In short, organic means a product (usually produce or meat) that is produced without GMOs, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, ionizing radiation, antibiotics, or hormones. In addition to this, certain agricultural practices that improve environmental quality are used in production.
Organic is a term that is most often associated with the organic certification provided by the USDA. It is used loosely, though, on many products, leaving consumers confused between the difference of an organic certified product and a product that states it is organic.
And, if you’re searching for something organic, you also may simply be looking for something all natural or environmentally friendly.
Do you really need a product to be organic certified to achieve your personal goals?
We’ll help you decide by digging further into what organic really means.
What Does It Mean to Be Organic Certified?
To be a USDA organic certified food, the product has gone through the certification process through an accredited third-party and has met the following criteria.
For all foods:
- Not grown or handled with GMOs.
- No ionizing radiation used.
- No sewage sludge used.
- Use of allowed substances only. To be labeled 100% organic, the product can only contain organically produced ingredients and processing aids. To be labeled organic (not 100% organic), the product must contain at minimum 95% organic ingredients. The remainder would need to be on the list of allowed substances.
- Must be produced using agricultural practices that “foster resource cycling, promote ecological balance, maintain and improve soil and water quality, minimize the use of synthetic materials, and conserve biodiversity.”
- Producers must be producing or selling more than $5,000 a year in organic products. If smaller than this, no certification is necessary but the same processes should be followed.
For produce specifically:
- It must have grown on soil that hasn’t used any prohibited substances for at least 3 years leading up to that harvest. Prohibited substances include synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. There are a few synthetic substances allowed, but they must go through an approval process to ensure its understood effect on us – the end consumer – and the environment. And it’s not just synthetic substances that are prohibited. Some natural substances, like arsenic, are as well.
For meat specifically:
- Animals are required to be in conditions that complement their natural behaviors, have no antibiotics or hormones (although vaccines are okay) and eat 100% organic themselves.
For processed foods:
- These foods cannot contain artificial ingredients with a few exceptions, such as baking soda in baked goods. If a package states it is made with organic ingredients, it must contain at minimum 70% organic ingredients. The remainder of these ingredients must not use any prohibited practices. These will not have the official USDA seal.
- If a product contains less than 70% organic ingredients, you may find that the ingredients call out specific organic ingredients.
- Wine can only be labeled with the seal if it fits the bill above and does not contain sulfites. If a wine (specifically made with grapes – other fruit wines can’t do this) contains sulfites, it must use the “made with” label.
- For clothes, if the product implies it is organic, you should also look for a seal from the Global Organic Textile Standard to verify this statement. Fibers have to be 95% organic to be GOTS Certified Organic, amongst many other standards similar to the USDA certification.
To summarize, there are four categories for organic food products: 100% organic, organic, “made with” organic, and specific organic ingredients. 100% organic is made up of 100% organic ingredients and must include the information of the certifying agent. If a product is 100% organic, it can use the USDA Organic seal. The organic category can include certified organic ingredients and up to 5% non-organic ingredients on the allowable list. It must also include the certifying agent and may use the USDA Organic Seal. The organic seal cannot be used on the products in the “made with” category – which is where a product contains at least 70% organic ingredients – nor can products that have less than 70% organic ingredients but do contain some. For clothes, the GOTS certification is the best seal to look for.
Does an Organic Certification Matter?
A question you’ll most certainly ask yourself is how important it is to seek out organic certified products. There are a couple of important things to note.
First, this was a trend that started from farmers – farmers who saw how industrial farming practices were harmful and wanted to come together to protect our ecosystems. It was originally regulated at the state level, but went national with the National Organic Standards Board overseeing the label to help standardize what organic means. These days, though, it can be expensive to be an organic producer. One of the costs include hiring an accredited certifier.
Second, verification of any business’s practices is a tough one. This gives you peace of mind as a consumer to know a lot about the thing you are purchasing: how the animals are treated, what is and isn’t used in growing the product, and that it’s all looked through a lens of how it affects you and our earth.
Depending on what is important to you, looking for this certification may help you check multiple boxes at once. However, if there is something particular you are looking to avoid in your purchases – say, GMOs – you may look for the Non-GMO project verified logo on packaging. This solely accounts for the fact that no GMOs are used in the product, and doesn’t account for things that the organic certification does such as no sewage sludge or synthetic pesticides.
Is Organic Good for the Environment?
Chances are if you are asking the question “what does organic mean?”, you’re likely looking through the lens of whether or not organic food is better for you or your family to consume than non-organic alternatives. It’s usually where people start – with a worry of what consuming something like a chemical fertilizer could do to our bodies.
But organic doesn’t just mean it’s better for your body. It is, in some cases, considered a more sustainable form of production, with such results as reduced pollution from things like pesticide run-off or soil quality improvement through managed grazing. However, there is also worry about the impact of the land use necessary for organic farming – as more land is needed to yield much less crop than conventional alternatives.
While still a debated subject, it seems that when you have the choice, organic-certified products are more environmentally-friendly.
Alternatives to Organic
When shopping for products, if you’re curious what other certifications to look for that might help you find what you’re looking for, consider the following:
- Non GMO Project Verified
This seal accounts for products that are certified to have less than .9 percent genetically modified organisms.
- Fair Trade Certified
This seal verifies the whole supply chain of a product meets certain social, environmental, and economic standards. This includes things such as employees wellbeing, fair pay and safe working conditions, and sustainable sourcing of ingredients. For example, for farmers to be Fair Trade Certified, they can’t use GMOs and must source water sustainably.
- Food Alliance Certification
This certification verifies sustainable agricultural practices. This includes things such as safe working conditions, humane treatment of animals, protection of biodiversity, conversation of soil and water, and no genetically modified or synthetic ingredients.
- Certified Humane
This label certifies the humane treatment of animals. This includes things such as not using small cages, utilizing comfortable living conditions, and having employees trained in animal welfare.
- Rainforest Alliance
This seal indicates that that the product was verifiably produced under such standards as good working conditions, protection for wildlife, and ecosystem conservation.
This label certifies a product was produced biodynamically. While similar to an organic certification, biodynamic goes a bit further, putting more emphasis on practices that are sustainable and carbon-neutral.
- Animal Welfare Approved
This seal certifies that animals are raised outdoors for their entire lives. In addition to this, it guarantees the farm uses “high-welfare farming practices.”
If you’re able to afford organic certified products, it is a way to have peace of mind as a consumer about what you’re putting into your body, and the impact of the product on the environment. However, it isn’t the only certification that accounts for this (and as you can see from above, there are some certifications that account for this plus other things that may be important to you – like supporting safe working conditions). Either way, now that you know what organic means, you’ll know how to verify if a product is actually organic certified (remember: look for the seal and the certifying agent) or if it is an unverified claim.