Organic foods are foods that are produced using methods of organic farming – that do not involve modern synthetic inputs such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Organic foods are also not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives.
The organic farming movement arose in the 1940s in response to the industrialization of agriculture known as the Green Revolution. Organic food production is a heavily regulated industry, distinct from private gardening.
Currently, the European Union, the United States, Canada, Japan and many other countries require producers to obtain special certification in order to market food as organic within their borders. In the context of these regulations, organic food is food produced in a way that complies with organic standards set by national governments and international organizations.
Organic certification is a certification process for producers of organic food and other organic agricultural products. In general, any business directly involved in food production can be certified, including seed suppliers, farmers, [food] processors, retailers and restaurants.
Requirements vary from country to country, and generally involve a set of production standards for growing, storage, processing, packaging and shipping that include:
- no human sewage sludge fertilizer used in cultivation of plants or feed of animals
- avoidance of synthetic chemical inputs not on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (e.g. fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives, etc.), genetically modified organisms, irradiation, and the use of sewage sludge;
- use of farmland that has been free from prohibited synthetic chemicals for a number of years (often, three or more);
- keeping detailed written production and sales records (audit trail);
- maintaining strict physical separation of organic products from non-certified products;
- undergoing periodic on-site inspections.
In some countries, certification is overseen by the government, and commercial use of the term organic is legally restricted. Certified organic producers are also subject to the same agricultural, food safety and other government regulations that apply to non-certified producers.
To certify a farm, the farmer is typically required to engage in a number of new activities, in addition to normal farming operations:
- Study the organic standards, which cover in specific detail what is and is not allowed for every aspect of farming, including storage, transport and sale.
- Compliance — farm facilities and production methods must comply with the standards, which may involve modifying facilities, sourcing and changing suppliers, etc.
- Documentation — extensive paperwork is required, detailing farm history and current set-up, and usually including results of soil and water tests.
- Planning — a written annual production plan must be submitted, detailing everything from seed to sale: seed sources, field and crop locations, fertilization and pest control activities, harvest methods, storage locations, etc.
- Inspection — annual on-farm inspections are required, with a physical tour, examination of records, and an oral interview.
- Fee — an annual inspection/certification fee (currently starting at $400 to $2,000/year, in the US and Canada, depending on the agency and the size of the operation).
- Record-keeping — written, day-to-day farming and marketing records, covering all activities, must be available for inspection at any time.
In addition, short-notice or surprise inspections can be made, and specific tests (e.g. soil, water, plant tissue) may be requested.
For first-time farm certification, the soil must meet basic requirements of being free from use of prohibited substances (synthetic chemicals, etc.) for a number of years. A conventional farm must adhere to organic standards for this period, often two to three years. This is known as being in transition. Transitional crops are not considered fully organic.
Certification for operations other than farms follows a similar process. The focus is on the quality of ingredients and other inputs, and processing and handling conditions. A transport company would be required to detail the use and maintenance of its vehicles, storage facilities, containers, and so forth. A restaurant would have its premises inspected and its suppliers verified as certified organic.
In some countries, organic standards are formulated and overseen by the government. The United States, the European Union, Canada and Japan have comprehensive organic legislation, and the term "organic" may be used only by certified producers. Being able to put the word "organic" on a food product is a valuable marketing advantage in today's consumer market, but does not guarantee the product is legitimately organic. Certification is intended to protect consumers from misuse of the term, and make buying organics easy. However, the organic labeling made possible by certification itself usually requires explanation. In countries without organic laws, government guidelines may or may not exist, while certification is handled by non-profit organizations and private companies.
Internationally, equivalency negotiations are underway, and some agreements are already in place, to harmonize certification between countries, facilitating international trade. There are also international certification bodies, including members of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) working on harmonization efforts. Where formal agreements do not exist between countries, organic product for export is often certified by agencies from the importing countries, who may establish permanent foreign offices for this purpose. In 2011 IFOAM introduced a new program - the IFOAM Family of Standards - that attempts to simplify harmonization. The vision is to establish the use of one single global reference (the COROS) to access the quality of standards rather than focusing on bilateral agreements.
Asian & Chinese Organics
In India, APEDA regulates the certification of organic products as per National Standards for Organic Production. "The NPOP standards for production and accreditation system have been recognized by European Commission and Switzerland as equivalent to their country standards. Similarly, USDA has recognized NPOP conformity assessment procedures of accreditation as equivalent to that of US. With these recognitions, Indian organic products duly certified by the accredited certification bodies of India are accepted by the importing countries." Organic food products manufactured and exported from India are marked with the India Organic certification mark issued by the APEDA. APEDA has recognized 11 inspection certification bodies, some of which are branches of foreign certification bodies, others are local certification bodies.
In China, the China Green Food Development Center awards two Standards: A and AA; while the former standard does permit some use of synthetic agricultural chemicals, the latter is more stringent.
Organic certification is not without its critics. Some of the staunchest opponents of chemical-based farming and factory farming practices also oppose formal certification. They see it as a way to drive independent organic farmers out of business, and to undermine the quality of organic food. Other organizations such as the Organic Trade Association work within the organic community to foster awareness of legislative and other related issues, and enable the influence and participation of organic proponents.
Obstacle to small independents
Originally, in the 1960s through the 1980s, the organic food industry was composed of mainly small, independent farmers, selling locally. Organic "certification" was a matter of trust, based on a direct relationship between farmer and consumer. Critics view regulatory certification as a potential barrier to entry for small producers, by burdening them with increased costs, paperwork, and bureaucracy.
Manipulative use of regulations
Manipulation of certification regulations as a way to mislead or outright dupe the public is a very real concern. Some examples are creating exceptions (allowing non-organic inputs to be used without loss of certification status) and creative interpretation of standards to meet the letter, but not the intention, of particular rules. For example, a complaint filed with the USDA in February 2004 against Bayliss Ranch, a food ingredient producer and its certifying agent, charged that tap water had been certified organic, and advertised for use in a variety of water-based body care and food products, in order to label them "organic" under US law. Steam-distilled plant extracts, consisting mainly of tap water introduced during the distilling process, were certified organic, and promoted as an organic base that could then be used in a claim of organic content. The case was dismissed by the USDA, as the products had been actually used only in personal care products, over which the department at the time extended no labeling control. The company subsequently adjusted its marketing by removing reference to use of the extracts in food products. Several months later, the USDA extended its organic labeling to personal care products; this complaint has not been refiled.
In 2013 the Australia Consumer Competition Commission said that water can no longer be labelled as organic water because, based on organic standards, water cannot be organic and it is misleading and deceptive to label any water as such.
Erosion of standards
Critics of formal certification also fear an erosion of organic standards. Provided with a legal framework within which to operate, lobbyists can push for amendments and exceptions favorable to large-scale production, resulting in "legally organic" products produced in ways similar to current conventional food. Combined with the fact that organic products are now sold predominantly through high volume distribution channels such as supermarkets, the concern is that the market is evolving to favor the biggest producers, and this could result in the small organic farmer being squeezed out.
In the United States large food companies, have "assumed a powerful role in setting the standards for organic foods." Many members of standard-setting boards come from large food corporations. As more corporate members have joined, many nonorganic substances have been added to the National List of acceptable ingredients. The United States Congress has also played a role in allowing exceptions to organic food standards. In December 2005, the 2006 agricultural appropriations bill was passed with a rider allowing 38 synthetic ingredients to be used in organic foods. Among the ingredients are food colorings, starches, sausage and hot-dog casings, hops, fish oil, chipotle chili pepper, and gelatin. This allowed Anheuser-Busch in 2007 to have its Wild Hop Lager certified organic "even though [it] uses hops grown with chemical fertilizers and sprayed with pesticides."
A related concern holds that certification is replacing consumer education, and this goes against the essential, holistic nature of organic farming. By reducing complex issues and regulations to a simple, convenient certified organic label, consumers may more easily ignore the principles and practices behind organics, leaving the definition of organic farming and organic food open to manipulation.