Earth & Conservation

Organic Food: What to Know Before You Buy

We take a look at some of the issues spoiling the organic food industry and offer advice on making the best choices.

Whole Foods sells it, Trader Joe's promotes it, even Safeway, Walmart and Target Superstores carry it. Organic food. Produce grown without conventional pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. Meat raised without antibiotics or growth hormones. What's not to like? It's one of the fastest growing sectors of the U.S. food industry.

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But peel back the rind and organic food may not be what you think. There's pesticide use, farmworker exploitation and questionable livestock management, as well as hundreds of products sold under the guise of being organic without coming close. Here we take a closer look at a few of the unseemly issues spoiling the organic food industry and suggest choices and simple actions that could make a big difference.

CORPORATE VS. AUTHENTIC

The phrase "organic food" strikes a wholesome note with most people because it evokes images of small family farms where happy cows roam and glossy produce bursts from the soil. But not all organic farms are created equal. Mark Kastel, co-founder of and senior farm policy analyst at The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group based in Wisconsin, says there are two kinds of organic: corporate and authentic.

"Corporate" refers to large, industrial-scale farms that call themselves organic, but have managed to skirt regulations, inspections and other USDA oversight. "Authentic" means farms that meet the USDA's requirements and have been certified.

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But there is some gray area. Organic farms that sell less than $5,000 a year are not required to get the certification, and because acquiring a certification involves paying a fee, some organic farmers skip it because they simply cannot afford it.

"I have seen small farmers say it's prohibitively expensive," food systems analyst Kristy Athens told DNews. Athens is the author of "Get Your Pitchfork On!: The Real Dirt on Country Living."

This means some farms that claim they're organic may not be in practice and other farms that are not certified organic may indeed be organic.

What's a consumer to do?

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Start by checking out the scorecards on The Cornucopia Institute's website, which rank just about every product category in every geographic location for how well they meet the organic standard.

You can also track down one of the 300 or so community-supported agricultural farms around the country, which according to Kastel, represent the highest standard of organic.

"Almost all of their food is local," says Kastel. "It's picked 10 hours ago, not 10 days ago. That's the gold standard."

Search for a local farmer's market in your neighborhood. As of 2013, 8,144 farmer's markets were registered with the Agriculture Department, up from 4,685 in 2008. At both a farmer's market and in a CSA, you can speak directly to people who work on the farm and ask about their farming methods.

FARMWORKERS

Buying organic food from reputable sources is a good first step, but it won't solve some of the most egregious problems in the industry -- namely farmworker exploitation.

"Most organic food we find in our stores is a result of industrialized agriculture and not from small farms," said Athens. "And with that comes worker rights issues." (Watch her TED Talk on this issue here.)

There are about 3 million farmworkers in the United States, some of whom rise well before dawn and spend 10 hours or more under the hot sun picking a variety of produce. Those that work on organic farms encounter some of the same conditions found on conventional farms, namely grueling labor, low wages and sexual abuse.

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Even those who work on organic farms can be exposed to chemicals.

"There are times when farmworkers can work on organic lettuces in the morning and then cross over to the pesticide-laden fields in the afternoon," said Jessica Romero of the Washington, D.C.-based Farmworker Justice.

Pay is low. For their time, woman earn on average about $11,000 a year and men earn about $16,500, according to the Department of Labor.

Julia de la Cruz, a farmworker who has spent 10 years on both organic and conventional farms in Michigan, North Carolina and Florida, spoke to DNews through an interpreter. She explained that on most farms, workers are paid by the piece and get a certain amount for every bucket or box they fill with produce. But workers aren't always paid for all of the pieces they harvest.

"We see this across the board on nonorganic farms, too," de la Cruz said. "If they are paid an hourly wage, they aren't paid for all of the hours they work. If they leave to go work for another farm, they aren't given their last week's pay."

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Sexual abuse is common. The geographical isolation, as well as language barriers, make women especially vulnerable to male bosses and coworkers. Surveys reveal that 77% to 90% percent of women farmworkers report sexual abuse.

"It's sad that something as terrible as sexual harassment happens to create this product, which is sold at a premium cost," said de la Cruz.

De la Cruz is a member of the powerful Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a grass-roots movement that started in 1993 in Immokalee, Fla., to campaign for the rights of farmworkers. They started the Fair Food Program, which fights against abuse and gets farmers and retail food companies to provide humane working conditions and wages.

Not all food companies and organic farms have signed on, but you can see the current list of partners here. To promote food justice beyond just voting with your fork, sign up to support the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Fair Food Program or support another organization fighting for fair labor.

CHEMICALS

According to the rules laid out by the USDA, farms can call themselves organic if they follow specific guidelines and obtain certification. Within those guidelines are strict rules about which substances can and cannot be used to deal with pests, mold and fungi.

"A misconception about organic is that there are no chemicals used, but there is a long list of chemicals used and some of them are synthetic," Marylhurst University's Kristy Athens told DNews.

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Synthetic substances are allowed when a naturally derived one doesn't exist. But in some cases, even naturally derived substances could be harmful. The pesticide spinosad, which comes from a soil bacterium, fatally scrambles the nervous systems of insects. Other natural substances, including azadirachtin, derived from the Asian neem tree, and pyrethrin, from chrysanthemums, have been labeled slightly toxic by the EPA.

And because naturally derived chemicals degrade faster in the environment than synthetic ones, farmers may have to apply more.

That doesn't bother strong advocates of organic farming.

"I might have to spray a second time, but it breaks down in sunlight and in the environment," said The Cornucopia Institute's Mark Kastel. "It's less apt to kill non target species, like butterflies or honeybees."

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The best farms avoid monoculture crops like corn and soybeans that, over time, deplete the soil of nutrients and its natural ability to fight pests. Instead, they grow a variety of crops that complement each other.

"It's not just about producing food, but producing a healthy landscape that's more resilient to climate change and preserves water," said Danielle Nierenberg, president of New Orleans-based Food Tank, a think tank for food justice.

FACTORY FARMING METHODS

On organic farms, cows, chickens, pigs and any other livestock must have year-round access to the outdoors. Unfortunately, some big, industrial-scale organic farms run their operations like conventional farms.

In 2014, The Cornucopia Institute investigation-factory-farms-producing-massive-quantities-organic-milk-eggs/">exposed 14 different livestock operations producing milk, meat and eggs without their animals seeing the light of day. As part of the investigation, the institute contracted aerial photographers in nine different states to fly over farms and record activity over a period of eight months.

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In a statement for the website, Kastel said, "The vast majority of these massive, industrial-scale facilities, some managing 10,000 to 20,000 head of cattle, and upwards of 1 million laying hens, had 100% of their animals confined in giant buildings or feedlots."

By December of 2015, the USDA said it would not investigate the farms, which supply familiar brands to big box retail chains like Walmart, Target and Costco.

To be sure you're buying organic, consult The Cornucopia Institute's egg and dairy scorecards, which reveal which farms are truly organic.

RETAIL GRAY AREAS

It's easier than ever to buy organic food these days. Some of the biggest grocery stores, including Wal-Mart, Costco, Kroger and SuperTarget offer organic food. But consumers need to be wary. Wal-Mart has been accused of mislabeling food, calling conventionally grown food organic. And recently they announced they would be sourcing many of their organic products from industrial-scale factory farms in countries such as China.

Costco has also gotten some heat for running its own industrial-sized chicken farm, where 1.7 million chickens will be slaughtered per week.

For those who think Whole Foods Market may be the only option, you may be surprised to learn that only a small portion of the food they sell is certified organic.

"In certain product categories it's predominantly not organic," said Kastel.

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"Organic is viewed as simple and in fact it's very complicated," she said.

The best thing you can do as a consumer is get as close to the source of your food as possible and talk to the people who grow and harvest what you eat.