Does Certified Organic Mean What We Think It Does?

— Written By

Brian Barth | 9/16/2019 | Via Modern Farmer

There’s something of a civil war brewing in the organic movement. On one side are industry boosters boasting about how organic has gone mainstream. These folks are fine with a Big Ag version of organic agriculture—enormous monocrop fields and global distribution to every Walmart across the land. On the other side are purists who feel that the spirit of organic—building healthy soil, promoting biodiversity, focusing on small producers and distributing regionally—is no longer represented by the USDA certified organic label (hence the various alternative organic labels popping up).

The USDA certification has never explicitly required any of those things, however. Instead, organic rules focus primarily on substituting natural fertilizers and pest control methods for chemical ones. But even here things aren’t quite as they seem.

Small-Scale Organic Vegetable Production

Does Organic Mean Toxin-Free?
Not entirely. USDA standards allow the use of several dozen synthetic chemicals on certified organic farms, although most are fairly benign substances, and those that aren’t tend to be heavily restricted in the ways that they can be applied (certain synthetic fertilizers are also permitted in limited circumstances). More of an issue is that some of the naturally derived substances permitted for use as pesticides are used in unnatural concentrations that make them highly toxic (to creatures such as bees, for example). Rotenone, a notoriously toxic but naturally derived pesticide, was on the list of permitted substances until last year.

Does Organic Mean Local?
Not at all. Organic products constitute around five percent of food sales in the United States, but only about one percent of U.S. farmland is organic, suggesting that most organic food is imported. Organic certification does not take carbon footprints into account—and it’s fairly clear that organic grapes flown in from Chile have a larger environmental impact than their locally grown but conventional counterparts.

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