What is Organic?

What is Organic?

USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) definition, 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.

Organic is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.

Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water.

Organic food handlers, processors and retailers adhere to standards that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.

Organic production. A production system that is managed in accordance with the Act and regulations in this part to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.

USDA National Organic Program.

Organic Food

Organic food refers to food items that are produced, manufactured and handled using organic means defined by certifying bodies such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) under its Organic Food Products Act.

Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones and fed organic feed. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic”, a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards.

Excluded methods: A variety of methods used to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes and are not considered compatible with organic production. Such methods include cell fusion, microencapsulation and macroencapsulation, and recombinant DNA technology (including gene deletion, gene doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes when achieved by recombinant DNA technology). Such methods do not include the use of traditional breeding, conjugation, fermentation, hybridization, in vitro fertilization, or tissue culture.”
Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.

Source: Consumer Brochure, USDA National Organic Program,

Organic Farming:

Organic Farming Entails:

1) Use of cover crops, green manures, animal manures and crop rotations to fertilize the soil, maximize biological activity and maintain long-term soil health.
2) Use of biological control, crop rotations and other techniques to manage weeds, insects and diseases.
3) An emphasis on biodiversity of the agricultural system and the surrounding environment.
4) Using rotational grazing and mixed forage pastures for livestock operations and alternative health care for animal well-being.
5) Reduction of external and off-farm inputs and elimination of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and other materials, such as hormones and antibiotics.
6) A focus on renewable resources, soil and water conservation, and management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological balance.”

Source: Transitioning to Organic Production. USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), 2006.

Principles Governing Organic:

There are several compelling principles that characterize certified organic farming. They include biodiversity, integration, sustainability, natural plant nutrition, natural pest management, and integrity.

Organic production is not simply the avoidance of conventional chemical inputs, nor is it the substitution of natural inputs for synthetic ones. Organic farmers apply techniques first used thousands of years ago, such as crop rotations and the use of composted animal manures and green manure crops, in ways that are economically sustainable in today's world. In organic production, overall system health is emphasized, and the interaction of management practices is the primary concern. Organic producers implement a wide range of strategies to develop and maintain biological diversity and replenish soil fertility.”

Organic Agriculture Overview, USDA, Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES), 2007.

Standards and Regulations:

The USDA strictly regulates use of the term "organic" in relation to the sale of food products in the United States. The USDA regulates how organic products are labeled based on the percentage of organic ingredients they contain.

  • 100% Organic: To be labeled 100% organic, a product must contain 100% organically produced ingredients, not counting water or salt added.
  • Organic: Single-ingredient foods (fruits, vegetables, milk, meats, cheese and eggs) and multi-ingredient foods that contain between 95%-100% organic ingredients may be certified organic.
  • Made with organic: This designation is for products containing between 70-95% organic ingredients and may included the words "made with organic" on the front.
  • Made with less than 70% organic ingredients: A product can only cite this on the back panel of a label or package.


Organic products have labels on the packing stating that the product is organic. Do ensure there are logos of the certification body that has issued the organic label. If the product just mentions organic or certified organic, do ask the purveyor of the product about the certifying body.