The word organic holds a place in the English language as one of those sometimes ambiguous words that seems to have several connotations and denotations. Prior to the resurgence of concern over what is in the food we eat, which happened around the turn of the 21st century, organic was a word most associated with chemistry.

Any carbon-based organism, living or dead, is organic. In recent years the word organic has become a way of defining our food, the methods by which we produce it and the products used in its preparation, nurturing, maintenance and harvesting.

Further muddying the waters are such words as natural, all-natural, unrefined, unprocessed and non-GMO. When we are talking about meat, add catch phrases like free-range, cage-free, grass-fed and hormone-free into the mix.

For any product or food producer to make these types of claims there is little or no oversight, but for any product or food producer to make the claim of organic, there are several hurdles they must pass to do so.

In horticulture, products deemed as natural are generally accepted as those that are procured from nature, minimally processed (or not at all) and then used or incorporated in a form similar to the product’s natural state. These are not man-made or synthesized compounds.

They may or may not be certified organic, but are compatible with the practices and principles of organic gardening. Some examples include mined materials like rock phosphate, plant oils and marine life, such as kelp. In many instances, the word natural can be used indiscriminately to describe a wide variety of products and to support unsubstantiated claims.

Organic Certification

There are numerous organizations at federal, state and local levels that have legal authority to confer organic status onto products or practices. Many other private organizations are recognized as authorities on various facets of organic food and its production.

Who's Watching Over America's Organic Farms?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the certifying agency for all farms and food producers that seek organic certification within the United States. The actual bureaucratic functions, inspections and remediation measures, if necessary, are usually undertaken by individual states through their agents or their contractors.

To be granted organic certification, a farm or food producer must meet strict standards as set forth by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). Under these standards, food producers must adhere to standards regarding:

  • Pesticide usage (no synthetic pesticides allowed).
  • GMO usage (not allowed).
  • Animal welfare (antibiotics and hormones are not allowed; cattle must be pastured; all animals must have ample space and access to clean water, ample food and shelter they can access at will).
  • Accountability of their product (an audit trail must exist between the harvest from the field to the vendor or end-user).
  • Natural is another certifiable standard by the USDA and relates to meat only. Meats labeled as such cannot have any artificial coloring or additives and must be only minimally processed.

Organic Seeds

The USDA, and other state and non-profit agencies that are acting on their behalf, can grant organic status to seeds that have not been treated with pesticides and are not culled or collected from plants that have been treated with pesticides. Seeds labeled as organic are not genetically modified or genetically engineered. They are open-pollinated and will germinate and produce true to their type and parentage.

Heirloom seeds are often certified organic, but not always. Heirloom varieties of seeds and plants possess the same traits as their parentage and are often cultivated commercially. Their sizes, colors and fruit ripening times are inconsistent or staggered, making them difficult to cultivate mechanically, ship in standard-sized packaging or use in products requiring homogeneity.

For those who have tried heirloom vegetables, they are well aware that their flavor and uniqueness are unmatched. The organic status of seeds can also be conferred by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). Many seed companies also voluntarily submit to the Council for Responsible Genetics’ Safe Seed Pledge.

Products

Foods that claim to have organic ingredients must fall within the following standards:

  • 100% organic ingredients must be just that.
  • Organic ingredients must contain a minimum of 95% certified organic content and the remaining 5% can contain no traces of animal waste, sludge or any GMO.
  • “Made with Organic Ingredients” claims on labels must contain at least 70% certified organic material and none of the remaining 30% can contain any traces of the contaminants mentioned in the organic standard.
  • Any food with less than 70% organic contents may not purport to be organic on their label, but can disclose the organic nature of their components on their listing of ingredients.

Gardening products such as fertilizers, insect sprays and amendments must pass muster from the OMRI—not the USDA—to be labeled and sold as organic. The OMRI is a non-profit organization that reviews the components of products manufacturers wish to be labeled as organic.

They also provide support and training for organic production professionals. The OMRI organic label is mostly applicable for consumer and retail products. Organic products manufactured for professional and industrial use are not always labeled as such by the OMRI.

Organic Gardening

Organic gardening is the practice of growing plants in methods compatible with, or even more stringent than, prevailing organic standards. Often this is achieved by altering cultural practices rather than applying any formulation or compound—organically certified or not.

Most organic gardening practitioners seek to feed and amend the soil, as opposed to feeding the plants directly. The soil surrounding a plant’s roots acts as its digestive system in much the same way the rumen in cattle processes what the cow consumes before being distributed within it.

Soil building, cover cropping, companion planting and crop rotation are some of the hallmark practices of organic gardening. Those who are true to the practice of organic gardening will cultivate only non-GMO seeds and crops.

Organic gardeners seek to minimize inputs over time and take the view that growing food is not a seasonal activity, but a long-term proposition. With this in mind, growing areas are intentionally left fallow or with only cover crops planted on them to restore or rebuild nutrients in the soil that may have been depleted by certain crops. Bare soil is not a part of organic gardening—the land should be producing food or rebuilding its stores.

Organic Soil Amendments and Fertilizers

Many of the widely available and inexpensive water-soluble fertilizers on the market are petroleum based or otherwise synthesized from non-organic sources. Organic fertilizers and soil amendments are generally not water-soluble and are directly collected or derived from carbon sources.

They tend to be more costly and lower in nutrient value than their synthetic counterparts, but because they are not water-soluble, organic fertilizers and soil amendments last much longer in the soils and are lost to leaching. Much of the high concentrations of nutrients in petroleum-based fertilizers are lost to leaching and end up in the watershed, potentially wreaking havoc to aquatic flora and fauna.

Organic fertilizers and soil amendments may be mineral-based, plant-based or animal-based. Mineral-based amendments include macronutrients such as rock phosphate, potash and calcium in a variety of forms. Plant-based amendments include products such as cottonseed meal, kelp and peat moss.

Animal-based products may be derived from either living or dead animals. Blood meal and bone meal are common amendments in organic gardening and are derived from the blood and bone of animals—usually bovines. Manure is an animal-based amendment that can be used in organic production, so long as certain restrictions are observed. The animals from which manure is collected must be on a certified-organic diet and their manure should be composted or aged prior to its use.

In Conclusion

It should not be assumed that any product, even those with legitimate organic certification, is automatically safe. There are many naturally occurring matter and phenomena that would meet the definition of organic, which you would want nothing to do with (consider volatile organic compounds, which are associated with many paints and solvents).

Organic gardening products are required to have the same labeling information as all other pesticides and fertilizers. They must include a signal word indicating the relative user risk of the product.

Currently these are (in order of severity): caution, warning and danger. Be sure to follow all precautions on the labels of these products, including their safe-handling instructions and their personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements.

As with all pesticides, the information contained on and within the label is not a suggestion, but a legal requirement for the user to follow.

Don't miss An Organic Primer Part 2, where Chris Bond provides some examples and practices associated with organic pest, disease, and weed control.