|Toki Oshima drawing|
By Jaco Schravesande-Gardei
MOFGA Certification Services LLC
Organic, natural, sustainable, local, responsibly grown … When shopping at farmers’ markets or grocery stores, consumers face a barrage of enticing labels. What do they mean … if anything?
Only the term “organic” has specific, legal, federal standards that farmers must follow and relates to farms or facilities that, if they gross more than $5,000 annually, are inspected annually by a third-party, USDA-accredited certifier. Even those exempt from certification because they gross $5,000 or less must meet all USDA National Organic Program requirements, including detailed documentation of farming or processing activities, input use and sales. Anyone using the organic label is subject to inspection by the USDA and can be fined for misusing the label.
Farmers and processors who are not certified organic or exempt from certification cannot legally label their products as organic. So an organic label from an accredited certifier is an excellent way to know that organic practices have been verified by a third party.
Other labels, lacking rigorous standards, can mean something different to each person who uses them.
Being a certified organic operation not only reassures customers, but these farmers and processors benefit from organic certification agencies that review and communicate regulation standards.
Organic is a systems-based approach to agriculture, and the organic certification process is integral to continued improvement of that system. The healthier and more diverse the ecosystem and farm production system, the more robust crop health and yields become over time. Consumers have no guarantee that farmers are following this regimen and that their management system meets organic standards unless the farms or processors are inspected annually by organic certification agencies.
The phrases below sometimes appear at markets. How do they compare with organic certification? Deciphering their meaning is usually a guessing game.
Organic certification mandates a specific hierarchy when using pesticides of any kind that are approved for organic producers. First, the organic farmer must seek a systems-based approach to deal with a pest. The first line of crop protection will include cultural methods (e.g., crop rotation or trap crops), physical methods (e.g., floating row covers to exclude insects, or fences to exclude mammalian pests) or mechanical control (e.g., weeding machines or bug vacuums). Organic farmers can spray their crops – but only with select materials approved for organic use.
Approved sprays in organic agriculture include kelp or fish emulsion foliar feeds, botanically based pesticides, or naturally occurring minerals, such as fine clay powders. Even these materials are allowed only if all of the active and secondary (so-called “inert”) ingredients are approved under the organic law.
Some farmers label their produce as “No Spray” but admit to applying dusts or powders to control insects. While they did not apply these materials with a sprayer, they mislead customers who assume they do not use organically prohibited materials.
Also, many products contain so-called “inert” ingredients, such as dust suppressants or flowing agents. Despite the “inert” label, some such additives may be toxic themselves or when combined with other ingredients. Organic certifiers review all ingredients in farm input products and let certified organic farmers know what is or is not allowed. (For more about “inerts,” see “A Pesticides Quiz and Primer: 2015 Update” by Sharon Tisher.)
The phrase “No Chemicals” can be misleading. Some synthetic chemical substances are allowed in organic agriculture. These have gone through a strict review to ensure minimal harm to the environment or to human health in their manufacture, use or disposal, and they are allowed because no natural alternatives exist yet (or exist in sufficient quantity).
Farmers who claim that “no chemicals” were used in growing their crops should not have used treated seeds, rooting hormones, annual transplants grown in commercially available potting mix, or any kind of insecticides or fertilizers. Ask them if that is the case. Usually this phrase is used to suggest to consumers that they are buying a product that is similar to certified organic; typically it is not.
Consumers are increasingly seeking products made without the use of genetic engineering (GE) or “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs), and more and more companies are labeling their products as non-GMO. Some labels, such as “Non-GMO Project Verified,” offer a trustworthy way to avoid ingredients made from GMOs. The certified organic label not only prohibits the use of GMOs in all aspects of farming and processing – it goes beyond that by also prohibiting synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, preventing antibiotic and synthetic hormone use in animals, promoting land stewardship, and much more. Certified organic is non-GMO and more.
“Organic” Fertility Inputs And Potting Mixes
The word “organic” on potting mixes, bagged manures, peat moss, etc., can be used as long as the product contains carbon. Many of these “organic” inputs highlight the word “organic” on their labels, since it attracts consumers who associate the product with the qualities and benefits of organically grown crops. Unfortunately, many of these products have been treated with synthetic fumigants, insecticides or other pesticides, synthetic wetting agents or synthetic fertilizers, which are not allowed in organic agriculture.
A farmer can try to obtain product information by contacting the manufacturer, but manufacturers are not required to disclose this information. An organic certification agency, since it is associated with the USDA, has a much easier time obtaining this information and provides an invaluable service, helping certified organic growers use products acceptable in organic production.
Consumers should look for a listing by a recognized material review agency such as the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) and should look for the OMRI label on bagged products.
Unless a farmer is certified organic or grosses $5,000 or less annually while following organic standards, he or she cannot legally use the word “organic” in any way to represent a product. This includes telling shoppers that his or her farm is “better than organic.”
Without the oversight of certification, consumers have no guarantee that “beyond organic” farmers’ systems or inputs meet any standards. When non-certified farmers misrepresent their production as either organic or better than organic, they may damage the organic label for farmers who go through the rigorous process of organic certification and achieve use of the highly respected organic label in the marketplace.
“Natural” and “all natural” are widely used food and marketing labels with a variety of definitions, most of them vague. The terms are often assumed to imply that foods are minimally processed, that all ingredients are natural products, or that the product or ingredients have gone through the process of organic certification and achieved the use of the highly respected organic label in the marketplace.
The USDA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are developing regulations for using the term “natural.” Currently, however, foods containing ingredients sourced from genetically engineered crops grown in herbicide-treated soils can be (and often are) labeled as “natural.” In comparison, the National Organic Program Rule, which certified organic farmers are mandated to follow, is law and has been published in the Federal Register since 2000.
For more about the “natural” and other labels, see “What Do Meat Labels Mean and How Long Can Meat Be Stored?” by Diane Schivera at https://www.mofga.org/Publications/MaineOrganicFarmerGardener/Fall2009/MeatLabels/tabid/1256/Default.aspx.
“Sustainable,” “Local,” “Responsible”
These labels have neither a legal definition nor a broadly agreed-upon meaning, nor are they third-party verified. This puts the responsibility on the customer to question farmers about their growing methods.
By contrast, customer who buy certified organic products know what’s behind that label.
Adapted with permission from the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES). See mosesorganic.org for more information to help you grow.