Organic FAQs


What is the definition of organic?

According to the USDA: Organic is a labeling term for food or other agricultural products that have been produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity in accordance with the USDA organic regulations. This means that organic operations must maintain or enhance soil and water quality, while also conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used. Only products that have been certified as meeting the USDA's requirements for organic production and handling may carry the USDA Organic Seal.

The complete NOP Standards are more than 500 pages long, detailing specific required and prohibited practices and materials.


What is the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP)?

The NOP, part of USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), has regulatory oversight responsibilities over the USDA organic standards and the accreditation of organic certifying agents. The NOP also has authority to take appropriate legal action to enforce the organic standards and thus protect the integrity of the USDA organic standards, from farm to market, around the world.


Are GMOs allowed in organic?

Organic means non-GMO and more. The use of genetic engineering, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is prohibited in organic products. This means an organic farmer can't plant GMO seeds, an organic cow can't eat GMO alfalfa or corn, and an organic soup producer can't use any GMO ingredients.


Can hydroponically grown produce also be certified organic?

Based on current guidance, hydroponics may be certified because the NOP regulations do not expressly prohibit hydroponics. There are several certified organic hydroponic operations in the United States that are certified by USDA accredited certifying agents.


What are the environmental benefits of organic farming?

Organic farming practices are predicated on maintaining healthy, balanced eco-systems so that the farmland and the crop can thrive without the use of conventional agricultural chemicals. Organic farming practices include water management tactics, no-till or minimum tillage, habitat maintenance for beneficial insects and vertebrates, and biological pest control. These ecologically protective practices contribute to enhanced ecosystem services and benefit water quality, soil health, and biodiversity.


What's the difference between "natural" and "organic" foods?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program maintains and enforces the federally regulated standards (more than 500 pages!) that govern the use of the term organic.

Only growers, processors, and handlers who have been certified to be producing food in accordance with those rigorous standards may call their products organic. Anyone found in violation of these standards is subject to stiff federal and civil penalties.

At present, there is no widely applicable standard for what "natural" means in food. The US Food & Drug Association (FDA) defines "natural" for beef and chicken as: no artificial ingredients or added colors, and if it wasn't "fundamentally altered" during processing.

Many people think the words "natural" or "all natural" on a food label means it contains no artificial ingredients, GMOs, synthetics, pesticides, artificial hormones or antibiotics, just like organic. But that's not true.


Is organic food more nutritious than conventional?

Some studies have shown that certain organic items have incrementally more of specific nutrients than their conventional counterparts. But the data is far from conclusive enough to say that organic is always more nutritious than conventional. However, the main reason consumers choose organic is not for a nutritional advantage. The organic choice is motivated by a desire to reduce exposure to conventional agricultural chemicals, along with a desire to protect our air, water, and land.


Why does organic food cost more than conventional?

The truth of the matter is that organic food doesn't always cost more. Many types of organic fresh produce may cost the same or even less than their conventional counterparts. And, as the production of organic scales up, the cost will continue to come down. When the cost is higher, consider these facts:

  • Organic farming relies on human power to do many of the things that are done with chemicals in conventional farming, such as weeding. Typically, that's a much higher cost.
  • While yields between organic and conventional are getting closer, there's still a smaller yield per acre in most crops.
  • Organic crops are at greater risk of loss due to disease or infestation – when it hits, they don't have chemical weapons to combat the problem.

Can organic farming feed the world?

(Answer from the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization) Food security is not only a question of the ability to produce food, but also of the ability to access food. Global food production is more than enough to feed the global population; the problem is getting it to the people who need it. In marginalized areas, organic farmers can increase food production by managing local resources without having to rely on external inputs or food distribution systems over which they have little control and/or access. Organic farms grow a variety of crops and livestock in order to optimize competition for nutrients and space between species: this results in less chance of low production or yield failure in all of these simultaneously. This can have an important impact on local food security and resilience. In rain-fed systems, organic agriculture has demonstrated to outperform conventional agricultural systems under environmental stress conditions.

Organic agriculture and yields. The performance of organic agriculture on production depends on the previous agricultural management system. An over-simplification of the impact of conversion to organic agriculture on yields indicates that:

  • In industrial countries, organic systems decrease yields; the range depends on the intensity of external input use before conversion (but as the time in organic production gets longer, yields improve)
  • In the so-called Green Revolution areas (irrigated lands), conversion to organic agriculture usually leads to almost identical yields
  • In traditional rain-fed agriculture (with low-input external inputs), organic agriculture has the potential to increase yields

Want Fresh News Delivered Regularly?

Sign up for OPN Connect 

Stay current on all the most important news
and features with our weekly newsletter.

Sign Up Todaykeyboard_arrow_right