A growing number of foods, fibers, and other products are being labeled with organic certification in response to consumer concerns about the way in which food is grown, harvested, and handled. The plethora of food labels in the marketplace can be confusing to the consumer, often deliberately, but organic certification has an accompanying set of standards and procedures that must be followed in order for the product to be labeled organic. The movement to grow foods organically, without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers and with sustainable energy, began to take off in the 1960s with the publication of Silent Spring, a landmark book for the environmental movement. A wide variety of farms voluntarily adopted their own organic standards and began labeling their food products accordingly as consumers became increasingly aware of the larger issues involved in food production and harvest. In 1990, the Organic Foods Production Act was passed, setting out Federal standards to accompany the label.
In general, to be considered organic, food must be grown without the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. It cannot be irradiated or fertilized with sewage sludge, a common practice on many conventional farms. Organic food must be grown sustainably, with the use of cover crops to protect and renew fields, proper crop rotation, and a focus on the health of the earth. If animal manure is used, it must not be applied less than 120 days before harvest, or it must be aged. The use of composted plant materials is encouraged.
In addition, organic producers cannot grow genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or feed them to livestock being raised under organic standards. Organic livestock must be fed organic food throughout their lifetime and raised on certified organic pasture, if pasture raised. Some consumers are dismayed to discover that organic does not always mean humane, and that organic livestock can be produced on feedlots and confined animal feeding operations just like conventional meat.
There are a dizzying array of regulations governing organic foods, and several certifying bodies. The United States Department of Agriculture offers organic certification in keeping with Federal standards through a number of certifying agencies. The California Certified Organic Farmers and Oregon Tilth programs both adhere to Federal standards, as well as International organic legislation. Quality Assurance International also offers organic certification that is consistent with Federal standards.
Organic certification, while a voluntary process, is different than voluntary food labels like “GMO Free” because organic certification follows strict standards, and misuse of the label carries a heavy fine. Organic certification is designed to assure consumers that their food has been produced in a healthy and sustainable way and is safe to eat. Becoming a certified farm is also quite expensive and requires multiple inspections. For this reason, many small farms using organic practices have chosen not to pursue organic certification, although their food may be produced under organic standards.
For consumers who can afford the somewhat higher price, organic foods are a better choice. They tend to have more nutritional value because they are grown on healthy soil, they are raised in a sustainable fashion that considers the long term repercussions of heavy agricultural use, and they promote the well-being of the Earth and the species that live on it. With the growing popularity of organic foods and the increasing number of farms seeking certification, the cost at the store associated with organic products is beginning to come down and may some day be comparable to conventional agriculture.