What Does Organic Really Mean?

What Does Organic Really Mean?

Organic can mean many different things depending on whom you ask. Any chemist, for example, will tell you that all food is organic because it contains the element carbon. The USDA, on the other hand, uses a list of criteria to parse “clean” organic food, from chemical-ridden inorganics. As far as the USDA is concerned, a commercial food product can be labeled “organic” as long as:

  • The food was grown without the use of human waste as fertilizer.
  • No chemicals were used at any stage of the growing process (the USDA maintains a list of permitted and prohibited synthetic substances).
  • The food product’s genotype does not include genetic modification (no GMOs).
  • The farmland utilized in the food’s cultivation has been chemical and pesticide free for 3+ years.
  • The food producer maintains a standard on-site inspection schedule with regulators.

The list seems pretty comprehensive, but as many hobby farmers and gardeners will tell you: it doesn’t go quite far enough. The USDA’s list of prohibited substances, for example, is riddled with holes wide enough to drive a truckload of pesticides through. Like any government regulatory framework, the official organic food standards in the United States have been pecked to death by lobbyists and special interest groups.

So what’s a discerning customer to do? First off, you can stop taking the USDA’s certified organic label as gospel. Your best bet for clean eating is to go to your local farmer’s market and actually talk about growing standards with your local food producers. Often you’ll find that small farms without the resources to pursue the USDA’s seal of approval actually keep to stricter organic standards than the USDA even requires. Some farms avoid dealing with the USDA regulators altogether just to make a political point about the inequity of the organization’s labeling practices.

Getting a farm certified by the USDA is an exercise in tedium. The bureaucratic red tape often outweighs the actual value added for the food producer. There was a time when a certified organic label was a marketing necessity for whole food producers. Customers are becoming savvy and many understand that the label itself means less than the actual standards maintained at the farm or garden. In the United States, there are seven steps in the certified organic labeling process: Research, Compliance, Documentation, Planning, Inspection, Fees and Record-Keeping.

First, the food producer needs to study and digest reams of material from the USDA articulating the often-arbitrary certified organic requirements during growing, storage and sale. Then, the food producer must invest in various recommended measures to become compliant with the USDA’s standards. As many small farmers will tell you, these steps can be expensive and they often undermine measures already taken at the farm to keep the food supply clean and chemical.

The whole compliance process needs to be meticulously documented in a government format that would make your accountant cringe. Along with the documentation, a written annual planning report must be submitted to the USDA detailing every single process undertaken at the farm, from planting to point of sale.

Inspections can occur at any moment and are often surprising by design. At least one physical tour of a food producer’s facilities will be conducted by a USDA representative every year. Perhaps most onerous is the annual fee, which can range from $400-$2000 per year depending on the scope of the food producer’s growing operation. For many small producers getting by on razor thin profit margins, this fee alone makes certification impossible.

Last but not least, farmers awarded certified organic status must maintain daily records covering all activities at their site. These records may be audited at any time by a USDA inspector.

You can see clearly the processes in place have less to do with food and more to do with unsettling levels of bureaucracy. The bigger producers can better afford the fees and staff time needed to manage USDA compliance, while smaller producers are left on the margins even though they often maintain stricter clean food standards.

Next time you’re shopping organic, ignore the labels. Look your food producer in the eye and ask him or her the right questions. You may find the cleanest foods flying under the USDA’s radar.