Organic Foods > Quetion And Answers About Organic

Q: What is organic?


A: Organic refers to the way agricultural products -- including foods and fibers such as cotton -- are grown and processed. The word "organic" on the label stands for a commitment to an agriculture which strives for a balance with nature, using methods and materials which are of low impact to the environment. Organic production systems:


  • Replenish and maintain soil fertility

  • Eliminate the use of toxic and persistent chemical pesticides and fertilizers

  • Build a biologically diverse agriculture


Organic foods are minimally processed to maintain the integrity of the foods without artificial ingredients, preservatives or irradiation.


Q: Is there an official definition of organic ?


A: The following definition of "organic" was passed by the National Organic Standards Board in April, 1995:


"Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony."


Q: How large is the organic industry ?


A: The organic industry has experienced incredible growth, with sales increasing by more than 20 percent each year over the past seven years. In 1996, the organic segment of the natural food industry saw a phenomenal growth of 26.3 percent reaching total (distributor) sales of $3.5 billion. Today, approximately one percent of the U.S. food supply is grown using organic methods. By the year 2000, analysts expect that to reach 10 percent. Worldwide, there are now almost 600 organic producer associations in 70 countries. Nations like Japan and Germany are fast becoming important international organic food markets.


Q: What does certified organic mean?


A: When a grower or processor is certified organic, a public or private organization verifies that it meets or exceeds defined standards. These standards include:


  • Land on which organic food or fibers are grown must be free of prohibited substances for three years prior to certification

  • Farmers and processors must keep detailed records of methods and materials used in growing or producing organic products

  • All methods and materials are annually inspected by a third-party certifier

  • All farmers and handlers are required to maintain written Organic Plans detailing their management practices


Q: Can any type of product become certified organic?


A: While there may not yet be an organic cream-filled donut, organic foods are becoming available in an ever-increasing variety of convenience foods, such as pasta, prepared sauces, frozen juices, frozen meals, milk, ice cream and frozen novelties, cereals, breads, soups and other products. These foods, in order to be certified as organic, have all been grown and processed using organic standards and must maintain a high level of quality.


Q: Are standards for organic production the same everywhere?


A: Prior to the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 (Title XXI of the 1990 Farm Bill), private and state agencies had been certifying organic practices, but there was little uniformity in standards, and therefore no guarantee that organic meant the same thing from state to state, or even locally from certifier to certifier. The purpose of the 1990 bill was to establish national standards for the production and handling of foods labeled as "organic". OFPA allows for state standards that are more restrictive than the federal standards, but they must be approved by the USDA.


Q: Who developed the National Organic Standards?


A: The OFPA authorized the formation of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to advise the Secretary of Agriculture in setting the standards for the National Organic Program. The NOSB based their recommendations on industry consensus. They asked for and received an unprecedented amount of public input from farmers, businesses and consumers during every step of their decision-making process. The NOSB consists of four farmers, two handlers/processors, one retailer, one scientist, three consumer/public interest advocates and three environmentalists.


Q: Do organic farmers ever use pesticides?


A: Yes. However, only botanical and other non-persistent pesticides are permitted with restrictions as a last resort when growers are threatened with crop failure. Organic farmers' primary strategy is "prevention." By building healthy soils, healthy plants are better able to resist disease and insects. When pest populations get out of balance, growers will try various options like insect predators, mating disruption, traps and barriers. If these fail, permission will be granted by the certifier to apply botanical or other non-persistent pesticides under restricted conditions. Botanicals are derived from plants and are broken down quickly by oxygen and sunlight.


Q: Are all organic products "pesticide-free"?


A: The word "organic" should not be misconstrued as meaning pesticide-free. Certified organic products have been grown and handled according to strict standards without toxic and persistent chemical inputs. However, organic crops are still exposed to the agricultural chemicals that are now detected in nearly all rain and ground water due to their overuse during the last 50 years nationwide. Organic agriculture techniques strive to limit toxic inputs, and to help maintain and replenish soil fertility. It is a healthier technique for the environment and for the consumer's long-term health.


Q: How will purchasing organic products help keep our water clean?


A: Conventional agricultural methods can cause water contamination that poses serious health problems. Beginning in May 1995, a network of environmental organizations, including the Environmental Working Group, began testing tap water for herbicides in cities across the United States' Corn Belt, in Louisiana and Maryland. The results of these tests revealed widespread contamination of tap water with many different pesticides at levels that present serious health risks. In some cities, herbicides in tap water exceed federal lifetime health standards for weeks or months at a time. The elimination of polluting chemicals and nitrogen leaching (found in conventional fertilizers), done in combination with soil building, works to prevent contamination, protects and conserves water resources.


Q: Is organic food a higher quality?


A: The organic farmer believes that the highest quality food is grown on healthy land. In a natural ecosystem, nature constantly works to correct imbalances. Organic farmers do the same by selecting the most environmentally friendly solutions to the pest and disease problems which affect their crops:


· Alternate the types of crops grown in each field, rather than growing the same crop year after year (known as crop rotation)

· Plant cover crops such as clover to add nutrients to the soil and prevent weeds

· Release beneficial insects to prey on pests, helping to eliminate the need for chemical insecticides that can remain in the soil for years

· Add composted manure and plant wastes to help the soil retain moisture and nutrients


Q: Does organic food taste better?


A: We think so, and hundreds of gourmet chefs across the nation agree. In 1996, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) reported that organic items are offered by about 57 percent of the table service restaurants with per person checks of $25 or more and by 29 percent of restaurants in the $15-24.99 range. According to the chairman of NRA, W.W. "Biff" Naylor, "A dedication to organics is no longer an indulgence for many operators; it is a sound business move. As our customers start to believe organic products are good for their health, restaurateurs will find the benefits of organics may outweigh the costs." It's common sense -- well balanced soils grow strong healthy plants which taste great!


Q: Is organic better, healthier?


A: Organic foods are not necessarily more nutritious; rather organic foods are spared the application of synthetic insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers. Many EPA-approved pesticides were registered long before extensive research linked these chemicals to cancer and other diseases. Now, the EPA considers 60 percent of all herbicides, 90 percent of all fungicides, and 30 percent of all insecticides as potentially cancer-causing.


Q: Why do organic products cost more?


A: Prices for organic products reflect many of the same costs as conventional items in terms of growing, harvesting, transportation and storage. Organic products must meet stricter regulations governing all of these steps so the process is often more labor and management intensive, and farming tends to be on a smaller scale.


  • Organic Farmers don't have the luxury of the economies of scale that a large conventional producer has. There is still limited supply
         of organic products, so the supply vs. demand equation is off balance.

  • Conventional crops are often subsidized by government programs, such as research, technical advice, and marketing orders.

  • Organic farmers have an added cost of compliance with organic certification standards.

  • There is mounting evidence that if all the indirect costs of conventional food production (cleanup of polluted water, replacement of eroded soils, costs of health care for farmers and their workers, etc.) were factored in to the price of food, organic foods would cost the same, or, more likely, be cheaper.