What Does Organic Mean?

nongmo1A friend recently told me about a conversation in which a man was lamenting the “fact” that the only organization currently watching for, verifying, and certifying foods to be free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is the Non-GMO Project. She was distraught by this because, while many of us are actively working toward securing the labeling of foods containing GMOs, the speaker in this conversation failed to recognize that the USDA Organic certification process also prohibits the use of GMOs in any food product or animal feed. It made me wonder if this was a generally held misconception. Do consumers actually know what the USDA Organic label does and does not mean?

I am sort of a geek. I read this stuff for fun. I want to know what’s in my food and I’m pretty fascinated (and disgusted) by what goes on in our industrial food production system. Many years ago (18, to be exact), I began reading about food production. At that time, the “organic” label was not regulated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) as it is today, but rather by a third party certification process across many different certifiers. In the current food landscape, many of those organizations are now USDA-accredited certifiers, verifying organics to the USDA standard.

I find that many people take some comfort in the organic label, though they do not actually know the details of what it encompasses. I won’t lie to you. I have tried, but never successfully completed, reading the full set of standards. However, I do have a basic understanding of what they entail. I thought it might be helpful if I shared this information in an easy to comprehend format, for your reading pleasure. So, here are the really basic basics of organic standards.

“Overall, organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.” (1)

  • No application of synthetic fertilizers or prohibited pesticides is allowed
  • Use of sewage sludge is prohibited (Um, I can’t even…)
  • Irradiation of foods is prohibited
  • Genetically modified organisms are prohibited
  • Antibiotics and artificial growth hormones are prohibited
  • Animals must be fed 100% organic feed
  • Animals must have access to outdoors/pasture
  • Organic management of animals from birth/hatch
  • Proactive soil building, crop rotation, and manure management
  • New applicants to the USDA organic program must complete three years without any application of prohibited materials or practices prior to certification

This is a very simplified version, I know. I hope, though, that after reading this you will never again wonder if that organic chicken was fed GMO feed, or given growth hormone (on a separate note, federal regulations prohibit the administration of artificial growth hormones to poultry and hogs in general, whether organic or not). And you can rest assured that the USDA Organic label also means that the product is GMO free.

If you are interested in further reading, two great resources are Sustainable Table and the Food and Water Watch websites. I trust the information that I get from these sources and am grateful for the work that they do to educate consumers.

(1) – United States Department of Agriculture Organic Standards, 2015

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