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How organic is organic? What the new federal regulations mean for consumers; Deirdre Birmingham of Georgia Organics explores the new meaning of certified organic.

Organics is going mainstream as evidenced by the increasing presence of organic products in major supermarkets. It comes as no surprise that the USDA now regulates commercial use of the term "organic." What will this mean for consumers buying organics, whether at supermarkets, natural food stores, or farmers markets? This article briefly explores what organic agriculture is and its history, why the federal government is regulating it, and changes you will see in labeling this October.

What Is Organics?

Too often we focus on what organic agriculture is not, such as, not using synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides on crops. Actually, organic agriculture is much more than that. While agriculture started some 10,000 years ago, it is only since World War II that U.S. agriculture has been reliant on human-made chemicals and fossil fuels. In response to the increasing negative ramifications of modern-day agriculture came organic farming. Soils were losing their organic matter and inherent fertility. Streams were being polluted with soil and agricultural chemicals. The air was clouded with dust and increasingly befouled by the odors of animal farm-factories. Seeking a return to methods that worked with--and were good for--the natural environment, pioneering practitioners at first called their methods regenerative agriculture. Later, Robert Rodale popularized the term organic agriculture.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has defined organics by describing it positively as "an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony. Organic is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. The principle guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole. Organic agricultural practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water."

Organic Agriculture is a Process

Clearly the NOSB definition emphasizes an agricultural process, not the end product. Otherwise, the end product could simply be tested for pesticide residues. That would not necessarily reveal whether synthetic fertilizers had been used, nor the impact of farming practices on the natural environment.

Organic farmers emphasize feeding the soil rather than the plant. This seemingly subtle difference is profound. Conventional agriculture focuses on pumping nutrients through the soil to the plant root. This practice can lead to compacted, infertile soil, erosion, and water pollution. In contrast, organic farmers focus on building soil organic matter and the biological activity in that soil. This improves its structure, aeration, and capacity to hold water and nutrients. It also increases the diversity of life forms inhabiting the soil. This is important because many soil microorganisms actually help feed plants. A healthy soil builds a healthy plant. A healthy plant is more resistant to insects and diseases, reducing the need for insecticides and fungicides. Most organic farmers shy away from any form of insecticide, even those made of natural materials. In addition to killing destructive insects, even natural insecticides may kill the beneficial insects necessary to a diverse and balanced insect population in the farm field.

Organic Certification

Farmers started organic certification standards some twenty years ago to provide consumers with confidence in their product and processes. If you know your farmers and their practices, you may not need an independent third-party to verify that the farm is managed organically. When you do not, this verification process is important.

Certification services were established by for-profit and not-for-profit entities, as well as state departments of agriculture, with some variation in standards. By the late '80s, many people were demanding a uniform and enforceable national organic standard. The new federal standard, launched over a year ago, will be fully in effect October 22, 2002. Until this date, there is no legal recourse against fraudulent marketing of products labeled "organic."

Under the new National Organic Program (NOP), farms and food processors must pass annual inspections by a USDA accredited certification agency. They must complete a lengthy, detailed application, submit an application fee, and pay to be inspected. The costs vary according to farm size and the value of product sold. Farmers must develop and adhere to an organic management plan. Both farmers and processors keep an audit trail so that products can be traced back to its point and date of production. Therefore, to market products as organic; farmers and processors do a lot of record keeping and paper work not required of conventional farmers. In addition, they must pay fees that conventional growers do not pay.

The certification process is similar to that before the NOP. A major difference is that certification agencies must be accredited by the USDA. Accreditation adds additional costs to certification agencies that in turn are passed on to farmers. These costs are disadvantageous particularly for small-scale farms. A national pilot program starts this year in 15 states that shares the costs of certification with farmers. Consumers can urge their legislators to expand this cost-share program to southeastern states.

Producers grossing less than $5000 a year are exempt from certification. But to market their product using the term "organic," they must be certifiable. They must design and follow a management plan, keep records and audit trails, but they do not need to complete the application, undergo the inspection, and pay fees. They can, however, be investigated by their department of agriculture if the department so chooses.


You will see the new USDA label on products in stores and farmers markets starting October 22, 2002. Until that date. the labels you see are those of certification agencies. As of October 22, the certification agency information or label may also be on the product, but such information is not required. The USDA will have three labels: "100% Organic," "Organic," and "Made with Organic Ingredients." While the term 100% Organic means just that, the term "Organic" is for foods that contain at least 95% organic ingredients. "Made With Organic Ingredients" is for products having 70 to 94% organic ingredients. Products with less than 70% organic ingredients cannot use the term organic. They can, however, list the organic ingredients in the ingredients section.

The integrity of the organic product must be maintained from harvest to point of purchase. It is important that those handling and selling organic products not use boxes, water, or ice that was in contact with non-certified products, nor place organic products where it can mingle with non-certified organic products. The knowledge and skill of food retailers in maintaining the integrity of the organic product is vital to both producers and consumers of organic foods.

Deirdre Birmingham, Ph.D., is the executive director of Georgia Organics, the only nonprofit organization promoting sustainable and organic growing throughout Georgia. For more information, or to join Georgia Organics in its mission, please go on the web to or call 770-621-4642.
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Article Details
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Author:Birmingham, Deirdre
Publication:New Life Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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