Organic for beginners

By Krista Van Tassel
April 25th, 2012

Joanne LasnierEnvironmental Forum readers may remember Joanne Lasnier from her wonderful story on plastics, and we are thrilled to welcome her back!

This time, Joanne is demystifying organics. From farming standards to labeling, she covers all the ins and outs of the organic industry. (—Krista)

I’m sure you’ve noticed the increase in organic foods, clothing, and personal care products available in our local stores, farmers’ markets, and online. But what does “organic” really mean when you see it on a product label? Who decides what qualifies as “organic”?

So let’s take a tour of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) website to learn more about our National Organic Program (NOP) and what the term “organic” means for U.S. consumers. Then we’ll try to address a few other questions you might have.

Labeling organic products

When you see this label on a product’s packaging, you know it was produced using methods approved by the USDA. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster resource cycling, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. All products sold as organic must be certified by a USDA-accredited agent.1

Labeling standards are based on the percentage of organic ingredients in a product:

  • 100% organic: Must contain only organically produced ingredients
  • Organic: Must have 95% organically produced ingredients
  • Made with organic: Must have at least 70% certified organic content
  • Products containing less than 70% certified organic content may identify specific ingredients as organic

Only products made with 95-100% organic ingredients may display the USDA Organic seal.

USDA requirements for organic food products

  • Organic crops: Producers must not use ionizing irradiation, sewage sludge-based fertilizers, petroleum-based fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
  • Organic livestock: Producers must meet animal health and welfare standards, not use antibiotics or growth hormones, use 100% organic feed, and provide animals with access to the outdoors.

(Source: NOP fact sheets)

What's the lowdown behind the label?Personal care products

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate the term “organic” as it applies to cosmetic, body, or other personal care products. However, if such a product contains agricultural ingredients that meet the USDA National Organic Program stan

Why does organic cost more?

dards, it may be eligible for one of the organic labels listed above.

  • Organic farmers don’t receive federal subsidies, so the price of organic food more closely reflects its true production cost.
  • Organic farming is more labor- and management-intensive.
  • Most organic farms are smaller than conventional farms, and don’t benefit from the economies of scale available to larger growers.
  • Only about 0.7% of all U.S. cropland and 0.5% of all U.S. pastureland is certified organic, keeping supply low as demand has increased.
  • Organic farmers must buy organic feed for livestock, which costs more than conventionally produced feed.

Sources: Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) FAQs, FAQs)

Why buy organic?

  • Preserve biodiversity: GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are prohibited under the NOP2>
  • Reduce agricultural pollution
    • Cleaner water
    • Cleaner air
    • Reduce pesticide reliance
  • Benefit from more nutrients in food produced in enriched soil
  • Support small-scale farmers

(Sources:, Ecology Center)

A growing industry

Organic cropland acreage in the U.S. increased at an annual rate of 15% between 2002 and 2008, and approximately 2% of the U.S. food supply is grown using organic methods.

Adoption of organic techniques continues to grow, and provisions in the 2008 Farm Act have expanded support for organic programs, including an incentive program to assist producers as they transition to organic methods.

Organic farming offers many environmental and health benefits. As the demand and supply for organic products increases, costs may come down. Even a few purchases on your part can support continued growth in the U.S. and abroad.

Where can I find locally produced products?

Check the Local Harvest website to find farms, farmers’ markets, grocery stores, and other sources of organically grown food in your area.

1 Certification is not required for producers and handling operations with less than $5,000 annual sales.

2 Source: United States Dept. of Agriculture, “National Organic Program: Genetically Modified Organism (GMO),” p.3 (PDF*)


* You will need Adobe® Reader® to view PDF files. Download Adobe Reader.

Krista Van Tassel

Krista Van Tassel

As Community and Team Member Engagement manager for Wells Fargo’s Environmental Affairs Team, Krista supports the company’s 70+ Green Teams, recognizing and promoting environmental innovator best practices, and engaging and educating team members about their role in helping the company’s sustainability efforts. She also manages Wells Fargo’s Environmental Solutions for Communities’ $3 million annual nonprofit grant program focused on helping make long-term sustainable economic investments in local communities where its customers and 264,000 team members work and live. Prior to joining Wells Fargo in 2009, Krista worked in a variety of sustainability and marketing positions in both the nonprofit and for profit sectors. Krista earned her MBA in International Business at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

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