What’s in a label: for organics, the sky’s the limit – Organic Matters

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The term organic has a variety of meanings, from healthy, environmentally friendly and pesticide free to expensive and niche market. It is time to set out definitions and clarify misunderstandings.

If a product is certified organic, it was grown and processed using established organic production and processing systems. The word certified tells us that an independent third party has inspected the operation and can verify that organic practices were used.

The certification agency has a set of standards and mechanisms to see that they are met, including extensive paper trails and rigorous management requirements. Copies of the standards are available through the certification agencies and are often posted on their websites.

Accreditation organizations use a similar process of requirements and on-site inspections to oversee certification agencies. These agencies may be accredited with a number of organizations, depending on the markets its clients wish to enter.

Some accreditors, such as the United States Department of Agriculture through its National Organic Program, are government agencies. Others, such as the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, are private agencies.

If the product is labelled organic but not certified, the organic definition is up to the producer. Usually that means herbicides and insecticides were not used on crops, and livestock received no hormones or antibiotics. For people who know and trust the producer, this may be enough.

The organic production system is often characterized as one without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Increasingly it is known as farming without genetically modified organisms.

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Although most pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are not permitted under organic production and GMOs are banned, organic is much more than a simple list of “thou shalt nots.”

Organic management requires a lot of knowledge and depends on long-term planning and management in partnership with nature. It includes proactive techniques that foster fertility, diversity and biological activity, as well as reducing the occurrence of problematic pests.

Organic products are not certified “pesticide or herbicide free.” Organic farmers do not use synthetic substances and they reduce accidental contact with them by maintaining buffer strips, registering and posting their land, managing runoff and soil and water movement.

Logically, this should reduce the pesticide load, even if some exposure occurs. A comparison of the urine of children in Seattle, Washington, who ate organic produce with that of children who ate conventional produce found that eating organic fruits and vegetables reduced the level of organophosphates from above to below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s guidelines.

People concerned about GMOs or pesticide levels often turn to organic products for health and environmental reasons.

Recent studies, such as those conducted by the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, have suggested that organic systems have significant benefits to the environment because of increased carbon fixation and sequestering.

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Organic systems also do not rely on energy intensive methods of synthesizing fertilizers that produce carbon dioxide, although critics suggest that organic farming is too dependent on tillage, which contributes to soil erosion.

While organic farmers adopt many soil-saving techniques, such as direct seeding, seeded waterways and cover crops, additional research is required to improve organic systems.

Are organic products expensive? Many organic producers argue that rather than organic products being overpriced, it is conventional agricultural products that are tragically underpriced. Conventional products, particularly commodities, are traded in a manner that does not consider the costs of production in the price equation, as average farm incomes strongly indicate. This is also a risk for organic farmers, though they have largely avoided it so far.

Are organic consumers a niche market? If this is so, it is a niche that is increasing rapidly. A recent study by The Hartman Group of Bellevue, Washington, indicates that organic buyers are a diverse group, with only 10 percent coming from what is considered the tree hugger group.

Organic is often compared to conventional, which is also a bit of a misrepresentation. Agriculture has been organic for most of its 10,000-year history. It has included something other than organic for only about 50 years.

As more consumers show an interest in organic products, organic is becoming mainstream again. The challenge will be in maintaining the integrity of organic principles through this process.

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Frick is the Prairie co-ordinator for the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada located at the University of Saskatchewan. Frick can be reached at 306-966-4975, at brenda.frick@usask.ca, or www.organicagcentre.ca.The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Western Producer.