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What does Certified Organic Really Mean?

certified organic

Certified Organic Standards

The Certified Organic standard is meant to be the gold standard for healthy food in the US. Your average person knows that certified organic means the food has been grown differently, probably better, than conventional food. But what does it really mean?

Food can be called certified organic if it has proven to the USDA that it meets certain criteria for chemical usage, as well as soil management. Certified organic food is not genetically modified, mostly cannot use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, and needs to have a plan to improve soil health.

Demand in certified organic foods is growing, and the higher price for the food means some farms do the bare minimum to reap higher prices. Other farms embrace organic and then some. And many small farms grow organically, some better than organic standards, yet don’t pursue certified organic certification.

In addition, there is a lot of confusion about whether certified organic is better or not. Often sources cite pesticide residues as a reason to eat organic but claim there are few other benefits. But what, exactly, does it mean when a food is certified organic?

What is Certified Organic?

The goal of certified organic is to reduce (not eliminate) pesticides and only allow specific substances to be used when growing and processing food.

For crops, organic fields must not have used prohibited substances for three years. Soil practices must exist to improve the soil. Pests and diseases can be eradicated using allowed chemical means. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are prohibited, as is radiation and sewage sludge.

Certified organic livestock begins at the last third of gestation, or second day of life for chicks. Animals must be fed certified organic food. While animals treated with prohibited substances cannot be organic, farmers cannot withhold treatment if the animal needs it.

Animals must be on pasture for the grazing season, and that is defined as a minimum of 120 days. Outdoor access is required but this can be a feedlot. Ruminants can be grain finished for the last 1/5 of their life, or 120 days, whichever is shorter.

Beef cows are slaughtered between 18 and 24 months. That means that the last four months of their lives, they can be fattened up on a feedlot with organic grain.

Hydroponic fruit and vegetable production can be certified organic as well. Hydroponic means grown in soilless medium, in a bath of nutrient solutions.

While officially, the organic standards require a soil management plan, this is not being enforced. Hydroponic vegetables and berries are being certified as organic, though they are not actively growing in or improving the soil.

There are many things an organic farmer cannot put on his crops or feed to his animals. Many pesticides are banned, and most of those that remain are natural (not synthetic) and don’t last as long. They are still considered toxic to insects. Organic farms are encouraged to look for other ways to deal with pests rather than spraying for them.

Composted manure can be used to help fertilize crops. The composted manure does not have to be from certified organic animals, and may have GMO feed, pesticides, and heavy metals in it. Testing is not required.

Soil building is encouraged for certified organic producers. Ideally, they will grow the health of their soil and help lessen pest and disease pressures because their farm is healthier than a conventional one. Many organic farmers do just that, but not all do.

Hydroponic growers have no need to maintain healthy soil, as their crops aren’t grown in the ground. Animal farmers that contain their animals per the regulations aren’t letting their animals outside to be grass fed.

Becoming a Certified Organic Grower

To become a certified organic grower, a farmer starts with an organic plan. They review the plan with a certifying agent, get inspected, and find out if their plan will meet certified organic standards.

When a farm is transitioning to organic, they cannot sell their products as certified organic for three years. This can be a time of financial loss, as a conventional farm is often dependent on the chemicals it has been using. Farmers cannot command higher prices from organic yet and may have lower yields on their foods.

To be certified organic, farmers have to document and report on how their farm meets the standards. They pay money to get certified. It takes time. If you have conventional neighboring farms, you might deal with pesticide drift.

Many small farms don’t bother to get certified. That doesn’t mean they aren’t growing organically or close to it. Local agriculture problems might mean that using a non-organic pesticide might be needed sometimes. Small farms may not want to deal with the hassle of inspection.

In addition, the more crops you grow, the more paperwork you need to submit to be certified. Many small farms have a lot of different types of produce, which makes it more difficult for a busy farmer to maintain paperwork.

Small farms may also have different marketing plans. If you already have loyal local customers who know and trust your product, why bother to get certified?

In addition, especially when it comes to animal welfare, small farms may be exceeding certified organic standards already. They might still use non organic options, but their animals live on pasture, not a feedlot.

Animal welfare rules are vague for certified organic. Outdoor access is required, but that can mean a pop hole to a small cement area for chickens, not the free range hens you might imagine.

Unfortunately, as people buy more organic food at higher prices, there are more farms growing by the letter of the law rather than the spirit. They follow the regulations but at a minimum. In addition, there is more demand for organic food than there are farms in the US, and outright fraud has been found in organic products.

Should you Buy Certified Organic?

Certified organic food, grown well, is better than conventional. There are more phytonutrients, less pesticides, better animal welfare, better insect habitat, and higher quality soils when food is grown organically.

I look for organic when I can at the grocery. But I don’t look for it at the farmers market. My goal is for the majority of my purchases to be from local farms I trust. I also buy from less processed, organic options at the store. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been known to buy a bag of potato chips or spend some money at the local fast food restaurant too!

I know the milk I buy at the farmers market isn’t organic, but it tastes better than any store milk. I’ve been to the farm and know the farmer. At the store, I buy Grassmilk if I can’t get to the farmers market.

The meat at my local farmers market is not organic either. However, I’ve seen farms and talked with farmers, and I know the farmers raise their animals with care. These farmers are giving their animals better lives than the certified organic standards require. They raise a few animals, not thousands. At the store I buy organic meat, grassfed if possible.

I buy seasonal vegetables and fruits as much as possible. They are not certified organic. They taste amazing, and better flavor is usually a marker of superior nutrition (more phytonutrients) and higher quality soil.

If I bought everything certified organic, I wouldn’t be able to support my local farms. Most are not certified organic anyway. I prefer to buy from a small farm rather than a large company when I can.

As demand for organic grows, more farms and businesses are going to start selling certified organic. This is a very good thing, as the poorest organic food is still probably grown in better soil. However, I believe local is better.

There are not enough farms to produce the organic food that Americans want. That means food is coming from other sources, and that means longer distances for food to travel and more chances for fraud. Organic food grown to be shipped long distances isn’t going to taste as good as local food grown yesterday.

Larger farms and bigger businesses are selling organic foods these. I prefer to know my farmer over buying from a faceless company. I like to support small farms.

Further Research on Certified Organic Food

The USDA’s stance on certified organic foods has been diluted since inception. Original standards are not being followed. There are more hydroponic operations that are certified even though they are not growing in soil. And while organic animal production is better than conventional, there are still CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) being certified as well.

The Real Organic Project has an amazing podcast addressing these realities. They interview scientists and policy makers on how the organic standards are being diluted. It is well worth a listen.

What Your Food Ate, by David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé, is a remarkable book, well researched, explaining how organic and regenerative agriculture is better for us and the planet.

When I started researching for this post I kept running into the same few studies on organic. They claimed there was no benefit to organic besides less pesticides. Yet those studies only looked at other studies, and those only looked at macronutrients like vitamins rather than the more than 25,000 phytonutrients that have been discovered.

Of course, those studies mean we now have advice about the Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen about pesticide residue, as if it is the only reason to buy organic.

Big business has a lot of money in trying to sell us solutions for our health. Many of them would like to sell us more expensive foods with the organic label, but are trying to find the cheapest way to produce these foods. Factory farming is the model that so many are still trying to follow. I buy local to buy small, not from a factory farm.

So do your own research if you can. At a minimum, buy what you can from your local farmer. Less processed foods are always superior to highly processed foods. Cook your meals and snacks using whole ingredients. And buy whole foods that taste good! They are better for you, and you’ll want more of them because they taste good.

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