by George Looby, DVM
As the designated shopper makes his/her way through the aisles of the supermarket with the square wheel of the shopping cart not quite in sync with the other three one cannot help but be somewhat confused by the array of designations given to even the the most basic of foodstuffs. Not that long ago eggs were Grade A Jumbo, Extra Large, Large etc. Now one of the more basic of our dietary needs has been given additional designations and making sense of it all becomes a bit confusing. Free range, natural, organic, GMO free … just what do all of these designations mean or do they mean anything at all?
Free range can mean that the hens can run loose in the barnyard for a specified length of time every day unless two feet of snow on the ground makes the scratching a little tough. Does this level of management add anything to the nutritional value of the eggs? Probably not. Natural, in the jargon of food quality and merchandizing, means absolutely nothing except to play on what impact the word may have on the customer’s mind. It just sounds nice. There is no legal definition for the word as it applies to food.
Organic on the other hand is a word whose meaning in food production has been established by law. The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) was enacted under Title 21 of the 1990 Farm Bill. The purpose of this bill was to establish uniform national standards for the production and handling of foods labeled as organic. One of the provisions of this bill was the establishment of National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). This primary task of this board is to advise the Secretary of Agriculture as to the standards by which the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) will operate. The latter program has as its charge the setting of national standards for the production, handling and processing of organically grown agricultural products.
Organic agriculture was and is defined as an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony. It would be difficult indeed for anyone involved in any area of agriculture to argue with that lofty set of standards. Organic is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the OFPA which reinforces the idea that the term organic is neither casual, loosely structured or ill defined. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.
Organic agricultural practices cannot ensure that the products are completely free of residues however methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil or water.
Becoming a producer with organic certification has some very positive benefits that warrant careful consideration. Organic produce commands a higher price in the market, one that many consumers seem to accept quite well. Organic produce by its very nature is more expensive to produce so the price charged must be higher to cover those added costs. The organic industry is one of the fastest growing agricultural segments in the country with sales of nearly $35 billion in 2012.
To the average consumer much of the rhetoric defining organic production may sound just a bit vague and he/she may very well want to know some things of a more specific nature that organic farmers do or don’t do that sets them apart from their more traditional counterparts. Organic farming entails the use of cover crops, green manures, animal manures and crop rotations to fertilize the soil, maximize biological activity and maintain long-term soil health. The program further advocates the use of biological control, crop rotations and other techniques to manage weeds, insects and diseases. The use of rotational grazing and mixed forage pastures for livestock operations and alternative health care for animal well being are employed. Every effort is made to completely eliminate external and off farm inputs and eliminate synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and materials such as hormones and antibiotics.
In order for an operation to be certified there is a process that the applicant must go through to be designated organic certified. As is true with almost any government program the application process involves a certain amount of paper work but for most it is a matter of sitting down and getting the job done.
For the initial certification to take place a farm must apply to the USDA for a list of certified agents who are accredited to assess a farm as to whether it is qualified for organic certification. It is this process that is unlike many other many other governmental agencies. It apparently was determined early in the development of the Organic Certification process that the best course of action was to hire independent contractors to carry out the certification process rather than have USDA employees perform that duty. These independent contractors must be accredited by the NOP to carry out the certification process.
At this time Baystate Organic Certifiers located in North Dighton, MA conducts most of the certification work in the north-eastern U.S. When an applicant submits an application it is reviewed and if found acceptable an agent visits the farm and determines that the information contained in the application reconciles with what is found on the farm visit. If no discrepancies are found the information package is submitted for review usually by the director and certification granted. The fee for the application is based on the gross yearly sales except for those smaller operations with gross sales of under $5,000 who are exempt. There is an annual fee again based on gross income but Federal money is available to offset this expense up to 75 percent or $750 whichever is less. All certified farms are inspected once a year to insure compliance.
Organic agriculture is a big business managed by dedicated people who offer attractive alternatives to the consumer. In this world of rapid change there are often no clear cut answer to all of the multiple problems but it is important to remember that all production techniques and styles can learn from each other if we collectively take the time to sit down and listen to each other.