Organic Farming: Your Complete Guide

What is Organic?

The United States Drug Administration (USDA) describes organic agriculture as “the application of a set of cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”1 

Organic producers use only natural materials and processes in creating these farming systems. The use of organic matters “contribute to soil, crop and livestock nutrition, pest and weed management, attainment of production goals, and conservation of biological diversity.”1 

The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 in combination with Title 7, Part 205 of the Code of Federal Regulations list the specific site requirements and standards required for producers to sell foods as organic. For example, “for 3 years immediately prior to harvest, organic farmers can’t apply prohibited substances to the land. During this transition, farmers can’t sell, label, or represent their products as organic.”3 

Can GMOs be Used in Organic Products?

No, the use of genetic engineering, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is prohibited in organic products. Thus, an organic farmer cannot plant GMO seeds, an organic cow can’t eat GMO alfalfa or corn, and an organic soup producer can’t use any GMO ingredients.2 

Organic farmers must meet USDA’s organic regulations and show they aren’t using GMOs. If an organic farmer is found to use prohibited substances or GMOs, they may face enforcement actions, including loss of certification and financial penalties.2 

Although, unlike pesticides, “there aren’t specific tolerance levels in the USDA organic regulations for GMOs.”2  Thus, according to the National Organic Program (NOP), trace amounts of GMOs don’t automatically mean the farm is in violation of the USDA organic regulations. The NOP conducts further investigation to decide how to handle the case. In these cases, the certifying agent will investigate how the inadvertent presence occurred and recommend how it can be better prevented in the future.2 

What are Other Prohibited Substances?

The USDA organic regulations prohibit most synthetic substances. The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances lists the exceptions to this basic rule. Natural substances are allowed unless specifically prohibited. If an organic farmer is to use a synthetic substance for a specific purpose, they must “first be approved according to criteria that examine its effects on human health and the environment.”4  Although, one group of substances that is not present on this list are glyphosates, commonly used in RoundUp which is concerning to many environmentalists and natural growers.

The National Organic Standards Board, a 15-member group of citizen volunteers, advises USDA on allowed and prohibited substances in organic production and handling. USDA reviews these recommendations and updates the National List in a transparent manner.3 

Other prohibited matters include artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors in processed organic food. Although, processed organic foods “may contain some approved non-agricultural ingredients, like enzymes in yogurt, pectin in fruit jams, or baking soda in baked goods.”4  

What Practices are Involved in Organic Farming?

  1. Soil Fertility

Organic farmers add compost, animal manures, or green manures to their soil to improve its quality. The organisms in the soil then break down these components and convert them into nutrients that can be absorbed by the plants.

“Soil-conserving practices include the use of cover crops, mulches, conservation tillage, contour plowing, and strip cropping.”1 These practices protect the soil from wind and water erosion. Organic farmers also engage in crop rotation, which is the act of rotating the crops in a field or planting bed over time. Crop rotation helps to “interrupt insect life cycles, suppress soil borne plant diseases, prevent soil erosion, build organic matter, fix nitrogen, and increase farm biodiversity.”1  

  1. Managing Pests, Weeds, and Diseases

“Pest management on organic farms relies on the ‘PAMS’ strategy: prevention, avoidance, monitoring and suppression.1 This can include releasing predatory insects to reduce pest populations or laying down a thick layer of mulch to smother weeds.5 Practices such as Integrated Pest Management are also recommended. 

How Does a Food Company Obtain a USDA Organic Certification?

The USDA website details how to become certified along with what must be submitted with your application. Some information includes “a list of relevant training conducted; administrative policies and procedures” and an application fee of $500.6

In the initial process, the farm or business will be inspected and the application will be reviewed by a certifying agent. To maintain the organic certification, the certified organic farm or business will go through an annual review and inspection process.15

Organic Labels Explained.

What do the Different Organic Labels Mean? 

“100” Percent Organic: Any product that contains 100 percent organic ingredients (excluding salt and water, which are considered natural).7

“Organic”: Any product that contains a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients (excluding salt and water). Up to 5 percent of ingredients may be nonorganic agricultural products and/or nonagricultural products on the National List (non-organic agricultural products and several nonagricultural products on the National List may only be used if they are not commercially available as organic).7

“Made with Organic _____”: Product contains at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding salt and water), with a number of detailed constraints regarding ingredients that comprise the non-organic portion.7

Specific Organic Ingredient Listings: Listed in the ingredient statement of products containing less than 70 percent organic contents—for example, “Ingredients: water, barley, beans, organic tomatoes, salt.”7

Do ‘Organic’ and ‘Natural’ Mean the Same Thing? 

No, the “natural” label means that it contains “no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives. Therefore, it does not refer to the methods or materials used to produce the food ingredients.”8

What is Non-Organic/Inorganic?

Non-organic crops are made with synthetics, which include “chemical fertilizers and pesticides.”9 In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates non-organic foods and decides the acceptable levels of synthetics that each finished food product can contain. 

The four routes of exposure are dermal (skin), inhalation (lungs), oral (mouth), and the eyes.17  Beyond Pesticides provides the public with a Pesticides-Induced Disease Database where people can look to studies about the correlation between pesticide exposure and asthma, autism and learning disabilities, birth defects and reproductive dysfunction, diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, and several types of cancer

“The US Department of Agriculture has estimated that 50 million people in the United States obtain their drinking water from groundwater that is potentially contaminated by pesticides and other agricultural chemicals.”16 Thus, showing that the the harmful effects of pesticides are not limited to food consumption

Should I Purchase Organic Foods?

“USDA organic products are verified organic at all steps between the farm and the store” and should be purchased.10  Although it is important to buy organic and make informed decisions about the food we purchase, it is more important to know why.

Organic farmers are not exposed to pesticides, harmful chemicals that cause numerous health and environmental issues. Studies cite to eating organic crops because these crops are “safer, kinder to the environment, and healthier,” making eating organic beneficial to both us and farmworkers.5 

What is Beyond Organic?

Beyond organic is organic farming that goes beyond just the principles. Organic farmers can still “apply organic chemicals and they can till the soil.”11 In reality, “organic only goes half way, a true “switch” to fully sustainable farming requires working with nature instead of combating and fighting nature.”11 Beyond organic is focused on the health of the soil.  An example of this would be regenerative agriculture.

From a financial and operational perspective, some “beyond organic” farmers who operate smaller farming operations may not see it was worth the effort or cost to apply for the organic produce certification. Talk with your local farmer, perhaps at your local farmer’s market, to learn more about the methods used in your food system.

What is Regenerative Agriculture?

Regenerative Agriculture “is a holistic land management practice that leverages the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, and build soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density.”12 This includes rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity, which helps reverse climate change.  

Regenerative Agriculture has a Regenerative Farm Map that allows you to look for farms in the area based on needs.

What are Regenerative Practices? 

Regenerative International lists all of the practices used in regenerative agriculture. These practices “(i) contribute to generating/building soils and soil fertility and health; (ii) increase water percolation, water retention, and clean and safe water runoff; (iii) increase biodiversity and ecosystem health and resiliency; and (iv) invert the carbon emissions of our current agriculture to one of remarkably significant carbon sequestration thereby cleansing the atmosphere of legacy levels of CO2.”13

Why Regenerative?

  1. Soil Health Importance. The health and vitality of soil everywhere, from the smallest backyard garden to the largest Midwestern farm, plays an integral role in food production (Also watch).11 
  2. Climate Change. “The agriculture sector is one of the biggest emitters of CO2, the greenhouse gas (GHG) most responsible for the changes we are seeing in our climate today. Together with forestry and other land use, agriculture is responsible for just under 25 percent of all human-created GHG emissions.”14 
  3. Farmers. “For farmers, regenerative agriculture is thus a win-win – it’s an approach that leads to better, more resilient crops grown using sustainable methods that at the same time fight a crisis that presents a threat to all agriculture.”14 

How You Can Have an Impact

Sources:

  1. https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Organic%20Practices%20Factsheet.pdf 
  2. https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Can%20GMOs%20be%20Used.pdf 
  3. https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Allowed-Prohibited%20Substances.pdf 
  4. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2012/03/22/organic-101-what-usda-organic-label-means 
  5. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/organic-food-no-more-nutritious-than-conventionally-grown-food-201209055264 
  6. https://www.ams.usda.gov/services/organic-certification/faq-becoming-certifying-agent 
  7. https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic/labeling 
  8. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/organic-food/art-20043880 
  9. https://www.bigoven.com/organic-vs-inorganic-foods
  10. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2012/03/22/organic-101-what-usda-organic-label-means 
  11. https://www.sandyarrowranch.com/beyond-organic/ 
  12. https://regenerationinternational.org/2017/02/24/what-is-regenerative-agriculture/ 
  13. https://regenerationinternational.org/2017/02/24/what-is-regenerative-agriculture/
  14. https://www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/what-regenerative-agriculture
  15. https://www.ams.usda.gov/services/organic-certification/becoming-certified 
  16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2946087/#R7 
  17. https://extension.psu.edu/potential-health-effects-of-pesticides 

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