With all the recent hype over organic food, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that “organic” is a very specifically defined term—at least as far as the US government is concerned. If you’re a farmer, getting your produce certified as organic is actually a very tricky business.
Here in the States, the National Organic Program (NOP), a part of the Department of Agriculture, has regulated organic standards since 2002. This means farmers who want to label their products as organic (and who sell more than $5,000 of those products each year) must first meet a set of strict NOP guidelines.
Organic guidelines vary a little depending on the kind of product, but the main criteria are:
- Farm produce like fruits, vegetables, and grains must be grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, or sewage sludge. The produce must also be processed without irradiation or additives.
- Livestock (meat and poultry animals) must be raised in environments where they have outdoor access or pasture land, are fed with 100% organic feed, and remain free of hormones and antibiotics.
- Both farm produce and livestock must be completely free of any genetic modification
A farm has to meet these standards for three years before it can be certified organic under the NOP. And that’s just the beginning; once certified, farmers undergo annual facility inspections, and testing of their produce, water, and soil, to be able to keep their status. Farms that market their products as organic without being properly certified can face hefty fines from the Department of Agriculture.
The benefits of organic food—for consumers and for the environment—are hard to quantify; studies and debates about these issues are ongoing. But the measurable advantages of organic food seem to be that:
- Since organic farms don’t use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, they are largely considered to cause less harm to soil, water, and wildlife than conventional farming methods do.
- Since some synthetic pesticides and herbicides have been shown to cause health problems among farm workers—and it’s not much of a stretch to believe that the same problems could crop up among people who eat products containing these substances—it’s arguable that organic products do less harm to us.
If it seems like every product in the supermarket these days is labeled as “natural,” “sustainable,” or “free-range,” you’re not crazy. Manufacturers are doing all they can to capitalize on the popularity of environmentally conscious products. But don’t get confused; the differences between organic products and those with similar labels can actually be considerable. Keep in mind that:
- “Free-range” meat and poultry products aren’t necessarily organic. Animals that are free-range have access to outdoor space—i.e., they’re not confined in cramped quarters or cages—but they often eat diets that contain additives, and they can be treated with antibiotics or growth hormones.
- “Sustainable” agriculture also differs from organic. Sustainable farming practices aim to keep the soil and water supply from being depleted or harmed—and therefore have less environmental impact than conventional practices. (Crop rotation, for example, is widely considered a sustainable farming method.) But farms that practice sustainability aren’t subject to the same strict standards that certified organic farms are.
- “Natural” is the most loosely defined term of all—and all but worthless these days. In the 1980s, the Department of Agriculture categorized “natural” products as without artificial ingredients, and which are minimally processed—but the definitions of “artificial” and “minimal” are still up for grabs. When products like squeezable cheese spread and instant brownie mix are described as “natural"—as they are today—it’s best to be sensible and ignore the labels altogether.