Beginning in the 1990s, the USDA sought to standardize what constituted as “organic farming practices”. Up until then, each state and even individual growers had their own ideas as to what was an organic practice and what wasn’t. By 2002, clear guidelines were established in order to make uniform all the different standards and growing practices. In order to meet the minimum qualifications to be considered a certified organic farm, producers must:
Preserve natural resources and biodiversity
Support animal health and welfare
Provide access to the outdoors so that animals can exercise their natural behaviors
Only use approved materials
Do not use genetically modified ingredients
Receive annual onsite inspections
Separate organic food from non-organic food
These standards were established by Congress in the Organic Foods Production Act and cover every aspect of growing and production, from seed to table. Having these clear guidelines protects consumers by making sure the integrity of the organic farm products going to market stays intact. If a producer wants to use the “organic” label on his or her product, they must adhere strictly to the guidelines and submit to farm inspections which include observations of their growing, storage and processing procedures, as well as soil and water sampling. The Organic Foods Production Act also provides the USDA the ability to investigate consumer complaints and bring judgment on producers and processors who break the law. Even small farms and processors (who sell at least $5000 in organic product) who want to use an organic label on their products must be inspected and certified.
Why is the “organic” label such a big deal? The term organic means that producers are held to a different standard of practice that does not rely on certain chemicals, like pesticides and fertilizers, that have been linked to environmental damage, or on genetically-altered substances whose long-term health effects are unknown. Organic practices rely instead on natural deterrents to pests such as companion planting, natural soil fertilizers such as compost, and overall practices that are more eco-friendly and sustainable. Certified organic farms also have to keep records of which substances have been used on the soil for the past three years, so that inorganic chemicals won’t have leaked into production by accident.