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Certified Organic: What Does The Label Mean?

Certified Organic: What Does The Label Mean?

“Organic” is everywhere it seems, and what was once a $1 billion industry in 1990 grew to a $49.4 billion one in 2017. “In the last decade alone, the U.S. organic market has more than doubled in size,” according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA). People choose “organic” because they want to feed their family food grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. While more than 14,200 farms are certified organic, that is a mere fraction of the 2.04 million farms in the United States. But what does it mean when a label says “certified organic?”

What’s In A Label?

According to the OTA, the organic label, unlike other eco-labels, is backed by a set of rigorous federal production and processing standards which require products bearing the USDA organic label to be “grown and processed without the use of toxic and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, genetic engineering, antibiotics, synthetic growth hormones, artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, sewage sludge and irradiation.”

The basis of organic’s legal meaning stated above stems from its ecological one, defined here by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: “a system that relies on ecosystem management rather than external agricultural inputs. It is a system that begins to consider potential environmental and social impacts by eliminating the use of synthetic inputs…. ” to maintain and increase long-term soil fertility and prevent pests and diseases.

How Farms Become Certified Organic

Becoming certified organic is a demanding process, with the OTA saying, “Organic is the most heavily regulated and closely monitored food system in the U.S.”

How so?

Extension.org has detailed information on what it takes to achieve organic standing, with requirements that include:

  • Strict USDA enforcement of regulatory standards
  • Annual audit of accredited agencies
  • Submission of an Organic System plan (aka Farm Plan) to detail practices
  • Detailed records tracking all products
  • Maintaining organic integrity to eliminate cross-contamination
  • No GMOs, synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, preventative antibiotics, growth hormones, or artificial flavors, colors or preservatives

Also, land, where a prohibited substance has been used, must have a three-year period meeting organic standards before harvest.

Top Ten Organic Farming States

Who tops the nation in organic production? The most recent USDA data from 2016 shows the nation’s leading organic state with 1.1 million acres in organic production, a whopping 21 percent of all certified organic land in the country. The top 10 are:

1. California – 2,713 certified organic farms
2. Wisconsin – 1,276
3. New York – 1,059
4. Pennsylvania – 803
5. Iowa – 732
6. Washington – 677
7. Ohio – 575
8. Vermont – 556
9. Minnesota – 545
10. Maine – 494

The total amount of farmland certified organic has increased by 15 percent in 2016 to 5 million acres. In the past several years, southern states have seen the most growth in the establishment of organic farms. Pew Research Center cited Arkansas as an example, which had 10 organic farms in 2011 and ballooned to 64 in 2016, a 540 percent jump.

Top Organically Farmed Foods

Can you guess what the No. 1 organic food is? It has more than 2,500 certified organic farms dedicated to this product.

  • Cow’s milk, coming in at $1.4 billion in sales; followed by
  • Eggs
  • Chickens
  • Apples
  • Lettuce
  • Strawberries
  • Grapes
  • Tomatoes
  • Corn

Read: Why Eat Organic and see the list of the “Dirty Dozen”

Why Is Organic So Expensive?

One question that regularly pops up is “Why does organic cost so much more?”

The Organic Farming Research Foundation points out what’s inherently different about organic farming: “… the organic price tag more closely reflects the true cost of growing the food: substituting labor and intensive management for chemicals. These costs may include cleanup of polluted water and remediation of pesticide contamination.”

Next time you shop organic, you’ll know the work that went into making it so.

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