as organic. In this case, the farmer may be using organic practices on his or her farm, but perhaps has chosen not to seek official certification.
Official certification comes through the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). USDA established a set of regulations that a grower or processor must follow in order for the product to be certified organic. Operations are inspected on a yearly basis to ensure compliance with NOP regulations. The terms “organic” or “certified organic” can only be used, in a commercial retail setting, by operations that meet the regulations.
What is the key difference between organic and non-organic foods?
“The main difference between organics and non-organics is that organics use no synthetic fertilizers or conventional pesticides,” says Sarah Browning, extension educator at UNL. “Organic farmers still use fertilizers and pesticides, but they have to be certified (NOP approved) and follow specific guidelines.”
In order to be USDA-certified organic, a farm has to follow organic practices for at least three years before it can go through the certification process.
Are there proven health benefits to eating organic foods?
Many consumers weigh choosing the supposed nutritional benefits of organics to paying a higher price, but Browning says that research hasn’t given a conclusive answer on nutrition. Several studies have been done to determine health benefits of organic foods, including a recent one by Stanford University. The Stanford study suggests there is no significant difference in nutrition between organic and conventional crops.
Other studies suggest that organics may contain more antioxidants and that organic produce has a 30 percent less chance of containing pesticide residues.
“In my opinion, organics are going to grow in importance and production,” Browning says. “There is a rising demand, and it comes back to the local connection that consumers want. However, there still needs to be more research about the exact benefits of organics.”
How has the rise in organic foods impacted the relationship between farmers and large-chain food suppliers?
It’s a tricky balance for large-chain food suppliers to keep up with organic demand because farmers can’t provide the amount they need, according to USFRA. Organic farms are typically smaller, and there aren’t as many. But this is changing as farmers have recognized the increased marketing opportunities that can come from being certified organic. More farms are applying every year, including many large farms that can supply larger quantities.
“The problem for organic farmers in supplying big grocery stores is that they want a year-round supply, which farmers can’t produce,” says Charles Shapiro, soil scientist in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture at UNL.
Natural and Other Labels
Just as USDA certified organic products have experienced rapid growth, the demand for products labeled “natural” is also on the rise. But, when found on a food label, what does the term “natural” mean? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates all foods except for meat and eggs (those are regulated by USDA). Both agencies enforce rules that the labels on food items must be truthful.
What is a natural product?
While neither USDA nor FDA have developed a definition of natural, the term loosely means that the product has, at most, had minimal processing and does not contain any added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. Minimal processing allows the product to be cut into consumable sizes, such as cutting steaks from a side of beef. This does not alter the product, only the size of the product.
Are natural products regulated?
There is not a formal process a farmer and/or food processing company has to go through to label a product natural. However, under the truth in labeling regulation, a product that is processed beyond the minimum or has artificial ingredients added to it could not be labeled as natural.
What other types of labels can be used on food?
There are several other words that can be used to describe meat or egg products. According to the USDA’s website, these are some popular labels and their definitions:
Free-range – The flock is provided shelter, food, water and continuous access to the outdoors. The outdoor area may be fenced.
Cage-free – The flock is freely able to roam a building, room or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and water.
Grass-fed – Animals receive a majority of their nutrients from grass or hay but their diet may be supplemented with grain.
Pasture-raised – Due to the large number of variables, the USDA has not developed a definition for pasture-raised.
Humane – Many companies offer to verify that animals are raised humanely but the criteria can vary widely. These labeling programs are not regulated under a single USDA definition.
One other label that has become increasingly popular is “local.” Local is not defined or regulated by the USDA or FDA. Even among farmers the term is not clear. However, often times the farmer’s nearest city or town is listed, and then the consumer can determine if that is local enough for them.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOS)
GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are crops that have been developed by the introduction of genes; this improves specific qualities of the crop, such as resistance to insects, herbicide tolerance and nutritional qualities, according to Dr. Ed Cahoon, director of the UNL Center for Plant Science Innovation. Many consumers are asking questions about the safety of these crops.
Can GMOs have an effect on human health, either harmful or helpful?
Dr. Sally Mackenzie, professor in the UNL Center for Plant Science Innovation, says that GMOs have been on the market for 15 years.
“Currently, with the traits that are on the market, there have been zero reports of new allergies or health concerns that are caused from transgenic traits,” she says. “There are proteins in plants that can behave as allergens, but GMOs have never provided any concern in that arena.”
Cahoon adds that GMO crops go through extensive testing for safety to both humans and the environment as part of the regulatory process that is required before those crops can be grown commercially.
Another important thing to remember is that almost all GMO traits can be found naturally.
“Just because we do genetic engineering doesn’t mean it’s not natural,” Mackenzie says. “For these changes to occur naturally is extremely time consuming. GMOs are designed to expedite the natural occurrence faster.”
How are GMOs beneficial?
Cahoon notes that GMO crops can help farmers reduce the amount of fertilizer and pesticides they need to use. Mackenzie says plant breeders continue to look at GMO technology as a way to enhance the health benefits of certain crops.
She says one trait that scientists are working on is the modification of the oil composition in soybeans. Soybean oil is widely used in cooking and is generally labeled vegetable oil. The oil will have more nutritional benefits, similar to olive oil. This adds value to the crop, benefiting the farmer and the consumer.