Defining ‘organic’ in a changing world

What does “organic” mean to you? Is food grown hydroponically organic? Consumers, producers and regulators at times have their own understanding of how organically produced food is or should be. To some, certain parts of the production process are more valuable, or more relevant to, the label than others.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program defines the term as a label for agricultural products “that have been produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” In short, USDA gives the organic label to crops grown without artificial chemicals and without certain techniques, like genetic modification.

Expanding on the USDA definition, one group of U.S. farmers and scientists is looking to make organic more exclusive. A new label proposed by the Real Organic Project would be granted to certain organic farm products, particularly those that are grown in soil or taken from animals fed in a pasture. The private organization met earlier this year to plan a set of qualifications for the as-of-yet-unnamed label. The USDA label would be a prerequisite to the new certification.

The new label would primarily indicate whether produce, meat and dairy products are soil-grown or pasture-fed. This summer, the label will be launched as part of a pilot program on a couple dozen farms. After an inspection to verify compliance with the standards, farms would be certified to give their own products the new label, instead of having the label applied by a distributor. Farmers would pay to be certified.

The group says it’s not attacking organic farmers nor the federal standard for organics, rather it intends to create what it sees as a more transparent label in a time when the organics industry is debating whether hydroponically grown foods (a water-based method of cultivation) merit the “organic” classification. Opponents say soil is necessary for a product to truly be organic, but others disagree.

“Soil to me as a farmer means a nutrient-rich medium that contains biological processes, and that doesn’t have to be dirt,” said Marianne Cufone, farmer and lobbyist for aquaculture and hydroponics, told The New York Times.

In late 2017, the National Organic Standard Board, which advises USDA, voted not to exclude hydroponics from the National Organic Program.

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