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Organic Foods
What Does That Really Mean?

Organic produce is produce with the absence of chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers. Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from the air, soil and water. To the maximum extent feasible, organic farming systems rely on methods and inputs such as crop rotations, animal and green manurers, mechanical cultivation and aspects of biological pest control to maintain soil productivity and tilth. These measures are also used to supply plant nutrients, control insects, weeds and other pests.

Lisa Lawless
By Lisa S. Lawless, Ph.D.
Psychotherapist & Sexuality Expert

CEO & Founder of
Holistic Wisdom, Inc. & NAASAS

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What does certified organic mean?

Labels that read "certified organic" tell the customer the foods they purchase have been verified as organically grown by an independent third party. These third party agencies must enforce, at a minimum, the standards set by the each state's Organic Foods Act.

Certified produce meets standards beyond those set in the state law. To be certified, growers undergo farm inspections, including soil nutrient analysis. They also must document all crop and soil inputs, and must develop soil fertility and pest control plans so that in case of unexpected problems, the grower has a plan to deal with the problem without resorting to prohibited materials. Certified organic growers must keep complete yield, harvest and sales records, undergo at least two inspections prior to certification and, thereafter, annual inspections to verify that they meet requirements. To see if a producer is organic, you can ask the grower or the retailer to show you a current certificate.

Differences between organic & certified?

Produce sold as organic in must carry the labeling "Certified Organic." This labeling simply means that the grower is registered with the state as an organic producer. Registered producers are not necessarily certified, and may not ever have been inspected to verify their organic claims.

Why is certification important?

Certification protects consumers from fraud. Consumers who buy produce with the "Certified Organic" seal know the growers of the produce meet stringent standards of production and record keeping. Although growers may claim their produce is organic without certification, the extra step offers you assurance that the grower has been required to document and demonstrate the organic claim. Certified organic growers can provide back-up documentation on many aspects of its members growing practices.

The Federal Organic Law (which will tentatively be implemented within a year or so) outlines the minimum standards by which all certifiers must evaluate organic growers. However, until that law is implemented, standards will vary among certifiers. You should feel free to ask the certifying agency what standards they use. Different agencies may share different amounts or levels of information. If you are interested, you can always ask which records are available to you and be aware that the more you know, the more you can assure yourself of the authenticity of organic claims.

Is no spray or pesticide free the same?

No. These claims usually mean the edible parts of a crop have not been sprayed with pesticides. However, synthetic fertilizers, insecticides and fungicides may have been used to grow the food. There is no legal definition for these claims (and no certification process).

What does residue free mean?

Residue free means a laboratory analysis (often of a random sampled lot) detected no pesticide residues on a particular food. Not all chemicals are tested for and, in fact, some tests for chemicals are too costly to use in such a program. Residue free produce is NOT organic because it may have been grown using synthetic chemicals and with methods that don't meet requirements for organic production. The residue free claim is not regulated - tests of the product are random and there is no assurance the producer of a residue free product has any commitment to building and nurturing the soil or avoiding the use of synthetic chemicals.

Why does organic food usually cost more?

In fact, it doesn't always cost more. At times certain organic products, such as lettuce and broccoli, are sold at prices less than those of conventional products. With more research into organic methods and increased production and sales of organic produce, prices should continue to be more competitive with conventionally grown produce.

But yes, organic food does often cost more. It costs more because organic production costs and risks are higher. Cover crops, for example, improve the soil but can mean land isn't producing an edible crop for a while. Organic farmers often pay higher costs for environmentally friendly farming practices such as beneficial insects and hand weeding.

All organic farmers must pay for state registration; certified organic farmers also pay for certification costs. Furthermore, the cost of conventional food does not include the cost of dealing with the health and environmental impacts of conventional farming. When you buy organic foods, you are investing not only in your health, but also in a system of agriculture that benefits the land and is committed to leaving a legacy only of clean foods and a healthy soil and earth.


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