What Does Certified Organic Mean?
By Pierre Mouchette | Bits-n-Pieces
The green, brown, and white USDA Organic seal is such a simple little image, but it holds so much meaning when it comes to organic food and farming, more than most people know!
The USDA Certified Organic is the strictest organic standard in the world. Because so much goes into it, four essential qualities are highlighted on their package label: no antibiotics, synthetic hormones, toxic pesticides, or GMOs. But what else goes into organic, and why does it matter?
USDA Organic is an Act of Congress
Yes, it is the law! Federal regulations must be met for anything to carry the USDA Organic seal. Other countries cannot sell organic-labeled foods in the U.S. unless they meet USDA standards or the organic equivalency arrangements (Canada and EU).
Organic entities (farms, processing plants, brands, etcetera) are audited annually by a third-party certifier. The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) certifiers are independent organizations accredited to conduct unbiased organic inspections. Becoming organic is voluntary no one is required to do it. But if chosen to, they must follow the rules to market and sell their products as organic. It is the law. The farm or company would lose its organic certification if it violates the standards, which would be a substantial financial loss on its own, but it may also be subject to fines or lawsuits.
USDA Organic is based on federal law, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which makes the label significant and sets it apart from other labels such as 'natural,' 'non-GMO,' or 'humane animal care.' Organic has three layers of oversight: The Office of the Inspector General oversees the National Organic Program (NOP), the NOP manages and audits the certifiers, and certifiers audit the organic farms and businesses. No other food labeling program has this many checks and balances.
Everyone Has a Voice in Organic
Adding to the stringency, the NOP considers comments and recommendations from all levels of the organic industry: farms, processors, scientists, environmentalists, businesses, advocacy groups, and individual consumers. In particular, consumer comments played a big part in pushing through the Pasture Rule for organic livestock and the ban on GMOs. No other program has so much oversight and genuine multi-level involvement.
Organic Applies to Every Step
Every step in the organic food chain must be certified organic: farms, handlers, and processing plants. In comparison, natural only addresses how the product is handled during processing; it does not say anything about how the animals were treated during their lifetime or if they ate feed grown with chemical pesticides and herbicides. Added ingredients need to be organic too, but sometimes organic options are unavailable in sufficient quantities (or do not exist). An example would be vitamins and minerals that the FDA requires to be added to milk. The NOP has an official list of allowed non-organic ingredients to address this need.
The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meets twice a year to review the list and make recommendations for changes based on farming and food science advancements. Organic is about continual improvement!
Outdoor Access and Grazing Pasture
All organic animals must have access to an organic outdoor space (not treated with herbicides or other banned substances). Each species spends different amounts of time outside. For instance, cows are big animals with multiple stomachs acting like internal space heaters so that they can be outdoors in wetter or colder weather than chickens or pigs. The farmers who care for these animals determine if the weather is safe for their animals to be outdoors.
In addition to general outdoor access, the Pasture Rule in the National Organic Program applies to beef and dairy cows. The Pasture Rule says that cows must get 30% of their diet from pasture for 120 days during the grazing season.
No Antibiotics: The Power of Prevention
Antibiotics are not allowed in organic production, but organic farmers do not allow their animals to suffer. For minor illnesses, organic farmers will use natural and homeopathic options to help naturally boost the animal's immune system. Additionally, the animal receives extra nutrition, fluids, fresh air, rest, and quiet.
But sometimes, just like humans, prevention or giving an illness time to run its course does not work. For something more serious that must be immediately treated, organic farmers are required to use antibiotics. When they do, that animal loses its organic certification and must be removed from the organic herd, which means it might be moved to a non-organic herd on the same farm or taken to an auction.
No Synthetic Hormones
All animals produce hormones, so this statement means that certified organic animals are not given artificial hormones to increase their milk production.
rBGH is not the only hormone used, though it is the one most people recognize. There are several livestock hormones allowed in non-organic animal production. Only oxytocin is permitted on the National Organic Program's approved list (it is only allowed after a cow gives birth, and even then, only if needed).
Note: Not using added hormones reduces the risk of mastitis (an infection in the udder), resulting in less need for antibiotics.
No Toxic Pesticides or Herbicides
Organic farmers are never allowed to use synthetic pesticides and herbicides like glyphosate (aka Roundup), 2,4-D, dicamba, chlorpyrifos, and others. Organic farmers do, however, have a chest of organic-approved weed and pest control options and tactics. Most pests and weeds are not problematic on a healthy organic farm. But if it develops to a point where the weeds or pests harm crops and animals, the farmer must take action.
The first step is to manage the farm to reduce the need for chemicals. Rotating crops keeps the soil healthy (which also confuses pests when they return next year and the food they love isn't there anymore [insert wicked laughter]). Soil tests tell farmers where they need to add organic-approved nutrients to a field to make it healthier. Organic farmers may also plant smaller plots of different crops next to one another, keeping some land in a natural state or creating a habitat for beneficial pest-controlling animals and bugs (like bats, birds, and predatory insects).
Suppose pests or weeds are still a problem. In that case, a farmer can refer to the National Organic Program's list of approved substances to see what other options they have and get approval from their organic certifier. They might be able to tackle the stubborn weed or pest with a naturally derived spray or powder, such as soaps, hot pepper sprays, or diatomaceous earth. Most substances on the approved list also have restricted uses, like not using near animals or only as a last resort. Even if a spray is naturally derived, a farmer must use it carefully.
GMO is the acronym for a genetically modified organism. GMO crops are made by inserting a gene from an unrelated species, such as a bacterium, into a plant to cause a particular trait. GMOs are prohibited on organic farms including seeds and cloned animals. GMO ingredients also cannot be used in organic foods for any reason.
Organic is Always Non-GMO, plain and simple.
GMO Bt corn was made by inserting a gene from bacteria that produces its own pesticide into the corn, causing the plant to be poisonous to certain pests. Roundup Ready crops are made so they can be sprayed with glyphosate herbicide, and the weeds will die, but the crop will not.
What About Drift?
Organic farmers cannot control where pollen from GMO plants blows, but they have tactics to prevent GMO contamination. Farms with non-organic neighbors can avoid cross-contamination by staggering their crop planting dates or using different varieties that pollinate at different times. Organic farms must also have buffer strips between their farms and non-organic neighbors.
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