These days, concerns about health, responsible farming techniques, fair trade practices and genetically modified organisms are just some of the reasons why making your weekly grocery list may seem to require a degree in geopolitical economics or chemistry.
One such consideration when filling the fridge is the benefit of organic food. Organic meat in particular has become a popular topic for reasons ranging from health and flavor to environmental welfare. But is organic meat really the environmentally friendly way to go?
The answer is yes. Sort of.
Farming — whether it's raising livestock for meat or growing crops — does have an impact on the environment. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, since the mid-1980s, an area the size of India has been deforested to accommodate livestock. Cattle are particularly tough on the land, physically and chemically. As they graze, they compact the soil as they walk, hardening it and making it difficult for new vegetation to emerge. This can also make the soil more susceptible to erosion, limiting its ability to retain nutrients. Chemically, waste from cattle can burn and destroy vegetation and change the nitrogen levels of the soil. Raising cattle also accounts for 8 percent of global water usage and produces 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. For these reasons, some consumers feel the only way to be completely green at the dinner table is to forgo meat altogether since raising crops does not have the same dramatic effects on the land.
For most people, though, the label 'organic' on their food product is enough to imply that steps have been taken to mitigate or even reverse agriculture's negative effects on the environment. And they are generally correct in that assumption, at least with foods certified as organic under the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's "USDA Certified Organic" label was born from this legislation and, in a sea of eco-related food labels, it is the only one backed by U.S. standards and USDA-accredited certification agencies.
According to the USDA, studies show ecological advantages of organic farming, including maintaining soil quality, reducing water contamination, producing fewer greenhouse gases and conserving water. In fact, the definition of organic farming established by the USDA National Organic Standards Board is rooted in ecological principles.
For organic certification under the USDA guidelines, the livestock must not be genetically engineered, and organic farmers must not use antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones. Their animals graze in pastures where they can eat grass, whereas the grain and growth supplements fed to traditionally raised livestock actually alter the nutritional make-up of the meat by yielding a product that's higher in fat, an important measure of flavor for consumers.
Another environmental benefit of organic meat is that you can usually find a local organic farmer or a grocer that sells locally raised meat. Small, local farmers often practice sustainable farming techniques, which emphasize the long-term care of the land including limiting the use of chemicals and rotating pastures to prevent overgrazing. And the close proximity means the food generally requires fewer transportation costs than other organic products that have been shipped from a distribution hub farther away.
The merits of organic food are still being measured, and the reasons for preferring organic meat can range from health and nutritional value to concerns over animal rights, but making the right choice for you and your family generally comes down to which benefits you value.