The Truth About Organic Food

Consumers are eating more organic food than ever before, according to the 2020 Organic Industry Survey, yet there are still misconceptions about what organic food truly is, and what it is not. Is it all-natural? Is it healthier? Is it worth paying more for an organic apple over a non-organic one? We make a lot of assumptions about our food labels, but it’s important to understand what it really means, so we can know what we are consuming. Let’s break down the truth about what it takes for a product to be labeled as organic!

Definition

The term “organic” refers to an agricultural product that adheres to specific methods of processing, handling, rearing, and growing set by federal guidelines. The National Organic Program, established by Congress, enforces uniform standards for organic foods in the United States and accredits farms and products that meet organic standards. The goal of organic certifications is to integrate cultural, mechanical, and biological practices, with the intention of fostering the cycling of resources, promoting ecological balance, and conserving biodiversity. Organic farming is characterized by a strict restriction of synthetic substances and a reliance on natural substitutes whenever possible. The birth of the organic movement is rooted in environmental sustainability. For some, sustainability simply refers to the continuity of something – such as the ability of a farm to constantly provide food for a town. For most environmentalist, however, sustainability refers to the avoidance of depleting natural resources and focuses on maintaining ecological balance. The organic food movement focuses on growing food as naturally as possible, allowing nature to thrive on its own.

A chalk board with the word organic written on it sitting on a table of vegetables

What Organic Is

There are different standards to be met depending on whether a farmer is raising livestock or growing crops. In order to be certified as organic, products must adhere to set rules. Here are some of the standards for each type of production. 

Organic Crop Standards:

  • Land must have had no prohibited substances applied to it for at least 3 years prior to the harvest of an organic crop.
  • Pest, diseases, and weeds must be managed using physical, mechanical, or biological controls. For example, planting pest-resistant crops, or using pheromones to ward off pests would be acceptable in organic farming. In some cases, when these practices do not work, a farmer may use a synthetic substance off of the approved National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.
  • Genetic engineering, sewage sludge, and ionizing radiation are prohibited. 
  • Organic seeds must be used when available; farmers must not use genetically modified seeds.
  • Crop rotation is required. This means that a farmer cannot continuously grow one type of crop on the same plot of soil. They must change out their crops in order to maintain healthy soil quality and to minimize the risk of pests.
  • It is the responsibility of the farmer to prevent their organic crops from being contaminated with conventional substances. Farms must maintain a barrier to prevent pesticide drift or cross-pollination from nearby farms. If equipment is shared between a conventional crop and an organic crop, the materials must be properly cleaned to ensure there is no contamination. This process can be very tedious for farmers who hire outside help with spraying, harvesting, and transporting.

Organic Livestock Standards:

  • Livestock must be fed products that are 100 percent organic (with the exception of vitamin supplements). 
  • Livestock must not be given antibiotics or hormones to promote growth. 
  • Livestock must have access to the outdoors all year-round, they may only be confined due to health or environmental conditions. 
  • Dairy animals must be managed under organic practices for at least 12 months before they can be sold and labeled as organic.
Farmer spraying field of crops

What Organic Is Not

  • Pesticide free: contrary to popular belief, organic products are not all pesticide free. The use of synthetic pesticides is prohibited, but natural pesticides are allowed.

  • All natural: organic products are produced using natural substances whenever possible, but that does not mean it is always going to be all natural. Synthetic substances are allowed in some cases of organic farming. It is common for people to use the terms “organic” and “all-natural” interchangeably, but they are not synonymous. In fact, the term “all natural” is not federally regulated at all.

  • Locally grown: most people think of organic foods as coming from small-scale local farms, and while this may be true in some places, it is not a set standard that organic foods only be sold locally. Organic products may come from across the country – or even from other countries! It is important to note that the standards for organic foods may vary depending on the country they come from. Here in the U.S. those standards are maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Organic food stand

Understanding Different Organic Labels

There isn’t just one label that organic products may use. In fact, depending on what percentage of a product is organic, there are different labels that can be utilized. Since Food labels are often confusing, understanding these labels will help consumers make more informed decisions about the food they purchase. 

  • “100 Percent Organic”: this simply means all parts of a product (excluding salt and water) are certified organic. This label is typically used for fruits and vegetables. These products may use the USDA organic label.
  • “Organic”: a product labeled as organic must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients. These products may also use the USDA organic label. 
  • “Made with Organic”: this means a product was made with at least 70 percent organic materials, such as a cereal made with organic oats. These products may not use the USDA label.
  • “Organic Ingredients”: the product uses less that 70 percent of organic ingredients. These products may not use the USDA certified organic label.

To learn more about food labels, check out this post, “Revealing the Truth Around Some of the Most Common Food Labels in Americaby Eric Witiw.

Spare tire cover with USDA organic label artwork on orange car.

Certification Process

Organic labels are not just given to just anyone – there is a lengthy process before a product can get that USDA sticker. Farmers who apply for an organic certification must prove that their land has been free of prohibited substances for at least three years. There is often a transition period where farmers stop using prohibited substances before they can claim that their product is organic. For example, if a farmer used to spray their crops with a pesticide that is not allowed in organic farming, they must wait 36 months since they last sprayed before they can label their crops as organic – they can, however, continue to sell their crops during that time without a label. Farmers must take a systemic approach, a way of understanding how all elements from soil, water, seeds, and pests work together. 

Small farms (those that make less than $5000 a year on their organic crops) are exempt from the certification process but still must keep records showing their compliance with the organic standards. On the other hand, any farm wishing to use an organic label that makes more than $5000 a year must get certified. 

The first step in the certification process is to submit an application to a certifier who is accredited by the National Organic Program. There are several documents required in the application including, but not limited to, a farm map, field histories for new fields, and an Organic Systems Plan which details farming operations. In the next step, a certifier reviews the application to ensure the organic standards are being met, if not, the application may be denied. An organics inspector then visits the farm annually to ensure the system plan is being upheld and to inspect records, these inspections may happen announced or unannounced. The certifier then reviews the inspection report and decides whether the farm meets the organic regulations. If the standards are met, the farm is granted an organic certificate, which must be renewed annually. This certificate recognizes that organic standards are met in the production and handling of a product. 

basket of red and green apples with organic sign in the background

Is Organic Food Better?

Organic food has a lot of misconceptions around it. Most people assume that organic foods are healthier for you, which may not always be true. Below are some of the benefits and drawbacks of organic farming. 

Benefits to Organic:

  • Pesticide free: contrary to popular belief, organic products are not all pesticide free. The use of synthetic pesticides is prohibited, but natural pesticides are allowed. 
  • All natural: organic products are produced using natural substances whenever possible, but that does not mean it is always going to be all natural. There are instances in which some synthetic substances are allowed in organic farming. It is common for people to use the terms “organic” and “all-natural” interchangeably, but they are not synonymous. In fact, the term “all natural” is not federally regulated at all. 
  • Locally grown: most people think of organic foods as coming from small-scale local farms, and while this may be true in some places, it is not a set standard that organic foods only be sold locally. Organic products may come from across the country – or even from other countries! It is important to note that the standards for organic foods may vary depending on the country they come from. Here in the U.S. those standards are maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Be an Informed Consumer!

Hopefully by now we have a better understanding of what goes into organic farming, and thus what we may decide to put into our bodies. Being an informed consumer means being able to support businesses and practices that reflect our values. The next time we are at the store, we may decide to reach for the organic apple instead, putting our money where our values are. Let us know @cookandculture on Instagram what your thoughts on organic food are!

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Olivia deGregory

Written by Olivia deGregory