What is organic?
Broadly speaking, organic is a label applied to food or materials that have been grown or produced using minimal – if any – chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals. To be certified as organic, the constituent ingredients of a product must meet certain criteria, the standards of which vary by country.
In the EU, organic farmers are required by law to be certificated through a control body, which involves yearly inspections to ensure farmers are complying with the rules of organic production. Each EU country can decide whether the certifying body will be a public or private entity, but all must adhere to the European Union’s rules on organic production. In the UK, the leading certifying body is the Soil Association, which uses EU regulation as its base and adds additional measures for compliance.
To be considered organic, EU farmers must restrict their use of artificial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, with an outright ban on many. Genetically modified (GMO) ingredients are prohibited and the use of additives and processing aids is heavily restricted, with many artificial food coloring and preservatives banned. Additionally, organic farmers must adhere to high animal welfare standards that focus on respect for animal welfare. These standards ensure that animals are given plenty of space and fresh air, are raised in conditions that suit their natural behavior, and are fed in accordance with their nutritional needs. The use of preventative antibiotics is also prohibited, as are the use of hormones, unless they form part of a veterinary therapeutic treatment for an individual animal. For a product to be labelled organic, at least 95% of the ingredients must come from organically produced plants or animals.
In the US, a product can be certified as organic by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) if it was grown on soil that had no prohibited substances, including most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, applied for three years prior to harvest. If a farmer wishes to use a synthetic substance, it must first be approved based on its potential impact on human health and the environment. Organic products can’t contain artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors, albeit with minor exceptions. Genetically modified (GMO) ingredients are prohibited. Animals must be raised in living conditions that accommodate their natural behavior, be fed 100% organic feed and forage, and are not administered antibiotics or hormones. For a product to be labelled as organic and display the USDA organic seal, it must contain 95% organic material. For a product to be labelled as “made with organic ingredients” at least 70% of the ingredients must come from organically produced ingredients. The remaining non-organic ingredients can’t be produced using prohibited practices (e.g. genetic engineering), but can include substances that wouldn’t otherwise be allowed in a 100% organic product
Why it matters
Through heavy reliance on unsustainable techniques, conventional farming has had a devastating impact on the environment, including increased greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, soil erosion, and increased water pollution. Similarly, the widespread use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers is likely to be detrimental to human health. A recent EWG study of data from the US Department of Agriculture found that “nearly 70 percent of the fresh produce sold in the U.S. contains residues of potentially harmful chemical pesticides”.
Organic certification ensures that farmers are using sustainable techniques that strive towards ecological balance. In addition to avoiding chemicals, certification ensures that a certain level of animal welfare is maintained and that the farms themselves are more resilient to future environmental shocks.
Why you might want to choose organic products
Put simply: “Pesticides are poisons designed to kill things. Why eat them if you don’t have to?” The same goes for anything that you might end up ingesting (like lipstick), absorbing through your skin (like lotion), or inhaling (like household cleaners).
At the end of the day, fewer chemicals in your products are better for your health and better for the environment.
To be considered organic, a product:
- Must contain at least 95% certified organic material
What you can do
Awareness of the benefits of organic farming has grown substantially in recent years which has made finding organic alternatives much easier. One important thing to keep in mind is that organic refers to the status of the ingredients, not of the product as a whole. Therefore, ‘made with organic ingredients’ doesn’t necessarily mean the item is chemical free. It is, however, likely to indicate a product made with better ingredient sourcing practices and fewer chemicals on average.
To find high-quality organic options, you can search our store for organic products or check our list of recommended organic brands. You can also read more about what organic means and the benefits of organic farming.