Organics Part 1: What does “organic” mean anyway?

This is the first of my series on organic foods, as promised.  The other ones will be written as I have time (in addition to working full-time and grad school full-time, so be patient!).

Today I’m going to cover the rules for producing and handling foods that are labeled as “organic.”  A farm that wants to sell organic food has to write up a plan describing
1. their practices and procedures to be performed on the product,
2. a list of the substances to be used,
3. a description of how they will monitor to ensure effective implementation,
4. a description of their recordkeeping system,
5. and a management plan of how non-organic products will be separated from organic.

The plan must address the following requirements.


The land used to grow organic crops must have been free of prohibited materials (listed in the code) for 3 years before crops can be grown.  It must have distinct boundaries and buffer zones to prevent contact with non-compliant substances from neighboring non-organic land.

Soil fertility must be managed to maintain or improve physical, chemical, and biological conditions, as well as to minimize soil erosion.

To manage the crop nutrients and soil fertility, the code recommends crop rotations, cover crops, and the application of plant/animal material.  Applied animal/plant material cannot contaminate the crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substances.  They can use animal manure, but it must be composted unless the crops are not grown for human consumption, or unless the manure is used greater than 120 days before harvest (90 days for crops where the edible parts don’t touch the soil).  Plant materials can be either composted (I don’t quite get the specific requirements for composting) or not.

Organic farmers can also use allowed synthetic substances (there is a list of these in the code), mined substances of low/high solubility (with certain restrictions, but I don’t really know all the science behind them), or untreated/unmixed ash from burned animal/plant material.

I’m not going to list all of the approved/prohibited materials.  You can look them up in the code yourself, section 205.601-607.  Some of the approved substances have annotations describing how they must be used.

Organic farmers must use organically grown seeds, annual seedlings, and planting stock, unless they are not “commercially available.”  (You see a lot of the “commercially available” in this document, and in my reading I learned its inclusion was hotly debated.  It was suspected that it could lead to dishonesty on the part of the farmers.)  The seeds can be treated with prohibited substances if the material is a requirement of sanitary regulations.

Farmers must implement a crop rotation (sod, cover crops, green manure crops, catch crops, etc.) to maintain or improve soil organic matter content, provide for pest management, manage deficient/excess plant nutrients, and provide erosion control.

Pest problems can be controlled through mechanical or physical methods including the following:
1. Introduce predators or parasites of the pest species
2. Develop a natural habitat for the pests’ natural enemies
3. Nonsynthetic control such as lures, traps, and repellents
4. Use of approved pesticides, with documentation of their usage.

Weeds and disease can be controlled flame, heat, or electrical means, synthetic and nonsynthetic mulches.  There is also a list of approved synthetic materials to control weeds and disease.

Organic livestock must be under continuous organic management from the last third of gestation or hatching, except

  • Poultry and poultry products must be from poultry that has been under continuous organic management beginning no later than the second day of life.
  • Milk and milk products must be from dairy animals that have been under continuous organic management beginning no later than 1 year prior to the production of the milk or milk products.  Crops from the third year of organic management (i.e. the last year before the crops can be labeled organic) can be fed to the cows during ring the 12-month period immediately prior to the sale of milk/milk products.
  • Breeder stock may be brought from nonorganic operations into an organic operation at any time, provided that if the cow is gestating and the offspring will be organic livestock, the breeder stock must be brought onto the facility no later than the last third of gestation.

Livestock feed must be composed of agricultural products that are organically produced, except for approved synthetic and nonsynthetic substances that can be used as additives or supplements. Additives and supplements cannot be supplied in amounts exceeding those needed for adequate nutrition and health maintenance.  No drugs or hormones can be used to promote growth.  The feed cannot contain mammalian or poultry slaughter by-products (gross).  Livestock must have access to feed ration sufficient to meet nutritional requirements.

Organic farmers must establish appropriate housing, pasture conditions, and sanitation practices to minimize the spread of diseases and parasite.  The animals must be given conditions which allow for exercise, freedom of movement, and reduction of stress.  Farmers must perform physical alterations must promote animal welfare and minimize pain and stress.  Vaccines and other veterinary biologics must be administered as needed for animal health care.  These are considered “preventative” health measures.

If an animal gets sick, the farmer can apply approved synthetic medicines.  Parasiticides can be used on breeder stock that are not in the last third of gestation, assuming they are not providing milk for their children, as well as for dairy stock, when used a minimum of 90 days prior to the production of milk or milk products that will be sold as organic.  Any meat or other product from an animal treated with antibiotics (or other nonapproved substances) cannot be sold as organic.  In the absence of illness, only necessary vaccines can be administered.  Again, no growth hormones, parasiticides (exceptions listed above), or other drugs that violate Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.  There is also a note that a farm cannot withhold medical treatment from a sick cow in order to preserve its organic status.

Livestock living conditions must “accommodate the health and natural behavior of animal,” including the following:

  • Access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, and direct sunlight suitable to the species
  • Access to pasture for ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats, deer, giraffes, antelopes, and camels)
  • Appropriate clean, dry bedding.  If the animal is prone to eating its bedding, the bedding must comply with feed requirements.
  • Shelter that allows for comfort behaviors, the opportunity to exercise, reduces the potential for injury.
  • Animals can be confined in the event of inclement weather, if the animal’s safety could be jeopardized, or if the animal’s stage of production requires it.
  • And finally, the animal manure must be handled such that it is not a risk of contamination for the soil, crops, or water.

    The regulations go on, into the intricacies of requirements for labelling, processing (if the products are going to be used in, say, an organic TV dinner), etc.  I don’t care enough about those in the scope of this entry to actually go into detail.

    Organic certification requires that the farmer comply with the regulations, have a plan that states how they intend to comply, and maintain records showing their compliance.  They also have to permit on-site inspections at least once per year.

    In case you didn’t want to deal with the TL;DR, here is a short summary:
    Organic produce must be produced in such a way that the soil nutrients are maintained and soil erosion is minimized.  Only approved pesticides, weed-killers, and disease prevention methods can be used.  Livestock must be maintained in conditions that allow them access to outdoors, sunlight, shade, shelter, and exercise.  They must be fed organic feed, and cannot receive medication other than necessary vaccines or those approved by the federal regulations.

    I must say, these rules seem quite respectable, which is why so many people buy organic.  Can we prove that these methods are better for the environment and better for our health?  Tune into the next article to find out!

    Read Part 2: Shortcomings in Enforcement

    Resources: Electronic Code of Federal Regulations Part 205 – National Organic Program


    5 Responses

    1. I just stopped by your blog and thought I would say hello. I like your site design. Looking forward to reading more down the road.

    2. Great article. Thanks for sharing. We are moving more towards organic food in our household and the more informed the better.

    3. […] 18, 2008 in General Part One of this series highlighted the major rules for organic farming. In order to earn a USDA […]

    4. @ Sue: Thanks! Check back this week, I’m going to be doing some more posting on organics!

      @livingmyrichlife: Definitely! Being informed about what you’re buying is the most important thing! Make sure to check back for future updates as I investigate organic food!

    5. […] Part 1:What does “organic maean, anyway? Read Part 2: Shortcomings in Enforcement Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Are […]

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