What Does Organic Mean?

If you’re like me, you’ve perused produce aisles in a hurry and grabbed organic and conventional produce without much preference, but for more discerning shoppers, buying organic is often a decision made ahead of time. A study from 2012 is often cited for finding no evidence to that organic food is “significantly more nutritious than conventional foods,” but it also found that eating organic food “may reduce exposure to pesticide residues,” which is actually one of the most common motivations for buying organic produce.

In addition to avoiding synthetic pesticides, many people believe that organic farming is an environmentally-friendly alternative to conventional farming methods. Disagreements about the sustainability of organic farming focus on concerns about its lower yields, but current data shows that organic methods can be successful. According to the USDA, organic production in the United States now includes 21,781 certified organic operations and a $39 billion retail market. There are 300 percent more certified organic operations than there were in 2002, and the rising popularity of organic produce in the last several years has made it a common sight in local grocery stores, instead of just in specialty stores.

If you do err on the side of organic, you’ve probably noticed that organic food is identified by a specific label, but might not have researched what farmers must do to obtain those labels. With a National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting coming up on the heels of Earth Day this month, April seemed ripe for a discussion about the USDA standards for organic produce.

Understanding Organic Standards

Before 1990, organic production was not federally regulated and state standards that did exist varied greatly. The Organic Foods Production Act streamlined organic certification into what it is today, establishing strict rules and regulations for determining what produce can legally bear an organic label. It created the aforementioned NOSB, a federal advisory committee comprised of 15 members from the organic community who are responsible for making recommendations to the USDA about organic matters, and established the National Organic Program (NOP), the regulatory body responsible for maintaining organic standards and overseeing certifications. Both of these groups function as part of the USDA.

As defined by the USDA, organic production is a system designed to integrate “cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” The organic standards set forth by the USDA were made with these guidelines in mind, and obtaining organic certification ensures that the produce is being grown in accordance with those standards. Some of the qualifications include the use of organic seeds and the management of the land and crops by natural means and nonsynthetic substances. Organic farms must also not use genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and cannot consider a harvest organic unless the land has been free of prohibited substances for at least three years. Operations that sell $5,000 or less worth of organic produce a year are exempt from acquiring certification, but are still expected to follow organic standards if they represent their produce as such and should not use the USDA seal.

Synthetic and nonsynthetic substances forbidden and permitted in organic farming are listed in the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. Harmful nonsynthetic substances, like tobacco dust and arsenic, are prohibited, while synthetic substances that are allowed might have limitations. For example, copper sulfate can only be applied once per field in a 24-month period, and boric acid cannot have direct contact with organic crops or food. Some substances are more controversial than others, but every substance on the list is reviewed after five years and can be removed with a two-thirds majority vote of the NOSB. The USDA provides a complete list of substances, their acceptable uses, and their review dates.

Understanding Organic Labels

Certifying agents that have been USDA-accredited handle the certifications of organic operations, and those operations are checked every year for organic compliance with product testing and an on-site inspection. The NOP investigates complaints lodged against organic operations that might not be adhering properly to organic standards, the penalties for which can be financial or include the loss of organic certification. Once certified, an organic operation can use the USDA certified organic seal, along with a specific organic label.

There are three different labels to signify what type of organic product is being offered. Products labeled 100 Percent Organic must use only ingredients that are certified organic, as well as organic processing aids. Products sporting the Organic label can include no more than 5 percent non-organic ingredients, although agricultural ingredients must be certified organic. Products with at least 70 percent certified organic ingredients may use the “Made With” Organic label, but cannot use the USDA certified organic seal. “Made With” Organic products can also specify as many as three specific organic ingredients or ingredient categories, but cannot use the unspecified phrase “made with organic ingredients.” Each of those three labels must include the name of the certifying agent and must indicate organic ingredients with an asterisk or special mark.

A fourth organic label can be used for products made with specific organic ingredients and include an ingredient list made up of less than 70 percent certified organic ingredients; these do not need to be certified, but cannot use the USDA organic seal and may only use the word “organic” on non-primary parts of the packaging.

Ask Your Farmer

Buying local doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be buying organic, but organic and non-organic buyers alike can benefit from knowing more about how their produce is grown. Finding a nearby farm to buy produce from can help support your local market and give you a chance to discuss a farmer’s growing methods. To find a farmers market near you, search by zip code on sites like Local Harvest or in the USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory.

Ariana Keller
Ariana Keller

Ariana Keller was raised on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in south Alabama, where she learned to fish and love football. She moved to Knoxville with her family when she was 12 and later graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in English. Passionate about Marvel Comics, Harry Potter, and all things geeky, she spends her free time playing tabletop and video games, collecting beer caps from craft breweries around the country, and celebrating the Cubs' 2016 World Series win. She is an advocate for animal rescue and lives in Knoxville with her husband and their two adopted pets: a hound dog named Beau and a Maine Coon mix named Vesper.

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