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What is Organic and How to Get Certified

What Does Certified Organic Mean?

The last decade has seen a surge of organic products and farms. From grocery items to cosmetics, to textiles the label organic can be found on thousands of products in America. But, what does this label actually mean about the product?

The US department of Agriculture defines organic as, “a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. Organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.” There is a long list of requirements set for organic agriculture. The most important ones include not using radiation as a method of preservation, not using genetically modified crops, and that production must be overseen by a USDA organic representative.It is a lengthy process to get a farm certified organic. While the certification process can be finished in six to eight weeks, many farms face a “transition” period of three years. During this period, products cannot be labeled organic, but the farmer must follow all organic regulations. While this process seems extreme, market trends are surging toward organic produce it may be beneficial for some farmers to make the switch.

No matter the size of the operation, from 1,000 acre farms to backyard gardens, the organic guidelines can be helpful in maintaining a sustainable and natural yield. In order to better understand the benefits of these regulations it is important to understand the process behind becoming certified.

First, farmers must take a look at the entire farming operation from tilling practices and pesticide usage to harvesting and storage and make a plan that meets the USDA guidelines.

The guidelines differ for produce, livestock and textiles. There are strict regulations against GMO foods and synthetic fertilizers. If GMOs or chemicals were used in previous harvests the farm must use organic practices for three full years before getting certified. This can be one of the hardest parts of getting certified organic.

Taking an intense look at an operation and considering the environmental and nutritional impact of agricultural practices is beneficial for any size operation. Even if organic is not an option for you, are there steps that you can take that will make the production more sustainable? For example, instead of using synthetic fertilizers, can you replace them with composted materials? Instead of pesticides and herbicides, is there an alternative practice such as companion planting or solarizing that can be utilized? Even small changes can make a huge difference in the overall sustainability of the farm.

 The next step in becoming organic is to get in contact with the USDA.

An inspector will take a thorough look at the operational plan and approve it. Once this has been approved, it’s time to enact all the changes.

While the USDA oversees all farming to ensure food safety is maintained, organic farms have an extra level of supervision. These strict regulations force farmers to run a highly organized, well maintained operation equating to higher quality produce.

If getting certified is not your end goal, it is always a good idea to maintain a good relationship with the USDA. The USDA provides resources such as insurance, loans, grants, new agricultural research findings, food safety guidelines, and agricultural policy updates.

 The final step in the certification process is to complete an Inspection

Once the organic plan is successfully running, it is time to get certified. An agent from the USDA will come to the farm and do a thorough inspection of the land, water, farming practices, and records. If farms pass this inspection (and have maintained their transition period) they can officially market products as organic. If not, the USDA will recommend changes that will allow them to apply for another inspection.

The process of becoming an organic farm is very thorough. To ensure a high-quality product, these regulations serve to standardize and enforce sustainability and efficiency across all certified farms. While organic produce costs more, it may be worth it to a consumer once they know the process a farm must go through to become certified organic. Consumer demand is what drives the agricultural practices. If people demand foods from sustainable and natural sources, the industry will deliver. While these practices do not suit every operation, there is something to be learned from the organic guidelines. If all farms made changes to reduce their environmental impact the combined results would be significant.

Author - Riley Graham

About Riley Graham

Riley is a third year Food Science student at UC Davis hoping to one day work in research and development. Her specific areas of interest are in sustainability in agricultural processing; however, she’s exploring other options in food science such as sensory science and even brewing. Being a food science student at one of the world’s premier agricultural research centers gives Riley a unique perspective on the issues we face in food production. Even when I’m outside of the classroom, Riley never stops learning. When not doing homework or working in a lab, Riley plays piano, reads science fiction, and loves to cook.

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