What does “organic” mean?
Simply stated, organic produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones.
The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) defines organic as follows:
Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.
How do I know if something is organic?
The USDA has identified for three categories of labeling organic products:
100% Organic: Made with 100% organic ingredients
Organic: Made with at least 95% organic ingredients
Made With Organic Ingredients: Made with a minimum of 70% organic ingredients with strict restrictions on the remaining 30% including no GMOs (genetically modified organisms)
Products with less than 70% organic ingredients may list organically produced ingredients on the side panel of the package, but may not make any organic claims on the front of the package.
What are certified organic products?
Certified organic products are those which have been produced, stored, processed, handled and marketed in accordance with precise technical specifications (standards) and certified as “organic” by a certification body. Once a certification body has verified conformity with organic standards, the product can be labeled as such. This label will differ depending on the certification body, but can be taken as an assurance that the essential elements constituting an “organic” product have been met from the farm to the market. It is important to note that an organic label applies to the production process, ensuring that the product has been produced and processed in an ecologically sound manner. The organic label is therefore a production process claim as opposed to a product quality claim.
How do organic farmers fertilize crops and control pests, diseases, and weeds?
Organic farmers build healthy soil. Organic matter in soil contributes to good soil structure and water-retention capacity. Organic farmers increase organic matter in soil through the use of cover crops, compost, and biologically based soil amendments, producing healthy disease and insect resistant plants. Organic agriculture emphasizes good plant nutrition, which is key to the prevention of plant diseases. Organic farmers use cover crops and sophisticated crop rotations to improve ecological relationships in the field. Weeds are controlled through crop rotation, mulching, cover crops, hand weeding, and mechanical methods such as flame weeding and other methods. Organic farmers also rely on diverse populations of soil organisms, beneficial insects, and birds to keep pests under control.
Why are synthetic fertilizers not permitted in organic agriculture?
The use of synthetic fertilizers is not allowed in organic agriculture because the substitution of natural, renewable resources for plant nutrition with non-renewable petrochemicals is not sustainable, disrupts natural cycles, pollutes the environment through runoff and leaves toxic residues in the soil, just to name a few of the negative implications.
Organic farmers use legumes – peas, beans and other plants – that naturally fix and enrich nitrogen in the soil. The application of synthetically produced phosphorous, another important plant nutrient, is also not allowed in organic agriculture. Because organic farm management creates a healthy soil structure, fungi called mycorrhiza enable plants to utilize phosphorus in the soil.
Organic farmers use on-farm recycling (composting) of biomass to supply nutrients to plants. Farms that use chemically intensive farming methods have largely abandoned traditional and natural methods of nutrient recycling, resulting in the degradation of the soil and increasing the susceptibility of plants to pests and diseases.
The use of synthetic fertilizers has caused a great deal of environmental pollution. One major problem all over the planet that has resulted from the use of synthetic fertilizers is the increased growth of algae in lakes and water reservoirs. A harmful algal bloom (HAB) occurs when certain types of microscopic algae grow quickly in water, forming visible patches that harm the health of the environment, plants, or animals. HABs deplete oxygen in the water and block the sunlight that other organisms need to live, and some HAB-causing algae release toxins that are dangerous to animals and humans. The production of synthetic fertilizers uses large amounts of energy, which mostly comes from the burning of fossil fuels, thereby increasing dependency on external energy inputs.