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A Growing Movement

I first heard the word from my grandfather back in the mid-’60s. He had read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, had a subscription to Organic Gardening magazine, and had adopted simple gardening techniques that exalted the compost heap and minimized chemical additives. For my grandfather, the best food around was “organic,” and his source for such food was Walnut Acres Organic Farm in Pennsylvania, one of the few places one could purchase a variety of organic food back in those distant days. It was delivered to his mailbox. Things have changed a lot since I first heard him speak that word, “organic.”

Organic food, a minuscule part of the U.S. food economy back in the mid-’60s, is now a rapidly expanding market. U.S. sales of organic foods now approach $10 billion. This market has been growing at a rate of more than 20 percent annually, with no slowdown in sight. While my grandfather had limited options for obtaining organic food, today there is a multitude of products available from a burgeoning number of producers. Once the select terrain of small-scale farmers, organic farming has been invaded by a number of agribusiness operations lured by the smell of potential profit. With so many new entrants sprouting up in the organic market touting a range of definitions for the word, a serious question needed to be raised: What is organic?

In an attempt to sort out what is and what is not organic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has gone through a 12-year review process aimed at clarifying the term’s use in the marketplace. Under the Organic Food Production Act of 1990, the USDA was directed to: 1) establish national standards for the marketing of organic products, 2) assure that these standards are consistently applied, and 3) facilitate the production of organically produced foods. On the day of the winter solstice in 2000, the USDA published national organic-food standards that went into effect in April 2001 and were to be fully implemented by Oct. 21, 2002. All this should help consumers become a bit more organic-savvy and (hopefully) make wiser decisions about the food they purchase and eat.

Under the USDA’s regulations, there are four categories of organic labeling. If a product’s total content is certified as organic, it can carry the label “100-percent organic.” If at least 95 percent of the products contents are organic, it can use the label “organic.” Products that are at least 95 percent organic have the option of displaying the USDA’s new green-and-white organic stamp. Products that contain at least 70 percent organic contents can say “Made with organic ingredients,” while those items with less than 70 percent may identify organic contents only through listings of ingredients. Carrying these labels requires that the organic contents are certified as such by a USDA-accredited state agency or private organization if product sales rise to at least $5,000 annually. Those selling below this figure must still comply with the regulations, though they are not subject to the certification process. The Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York is the only group in this state currently approved by the USDA to certify organic products.

To be accredited as an organic farm, growers have to show evidence that they have not used synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, genetically modified organisms, sewage sludge, fungicides or growth regulators on their land for at least three years. Organic livestock has to be shown to have been raised on organic feed and have access to pasture, while not being exposed to antibiotics, irradiation, growth hormones or feed containing animal byproducts. Some small-scale farms have indicated they will not seek certification due to the costs involved, but the USDA has recently made funds available for covering part of these costs.

For companies involved in the manufacturing and distribution of organic products, the regulations require the certification of their organic raw materials and set standards regarding processing, packaging, storage and transportation. Food retailers can sell items as organic only if there is a valid certification that documents the product as organic and that these products have not been packaged in materials, containers or bins contaminated with fumigants, preservatives or synthetic fungicides.

But organic agriculture involves more than complying with USDA regulations. It involves a perspective on food production that is tied directly to the health of the soil and its supporting environment. The impacts of organic farming go beyond the production of good food. The National Organic Standards Board (appointed by the USDA, the NOSB was a major contributor to the new standards), adopted a definition of organic agriculture as “an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity . . . based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”

Research indicates that organic farming methods help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing carbon storage capacity in the soil. These farming practices have also been found to reduce the environmental burden of pesticides, herbicides and other pollutants that contaminate the air, water and soil. Some argue that organic farming may offer one of the last refuges for the survival of the family farm, though agribusiness behemoths like Archer Daniels Midland are making moves on the market.

To find out more about the new USDA regulations on organics, check out the National Organic Program at or visit the Organic Trade Association at Support your local organic farmers and eat well!

—Tom Nattell

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