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What Does Certified Organic Mean?


A friend told me how upset she was to discover that when she buys Certified Organic foods, the quality (or authenticity) isn’t always the same as our (no longer Certified) product. In essence, I told her that not all organics are created equal due to variables at many levels.

Farms are as individualized as people. In the arena of natural farming systems, people’s personal beliefs influence how operations are run. Some farmers avoid the use of plastic mulch, greenhouses and plug trays in their system because they wish to use as little plastic as possible on principle.

Although all organic growers seek to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, some practice a complete avoidance, using no-till practices and relying on hand tools. While open-pollinated and heirloom plant varieties have a place in almost all gardens, some choose to limit themselves to such varieties exclusively, while others may include some hybrids.

A final example of differing opinions in the organic ranks is the paper pot debate. Over the past year their acceptability has been questioned. The paper pots (produced by Small Farm Works) are made out of recycled, biodegradable paper, but are held together by a synthetic binder, a polymer. Although their use was scheduled to be prohibited beginning in 2019, it may be permitted in cases where growers feel they need them. However, some growers will not use them no matter the official ruling. All of these options are within the limits of “Certified Organic.”


In the U.S., Certified Organic isn’t what it used to be. Organic certification used to be dealt with on a state-by-state (or certifier-by-certifier) basis. The basic concept was common to all, but depending on where a farm was seeking certification, rules could be somewhat different. Due to possible difficulties in transporting product across state lines or using it in processed foods destined for anywhere, standardization is given as the reason for the creation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-sanctioned set of rules that are uniform across the country.

Some suspect the rules were developed to offer an advantage to larger industrial farms. Suspicions seem to have been confirmed. Organic mega-farms, previously unheard of, are now prevalent. We now see huge “organic” monocultures, factory farms milking 10,000-20,000 head and organic eggs and poultry coming out of confinement operations and organic CAFOs.


Even with rules in place, wiggle room seems to allow for un-organic behavior. In factory milking operations, conventional cattle can be continuously “transitioned” to organic production when the operations do not raise their own calves for milk production. Instead, they purchase cheaper, conventional cattle raised on medicated milk replacer, which commonly includes antibiotics and other banned substances. Once weaned, these calves are fed GMO grains and non-organic hay. Approximately one year before freshening, they are switched to organic practices. This is despite there being Origin of Livestock Standards in place. And this is not the only setback for true organic animal husbandry. The removal of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices — which outlined rules for the living conditions/care, transportation and slaughtering of Certified Organic animals — means, for example, that organic poultry no longer require access to the outdoors. This would have seemed fairly elemental at one time.

Another strongly protested amendment to the National Organic Program that recently came to pass is the use of hydroponics. Growth in isolation in massive hydroponic operations means no enhancing of the natural environment through soil building, carbon sequestering or other elements held dear by many in organic agriculture. In fact, as of 2021, the European Union will no longer accept produce labeled “organic” that has been produced hydroponically. However, European hydroponic producers who use approved organic inputs will still be able to export their produce to the U.S. labeled as organic.

This all spells incredible competition and extreme disadvantages for small-scale organic operations whose certification, in theory, has the same weight as that of “big organic.”


Are all of these seemingly incongruous “organic” practices really permissible according to the certification rules? Maybe yes, maybe no. Not all organic certifiers have the same motives, values or aims. In some cases, multi-million-dollar business enterprises (the certifiers) are now certifying multi-billion-dollar corporate agribusinesses (the farms). And the USDA has allowed the interpretation of organic regulations to be left to the certifier, some of whom are very understanding about the difficulties of maintaining an organic operation on such a large scale.

The Cornucopia Institute, an agricultural watchdog, will soon put out another of its “report and scorecard” assessments — this time concerning organic certifiers. They aim to tell us which organizations are certifying operations that are authentically organic and which are giving true organic farmers unfair competition (and organic consumers essentially fraudulent products) by certifying agribusiness operations and enabling them to possess the Certified Organic label.

Additionally, the Organic Farmers Association (OFA, membership of Certified Organic farmers only) and the National Organic Coalition (NOC) are both voicing the concerns, on a national level, of those involved in organic agriculture — concerns ranging from organic integrity to the ability of farmers to maintain their livelihoods. And the Real Organic Project, whose mission is to inform the public on true organic farming values and practices, is working to create an add-on label for Certified Organic to help with transparency.


These days, there is an ever-growing number of certification programs available to farmers. With a seal of certification, your customers can know at once what your brand of farming stands for. But first you must know: What are the standards, values and requirements of the principle “natural” farming systems out there today that offer certification?

USDA National Organic Program (Certified Organic)

For a farm operation to be Certified Organic, it must avoid synthetic chemical inputs (such as synthetic fertilizers and synthetic pesticides), sewage sludge as a fertilizer and genetically modified (GMO) seed. Farmland must have been free of these synthetic chemicals for (generally) three years prior to certification.

There are a number of practices advocated in organic farming, including crop rotation and the accompanying use of farm maps, the use of cover crops and green manures, intercropping and companion planting, management that decreases the use of and dependence on fossil fuels, the fostering of natural predators to control insect populations, and more. Soil and water quality have always been important in organic agriculture, and its practitioners stress soil-building practices, erosion prevention and well-timed fertilization.

There has also been an increasing emphasis on carbon sequestration and the farming practices that encourage this, especially since 2000, as these mechanisms are becoming better understood. Beyond crop production, the care of livestock is also clearly defined regarding housing space, appropriate feed and the avoidance of antibiotics and growth agents, among other things. Yearly certification renewal and farm visits are part of certification. It is a third-party certification system and certification rates are sufficiently high to maintain such a system.

Many believe that the ethos of organics has changed and continues to change since the establishment of the NOP/NOSB. There have been attempts to water down the rules of organics from the very beginning of the NOP. Some attempts have been successfully rejected, such as the inclusion of “the Big Three” in Certified Organic farming practices — GMOs, sewage sludge and irradiation, which were included in the standards published in 1997.

Other truly non-organic practices that are now permitted in Certified Organic operations are the use of hydroponics (not much soil building or carbon sequestering happening there) and the removal of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) from the rules for organic certification. The OLPP outlined rules for the living conditions/care, transportation and slaughter of Certified Organic animals. For example, they specified that organic poultry must have access to the outdoors.

Certified Naturally Grown

The Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) program was founded in 2002 in response to the creation of the NOP. It is very much a grassroots program; its creation was due to dissatisfaction with the appropriation of the Certified Organic label by the USDA. CNG certification is sought by a number of farmers who previously had been Certified Organic. The CNG program offers a growing system with production standards based on the NOP standards but with simpler, less costly administration (and that old, holistic feel). It is especially attractive to farmers who sell locally and focus on direct-to-consumer sales. Yearly inspections for certification can be conducted by CNG or non-CNG farmers, extension agents, master gardeners or even customers (though other CNG farmers are considered ideal). This program certifies produce and livestock operations, as well as apiaries, and CNG farms are subject to random pesticide residue testing.

Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC)

Regenerative Organic agriculture is what one might call uber-organics. While many of the natural farming practices hope to work with nature or employ some of nature’s tactics in farming, Regenerative Organics designs its systems to mimic nature heavily. It aims to improve the resources it relies on (soil, water, air) rather than to deplete them. Increasing soil fertility and farm biodiversity (with an increase in the reliance on perennials over annuals), as well as seed and crop vitality, are amon the objectives. It seeks to keep farming and farming solutions low-cost.

However, Regenerative Organics really stands apart from other certifications in that it seems to be equally about food production and carbon sequestration; it aims to reverse climate change by transforming agriculture into a carbon sink instead of a source of carbon in the environment. Regenerative Organics is often seen as borrowing from/integrating agroecology, agroforestry, permaculture, holistic management and other ecological agriculture practices.
The term “Regenerative Organic agriculture” was coined by Robert Rodale in the ’80s, and the Rodale Institute (headquartered in Pennsylvania) is known as a pioneer of regenerative practices. There are many other organizations at its forefront, including Kiss the Ground (California), the Ecological Farming Association (EcoFarm, California), the Land Institute (Kansas), and the Soil Foodweb Institute (Australia), to name a few, as well as many advocates, including Dan Kittredge of the Bionutrient Food Association (Massachusetts) and Mark Shepard of New Forest Farms (Wisconsin).

A certification program for Regenerative Organics was introduced in 2018. Its “three pillars” for certifiable systems are soil health, animal welfare and social fairness. The USDA Certified Organic Standard is the baseline for the certification standards; additionally, it is required that those seeking certification first work with various existing certifiers in the arena of all three pillars. Then, once ROC-specific guidelines for each pillar are also met, farms are eligible for ROC Bronze, Silver or Gold certification. ROC is overseen by the Regenerative Organic Alliance.

Demeter Biodynamic Certification (Demeter USA)

Demeter USA is the only certifier for biodynamic farms/products in the United States, with produce labeled simply “Biodynamic” or “Demeter.” It is part of Demeter International, which was formed in 1928 and is the oldest ecological certification organization in the world. It requires all of its members to follow NOP standards, but has additional qualifications that make its program much more extensive and stringent. Demeter Certification has stricter requirements regarding imported fertility on farms; a greater emphasis for on-farm solutions of disease, pest, and weed problems; and also has more stringent requirements regarding on-farm water conservation and biodiversity. Biodynamics has always stressed the importance of local food production and distribution systems. Regarding animal breeds and plant varieties, it demands greater use of traditional strains and the development of regional types. Other hallmarks of biodynamic farming are the use of an astrological sowing/planting calendar and specific herbal and mineral additives for compost and field preparations.

Fair for Life Certified (Fair Trade Certified by IMO)

In the past, Fair Trade certification was available only to farmers in certain geographic locations and for limited farm products; no U.S. grower would have been eligible for certification. This changed with the creation of the Fair for Life Certified program, conducted by the Institute for Marketecology (IMO). Developed in 2006, it expanded the Fair Trade system to include a greater number of products for certification, production types, and countries. It is concerned with domestic and regional trade.

Unlike traditional Fair Trade systems, the IMO Fair Trade system believes that even in “developed countries” there can be labor laws that offer only limited protection to farm workers, that institutional and governmental support to maintain local agriculture/industry may be unbalanced or insufficient, and that some marginalized communities may need support in the face of concentration and internationalization. In other words, farmers within any country may be at a socio-economic disadvantage. IMO (founded in 1989) joined with Ecocert Organic Certifiers of France in 1991. “Fair for Life” works through cooperatives and develops community betterment projects as part of their system (trademarks of Fair Trade).

Furthermore, IMO places particular emphasis on organic production, making their partnership with Ecocert all the more significat. Though they do accept and begin certification with all systems of production, their yearly improvements and recommendations are to continually move all non-organic producers towards organics.

Non-GMO Project Verified

Non-GMO Project verification is just as simple as it sounds. Products labeled as such do not contain genetically modified organisms. This means they do not contain plants whose genetic makeup could not occur naturally. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have a genetic code that has had some amount of DNA inserted into it that could not occur there by normal plant reproductive means (a combination of genes that could not occur in nature). In addition to processed products, farmers can have produce certified, as well as animal products such as eggs and meat, which would be a certification of non-GMO feed. It provides third-party verification, of course.

Leah Smith works on Nodding Thistle, her family’s organic farm in mid-Michigan. After graduating from Michigan State University, she returned to the farm to continue with the farming life and to devote time to writing.