Organic refers to how agricultural products (fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, grains) are cultivated. Organic farming steers clear of conventional methods of farming, which involve chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and animal antibiotics/growth hormones. According to the Mayo Clinic, organic farming opts instead for natural fertilizers, such as manure or compost, and uses beneficial insects and birds, while livestock are fed a diet of organic foods. If a food has a USDA organic label, it means that the product is at least 95 percent organic.
Local food can be grown as close as your backyard to as far as 400 miles away, according to USDA's definition. Buying locally decreases "food miles," which is how far your food has to travel to get to your plate. This consequently lowers its environmental impact in terms of its fossil fuel and energy use, as well as the extra packaging used to keep it fresh while en route. According to Sustainable Table, local does not necessarily mean that the food is produced sustainably, which means you should always take a few moments to ask the farmer at your local farmers' market a few questions on how the food was produced.
The label "grass-fed" refers to cattle who are given an all-grass diet, as opposed to grains, soy, and processed products. Allowing cattle to graze on green pastures instead of industrial grain fields is a more humane livestock system. Furthermore, grass-fed meat and pasture-raised dairy products are higher in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, making for a healthier choice as well.
Free range refers to poultry (as the USDA only regulates poultry) that is allowed to roam freely outdoors. But according to PETA, the USDA does not regulate how long the animals can be outdoors or how much space they get. Furthermore, eggs that are labeled as free-range are not regulated either. In theory, free range is a good idea, but in reality it is difficult to know for sure whether the animal is actually being treated well, given the weak regulation system.
Cage-free environments are ones that allow hens to live on the floor of a barn. Like the free-range label, regulation is an issue here as well. However, American Humane Certified has recently made efforts at regulating cage-free egg producers, and now nearly two-thirds of cage-free eggs sport the American Humane Certified (TM) label, according to Treehugger.
A genetically modified organism is one whose DNA has been altered by genetic engineering, allowing for food production in a large-scale, more time-efficient manner. Many see it as harmful to alter an organism's natural biological process, raising food safety concerns, many of which we may not be aware of yet. Monsanto's GMO corn recently shed a light on these dangers when it was linked to organ failure.
According to Sustainable Table, "two-thirds of American cattle raised in for slaughter today are injected with hormones to make them grow faster and America’s dairy cows are given a genetically-engineered hormone called rBGH to increase milk production." Hormones can have a number of health and environmental risks.
Factory farming is the industrial practice of raising livestock on a farm that works the way a factory does, confining massive numbers of animals to tight spaces. Factory farms are not only cruel to animals, but they also contribute to climate change due to the large amounts of manure they create, polluting the soil, air, and water, according to the Humane Society.
Sustainable agriculture is a multi-layered approach to eating that links food, community and environment together. It requires one to consider how the food is produced, how the workers who produce the food are treated, and everything in between. The food must be produced organically and safely, while animal must be treated humanely, with their ecosystems kept intact. Eating locally is encouraged, as it lowers one's environmental impact while supporting the local economy, and by extension, helping the farmer maintain his livelihood.