My account of creating a greener life.

How organic produce differs in the U.S. and Europe

I have made a lot of changes to my diet recently in an effort to be more “green.” In general, this means eating little to no meat and buying local, seasonal food whenever possible. Eating greener, for me, does not actually mean eating more organic produce!

This comes as a surprise to some people. While organic regulations have some impact on sustainability, in general, an organic label tells you very little about the environmental impact of your food!

On the other hand, an organic label in Denmark does tell you something about the environmental impact of your food. This fact led me on a deep-dive into what organic actually means in the U.S. and Europe, and that’s what I’m sharing today!

What does an organic label mean in the U.S.?

Admittedly, I get quite nit-picky about organic labelling. At the end of the day, I don’t want anyone to feel discouraged about the way they shop! If you buy your produce at a conventional supermarket, organic produce is probably a little better than conventional.

No, organic regulations in the U.S. aren’t perfect, but they’re a start. This blog isn’t about being perfect, but being a little greener than before. Still, I feel it’s important to know what you’re actually buying when you pick organic!

Produce

For the most part, an organic label gives you information about pesticides and fertilizers. The USDA has a list of prohibited substances for organic growing, and when you buy organic produce, you know you won’t be ingesting any of those chemicals.

Don’t get me wrong – this does have a positive impact on the environment! An organic farmer will tend to release fewer harmful chemicals into the environment over time than a similar conventional farmer.

Some people will point to the fact that organic regulations do ban GMOs, which is a positive. In general, GMOs (or at least the way they’re generally grown) do harm the environment, so prohibiting them is good! At the same time, as one of my favorite articles points out, the GMOs themselves are not actually the problem.

On the whole, organic regulations don’t really get to the heart of the environmental problems caused by agriculture. Organic regulations say nothing about monoculture or soil degradation, both issues that have severe impacts on the environment.

Now here’s the thing: at the grocery store, I usually do buy organic. At a place like Trader Joe’s, I think the organic label does tell you that you’re having a slightly lower environmental impact.

However, I prefer to buy produce at the farmers market, where it doesn’t really matter if it’s organic or not – the produce is local and seasonal, and that’s what matters the most.

Meat

Organic meat labels give you a slightly better picture of where your food comes from! Another disclaimer: I rarely buy meat at the grocery store, but if you do, organic is slightly better than conventional. Of course, eating less meat is the most green thing you can do 🙂

An organic label on meat tells you three main things:

  1. The animal got to live in conditions that accommodated their natural behavior. I usually take this with a grain of salt – this does not typically mean that an animal got to spend its days freely roaming a grassy meadow. Still, it’s better than the conventional alternative!
  2. The animal was feed 100% organic feed and forage. I find this requirement encouraging as well because it creates a slightly smaller chance that your beef came from a cow forced to eat industrial corn.
  3. The farmer used no antibiotics when raising the animal. Animals in incredibly tight quarters with poor living conditions require antibiotics. If farmers cannot give their livestock antibiotics, they had to focus some energy on the improving the living conditions of their animals. Again, it’s a good start!

How do these regulations compare to somewhere like Denmark?

Denmark’s organic farming practices are what made me look into U.S. regulations in the first place. The E.U. has its own set of organic farming regulations that more or less reflect what you see in the U.S. Denmark, however, went above and beyond to enact its own, more stringent, policies.

Denmark’s organic policies take the environment into account. For example, Danish organic regulations require:

  1. Careful monitoring of soil fertility
  2. Crop rotation (which both helps keep soil fertile and reduces the need for pesticides)
  3. Planting hedges and meadows to maintain soil health
  4. Retaining as much native vegetation as possible

Beyond that, I’m quite impressed by what the organic label means for animal welfare. Organic farmers can only have a certain number of animals based on the size of their land. Yes, this means the government prevents overcrowding on farms!

Animals also must receive organic diets and access to grassland and outdoor areas. I visited a Danish pig farm last year and saw up-close what that meant: pigs had freedom to roam grassy pastures.

The best part? Danes are actually willing to pay more to spend more money to buy organic. You can find organic produce everywhere – even the super-discount grocery stores. In a country where the organic label means a lot, consumers really value it!

So what’s the takeaway?

Organic production in the U.S. has a long way to go. By looking to nations like Denmark, we get an idea of the direction we hope our own farming practices can go!

In the meantime, here’s what I suggest:

  • If you shop at conventional supermarkets, buy organic. Even though we know the label isn’t perfect, buying organic produce keeps opening up the market for more farmers to sell organic produce.
  • Buy seasonal & local whenever possible, and be understanding if that means the produce isn’t organic. Smaller farms don’t always have the resources to meet the exact standards of the USDA, and that’s okay. Small farms come with their own set of unique strengths!
  • Vote your values. I rarely hear politicians speak about their thoughts on agricultural policy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell them what we want. Apps like Countable make it very easy to get in touch with your representatives.

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