What’s Organic Farming, Anyway? Breaking Down The Buzzword

Not unlike other food buzzwords—like “natural,” “probiotic,” or “unprocessed,” the term “organic” has nearly lost its meaning. If you look to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), don’t expect a clear answer as to what organic farming really is. In fact, the FDA doesn’t have a definition of “organic.”

Yet, including “organic” on a food label must meet certain criteria according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA’s National Organic Program is part of its Agricultural Marketing Service. Basically, the National Organic Program works to ensure that all products labeled as organic are produced using certain practices. The National Organic Program states that these production practices must maintain or enhance the environment, rather than harm it. However, whereas these regulations control the growing process, they don’t necessarily apply to packaging or transportation. Many organically grown foods are later wrapped in plastic or packaged with styrofoam, neither of which are biodegradable. Likewise, certified organic food may be transported thousands of miles away, contributing to further pollution. So, food produced through organic farming practices are not necessarily environmentally friendly.

organic farming sprouts
Photo by Francesco Gallarotti

So, what do these organic practices look like? Farms must use fertilizers that are made from natural materials—not synthentic ones. On top of that, sewage sludge is prohibited, and so is genetic engineering. Oh, and harmful chemical pesticides are a no-go. The National Organic Program supports the National Organic Standards Board. This board certifies US farmers according to their organic farming practices. And if there’s any sign of malpractice, the board investigates possible violations of organic guidelines.

Beyond the Organic Foods Label

At its heart, organic farming is much more about an overall approach to growing food, rather than following some rules and bending others. So, while buying certified organic produce is great, it’s important to note that many small farmers, backyard farmers, and gardeners follow organic practices, too—they just haven’t gone through the certification process.

organic farming eggs
Photo by Alison Marras

And on the other hand, “organic” is not synonymous with “natural,” let alone, “cruelty-free.” Let’s look at eggs, for instance. You can buy organic eggs knowing that they come from hormone-free and antibiotic-free hens, which are fed organic feed. But that doesn’t mean the hens weren’t raised in enclosed spaces. Organic eggs must come from hens that are raised cage-free. So they can’t be secluded in individual cages, and they must have access to the outdoors. But beyond this rule, there’s no regulation on just how much space is appropriate. And in the U.S., a small enclosed porch categorizes as cage-free. Not to mention, access to sunlight is not guaranteed.

Organic Farming Goals

In an ideal world, organic farming should function like a manmade ecosystem. Each component works together with another part, so that a natural system can support itself, without the help or dependency of synthetic materials. (Or cages, for that matter.)

organic farming hens
Photo by Annie Spratt

At the end of the day, the organic label sells. (It’s part of a larger marketing service, after all). That’s why, when buying organic, it’s crucial to ask questions and investigate where your food comes from, just to be sure. We all want to buy food that supports sustainable practices and won’t harm the environment. And when you buy from local farmers and gardeners you trust, you invest in healthy, sustainable farms that leave a much healthier impact on the planet than any food label ever could. Honest organic farming is healthy and safe farming, period. Let’s get back to the basics. To ensure that organic farming helps the planet rather than hurts it, let’s ask a few questions of the local farmers in our area. Not sure where to start? Here’s an idea:

  • How do you treat the soil?
  • Which pesticides do you use?
  • Which additional efforts do you take to protect the environment?

The more we ask, the more we learn and are better equipped to make conscious, environmentally-friendly food purchases. By advocating for and supporting healthy organic farming practices, we can work toward a safer and more sustainable planet.


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