When is organic really organic and when is the term organic meaningless?

This is a topic that I am very passionate about. I have in some compasidy been an organic grower/gardener all my life. It was the main driving force for me to choosing a degree in plant biology, and it is the core foundation of my company.

In order for an organic product in the United States to be considered truly organic, the following conditions must be met.

The Official Meaning of Organic:

The term organic is not an official term in the United States. The official term for organics that meet USDA organic standards is certified organic, also sometimes called USDA certified organic.

In the most basic of definitions, organic by most dictionary standards means; "Relating to, or derived from living organisms." However, in the United States, the term organic has come to mean many different things.

The term organic is currently used to describe various sustainable agricultural and food items, textiles, toys, furniture, mattresses, cosmetics, beverages, bath and body care products and many other products. The term organic is also used as an action. For example, "I try to live organically" or, "Organic farming is better for the planet."

In many cases the term organic is used inappropriately. Organic body care products offer a perfect example of when the term organic is used incorrectly; for example, calling a shampoo "organic" when it contains harmful chemicals not normally allowed in organic agricultural products. It may contain a plant derivative that is organic, but also in that lengthy label of contents are sulfates and a numerous amount of other ingredients you can't pronounce. A good rule of thumb on buying food, shampoo, or other body products: If it has more then 6 ingredients and you can't pronounce them, it's probably not organic. And don't be fooled by the words: Natural flavorings or atomized yeast, these are just the new words used for MSG.

Not All Real Organics Are Certified

When a grower uses sustainable growing methods but chooses not to get certified, or is exempt from certification because they sell less than $5,000 worth of organic products annually, it doesn't mean the farmer's products aren't really organic.

For example, a grower who grows lettuce may not be officially certified, but may in fact truly grow organic lettuce. This is a tricky exception because it relies on consumer knowledge of sustainable growing methods.

Tricky exception or not, simply not being certified doesn't mean a grower isn't really growing organically, it just means consumers may have a harder time figuring out if the product is truly organic. Without certification to back a product up, the consumer must ask the grower of the product questions about their growing methods to determine organic integrity.

Some Organics Are Not Certified Correctly

To make the issue of real organics even trickier, some accredited certifying agents along with the USDA, have come under fire for certifying products as organic, when really the product doesn't always follow USDA standards for organic certification. For example, a recent Inspector General report found that the enforcement of federal laws governing organics is abysmal.

Recently I called a certifying agent for the state of New Mexico to get clarification on what it takes to be certified organic, and was shocked by the response he gave. I told him I have a greenhouse and had the water tested and wanted to know how pure it needed to be in order to be certitified as an organic grower. He told me that currently New Mexico has no guidelines for testing the water and that when they test the soil they only look for high concentrations of pesticides. How can you grow truly organic food if you have high levels of contaminants like uranium, nitrates, chloride, fluoride and sulfates, and they don't even test the water or soil for those contaminants before issuing an organic certification? It really made me wonder, are those organic products we pay so much money for in the stores are really organic? What about at your local farmers market? Several areas in New Mexico have bad water due to chemicals used in mining, run off from farmer's fields that use pesticides and commercial fertilizers high in nitrates, and other sources of contamination. Unless the grower takes it upon themselves to implement a system to remove contaminates from the water, you are not eating an organic product. It became clear to me that we need to lobby for better guidelines and regulations for being certified organic.

Poor certification standards seriously confuses the organic issue, because if organic consumers and the organic industry can't trust the USDA Organic Seal or certifying agents, it mucks up the integrity of the organic industry altogether. This is why organic integrity among organic growers and producers is so important.

A Woman's Touch

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