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.