Consumers: Organic FAQ

Consumer FAQ

What does “organic” mean?

The word “organic” describes the way farmers grow and process vegetables, fruits, grains, meat, poultry and dairy. Organic produce is grown without using pertroleum based pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetic engineering (GMO’s) or ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that do not receive antibiotics or growth hormones, are raised on certified organic land and are fed organic feed.

Why is organic produce better for the environment?

Organic farmers do not use conventional chemical methods to fertilize soil, control weeds or eliminate pests. They feed soil and plants with natural fertilizers like manure and compost, manage weeds with mulch or mechanical methods, control pests with natural biological methods and maintain soil fertility through, cover crops and crop rotation. These practices benefit the environment by preserving the nutrients in the soil, preventing water contamination, promoting biological diversity and reducing pollution.

Is organic produce safer to eat than conventional produce?

Research has shown eating organic food can reduce exposure to pesticide residue. However, residues on most products—both organic and nonorganic—don't exceed government safety thresholds. Most experts agree the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticides.

Is organic produce more nutritious than conventional produce?

Many studies have found no significant differences in nutrition between organic fruits and vegetables and their conventional counterparts. However, evidence suggests organic produce is higher in antioxidants. This is likely because these compounds help protect the plant, and since organic farming does not rely on petroleum based pesticides, these compounds need to work harder in organically grown plants. Studies have shown organic produce can have 19% to 69% more antioxidants than nonorganic counterparts. Antioxidants are beneficial for health and may help lower risk of chronic disease.

Why is organic food more expensive?

The higher price point is due to lower production yields and a higher cost for more labor-intensive methods; both factors are due to the lack of toxic pesticide, herbicide and fungicide use in organic farming.

How do I know if a food is organic?

A certified organic food will bear the official USDA organic seal on its label. Find out more on labeling here.

How do companies receive an organic seal?

Before a product can be labeled ‘organic,’ farms and companies pay a fee and submit an application detailing their operation, processes and products to USDA. Then a certified inspector visits the farm or company to ensure it meets USDA organic standards. An audit will trace all aspects of organic food production—soil, seeds, growing practices, processing and packaging—to ensure all steps meet federal, state, FDA and international food safety requirements. Farms are reviewed annually to maintain certification.

What substances are allowed in organic farming?

In general, synthetic substances are prohibited and natural substances are allowed in organic farming with a few exceptions. The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances lists synthetic and non-organic substances that may be used and the natural substances that may not be used in organic food production. The list is available to the public online. By law, the few synthetic substances allowed must make up 5% or less of the total ingredients used to make organic food.

Is natural the same as organic?

No. The word “natural” has no established definition (except on meat and poultry) and is widely used on food packaging. The FDA has considered the word to describe foods with no added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances, but that advisory has never been enforced. From 2016 to 2017, FDA took public comments to help determine a legal definition for “natural” but they have yet to reach a verdict. A big question is whether farming practices or production methods will be taken into consideration. Currently, the word “natural” has very little meaning.

Is locally grown the same as organic?

Not necessarily. There are many local farms that operate using conventional farming practices. There are also local farms using organic methods that are not certified organic due to the cost of certification. If shopping at a farmers market, it’s best to look for the organic seal, organic certification or simply ask the vendor.

What are GMOs?

GMO stands for genetically modified organism, which are plants, animals or other organisms whose genes have been changed through unnatural methods. The process usually involves inserting DNA from one organism (often a bacteria) into another (such as a plant) so that the organism of interest will display a specific trait (like disease resistance). GMO also includes cell fusion, gene deletion, gene doubling or changing the positions of genes. Traditional crossbreeding or hybridization are not considered GMO. There is very little research to date on the safety of GMOs in our food system. GMOs are prohibited in organic food production.

What is transitional?

Certified organic farms must not have had prohibited substances used on the land for the past three years. Farms transitioning to organic can receive assistance through the USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

How many organic farms are there in the United States?

There are 24,650 certified organic operations in the United States, and 37,032 around the world according to USDA.

What is Organic Food?



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