What does 'certified organic' really mean?
In order to be labeled "100 percent organic," products must contain only organically produced ingredients and approved processing aids. © Flickr
By now, many of us have crossed paths at the supermarket with an organic food product. Whether it's extra virgin olive oil sporting the USDA certified organic seal, snack crackers "made with organic ingredients" or organic apples shipped in from New Zealand, organic foods are increasingly available and widespread.
Thirty years ago, however, this was not the case, as organic foods, though not officially labeled as such, were generally confined to natural food stores and food co-ops.
Now organic is often seen as akin to making the most environmentally conscious choice when it comes to purchasing food. No fertilizers, pesticides or chemicals whatsoever were put in the growing the food, right? The food was grown on a small-scale family farm, right? Well, that's not always the case.
Understanding the history of how organic foods came to be, what the main organic regulations entail and the impact organic foods are having on food production can help to sort out what the USDA "certified organic" label really means.
Rumblings of Reform
Providing an alternative to conventional food production that would be monitored and regulated with a special label appealed to early organic food advocates, because it provided a way to clarify what "organic" really meant and created a new market for food grown without the use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers and genetically modified seeds.
And although environmental reasons might have spurred consumers, advocacy groups and small farmers to lobby for organic agriculture standards, organic labeling appealed to food corporations and some large-scale farmers because of the promise of price premiums for these products.
So, in 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods and Production Act. It was the first major step taken to aid and further promote the emerging organic food sector.
This legislation was then followed up by the more recent 2002 USDA National Organic Program, which implemented the standards and regulations for any farm or handling operation seeking to sell a food product under the USDA organic label.
An Expanding Sector
Since the implementation of the National Organic Program, organic agricultural production has steadily risen, with more money spent by consumers on organic foods every year since 1999, according to the Organic Trade Association.
Organics: A Huge Help, But Not Without Its Issues
Because organic agriculture does not permit the use of most chemical pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, synthetic fertilizers and genetically modified (GM) seeds when growing food or raising animals, it is often seen as better for the environment than conventional farming, according to the Center for Environmental Farming Systems.
Another environmental benefit of organic farming is that organic soils, because they tend to be richer in nutrients and devoid of synthetic chemicals, can sequester more carbon than conventional agricultural soils, according to The Rodale Institute. Additionally, organic farming systems have been shown to use roughly one-third less fossil fuel energy than their conventional counterpart.
However, just because something is organic does not mean it was grown on a small farm using a small amount of fossil fuels.
In some larger-scale organic operations, because herbicides cannot be sprayed on fields to remove weeds, operators need to run tractors with special machinery over crop beds to remove weeds.
This mechanical removal of weeds can sometimes require many passes over a field in a tractor, using high amounts of gasoline or diesel in the process.
Also, there is a debate on whether organic agriculture can keep up with the world's food demand. However, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization suggest that it is possible, and will in fact be necessary, to further promote organic agriculture in order to help small-scale farmers in other nations maintain their livelihoods, reverse the land degradation that has resulted from conventional farming and halt other environmental issues, such as dead zones in oceans and river deltas due to agricultural chemical contamination.
What It Takes To Be in The (Organic) Club
According to The Rodale Institute, to receive the USDA stamp of approval, the National Organic Program requires three years without the application of prohibited pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. During this period, a farmer cannot say the operation is organic, although many will assert they are "in transition" to organic, which can still help to draw consumers.
Organic agriculture requires managing an agricultural system so as to enhance and support natural biodiversity and biological process by using biologically-based techniques that exclude the use of synthetic chemicals and other artificial inputs.
To distinguish between the subtle layers of the labeling process, the USDA Organic Labeling and Marketing Fact Sheet requires the following:
Fines for mislabeling of organic products are substantial. According to the USDA, "a civil penalty of up to $11,000 can be levied on any person who knowingly sells or labels as organic a product that is not produced and handled in accordance with the National Organic Program's regulations."
Some Choose To Go Without
Given that it is sometimes costly for an operation to go full-blown organic, and that it costs money for actual certification, some producers choose to forgo the USDA Organic label.
Instead, some producers rely on the local distribution of their products and other types of labels to sell their goods a higher premium.
By reestablishing the producer-consumer link when it comes to purchasing food, farmers and customers rely on trust to ensure that the products a farmer is selling are truly grown as they are labelled, such as "pesticide-free," "grass-fed" or "free range." Not choosing the USDA label and welcoming perhaps less well-known and not nationally-regulated labels can be more economically effective for some producers.
Sustainable agriculture has also moved to the spotlight since the USDA implemented its organic standards, and some farmers who practice sustainable agriculture are even more strict than those who have earned the USDA Organic label.
For example, under the National Organic Program, there is a National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, which certain parties within the organic food sector have advocated for, due to the difficulty of growing organic produce on a large scale without the use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.
The following are some of the chemicals allowable by USDA Organic standards to be used in organic farming operations:
Organic and sustainable agriculture are both similar in principle in terms of practicing agriculture that takes into account natural biological processes in order to reduce off-farm chemical inputs. However, as evidenced by the above list, organic agriculture can still use certain chemicals, and sustainable agriculture claims are unenforceable because no official regulation agency exists to monitor those producer's claims.
As consumers, it is important to be aware of the options you have in terms of purchasing food. As with so many things dubbed "green," it is sometimes hard to know which is the absolute best environmental choice. However, starting at your local farmers market is a great way to establish a connection with your food and farmers.
Today, there are many more options for sustainable food than there were just 10 years ago. And thanks to the USDA regulation of organic foods, the door is now open for alternatives to the conventional food system to continue to provide greater options in the marketplace.