Guest Post: What Organic Certification Really Means

This is a second guest post by Kelly Tooker, Master Gardener and environmental educator. There are lots of misconceptions about what organic actually means, and the USDA doesn’t seem to offer a tidy one page summary for the intelligent lay person. That’s where Kelly comes in. She breaks down what you’re getting when you buy organic — and what you’re not. 

The National Organic Program

What is ORGANIC?

The term “organic” simply means that something is or was once living.

The term “Organic” is used in marketing and manufacturing to describe the way in which agricultural products are produced, processed and certified to meet consistent national standards. These standards are regulated under the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990. Organic production is a system that is managed in accordance with the OFPA and regulations in Title 7, Part 205 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

What is the most common misconception?

Organic means no pesticides. False

Organic means that the product certified to the USDA standards as being produced and processed using methods that integrated cultural, biological and mechanical practices (see article on IPM) that foster the cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity.

Organic crops. The USDA organic seal verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms were not used.

Organic livestock. The USDA organic seal verifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors.

How does the label work?

To use the term Organic and apply the USDA Organic seal at least 95% of the ingredients must be produced organically under the law. Any remaining ingredients must consist of non-agricultural substances.

Who has to follow the law?

Operations whose gross income from organic sales totals $5,000 or more.

So, what does this mean to me as a consumer?

Well, this is marketing. You are a consumer. There is a growing body of consumers who are concerned about the way their food is produced and processed. Learn more about each company you support, you vote with your dollar.

Your local farmer at the Farmer’s Market or CSA may not be able to afford certification. But they may meet your consumer demand for no pesticide use. Talk to your local farmer and learn about his practices.

The program states “no prohibited pesticides.” It does not identify which are prohibited and whether or not these are synthetic or natural (derived from plant, animal or mineral). Certification is site-specific.

Learn how commercial farming works. It is a business. They are trying to make a profit.

Is Organic the same as non-GMO?

No, but that’s a whole other big topic which I would like to address separately because so many people get the terms confused. I will post information on genetically modified organisms (GMO) on As you read above, the current Organic labeling program certifies that [known] genetically modified organisms were not used in organic crops.

Do I buy organic?

Yes, I selectively vote with my dollars.

Further, I support my local farmer. I strive to eat local and seasonally. I produce as much of my own food as I can. I have not eaten fast food in over 15 years (except Chipotle). I am brand loyal to companies that I see making a difference.

How much of your food is certified organic? Would you buy non-certified local produce if you knew it was grown without pesticides?

About the author: 
Kel is a Master Gardener, Master Composter/ Recycler, and Naturally Beautiful Backyards Host Gardener. She has lived in USDA Zone 8 (Western Garden Zone 6) for most of her life and just recently relocated to Zone 5!

Kel began gardening in 2004. Her first gardening project was to establish a butterfly habitat garden and multi-use space for a young family. Her next project was the development of an urban pollinator habitat and a 10 month edible garden. Future entries will chronicle a 7,000 sq ft lot in a historical district.

Kel continues to pursue educational opportunities and holds an Organic Gardening certificate from OSU Extension. She has worked as an environmental educator in a range of positions including curriculum development and career & technical training at the high school level. She writes about a wide range of environmental topics.

Kel posts regularly as MonkeyDragon on and Tweets @Kelsgarden.

Photo by USDAgov

9 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you for your article. While it nicely packs information about what USDA organic means, there are some areas that need clarifying or correcting.

    “Who has to follow the law? Operations whose gross income from organic sales totals $5,000 or more.”

    To be clear, anyone claiming their products are organic have to follow the law, including organic production and handling requirements. Those whose gross income from organic sales totals less than $5,000 are exempt from being certified but not from following the regulations. As the blog states, it’s important that consumers ask their small local producers about their farming practices if they have the opportunity.

    “So, what does this mean to me as a consumer? …The program states “no prohibited pesticides.” It does not identify which are prohibited and whether or not these are synthetic or natural (derived from plant, animal or mineral). Certification is site-specific.”

    This is not accurate. The federal organic regulations include a list of substances that are allowed or prohibited in organic agriculture. While certification is site-specific, these rules are not. To find out more about the National List and the criteria used to determine whether they’re allowed or prohibited, see


    • Hi Soo Kim,

      Thank you for providing clarification on these two points. We need more people from the USDA reaching out to talk to lay people in clear, gobbledygook-free terms! Although some people will probably be dismayed by pesticides (and especially synthetic ones), I like the fact that the NOP doesn’t draw a rigid line between using synthetic or organic pesticides, but rather bases its decisions on the proven safety and sustainability of the substance being used. Unfortunately, I think this flexibility does lead to confusion among consumers.

      You’re very welcome to guest post if you want to continue this conversation. 🙂


    • Soo Kim thank you for that update. The regulations and lists are changing so rapidly. Title 7 Part 205 of the Code of Federal Regulations is linked in the first paragraph for readers who would like more details. Part G addresses the list of allowed and prohibited substances, including evaluation criteria, synthetic substances and non-agricultural substances allowed. This information address substances and does not list pesticides by the brand names a consumer may recognize.

      As your link further explained this is an actively changing list and readers who are interested may want to visit to keep current on Title 7, Part 205.

      And you are correct, anyone claiming or labeling their product as organic must follow the law.

      Thank you for clarifying these points.


  2. I feel guilty, but I rarely buy organic food. I’d like to, in fact I feel bad for not doing so, but I find it hard to justify the far increased costs most of the time. During sales or whenever the organiz is close to the price of the non-organic version then I definitely go organic. I also support local farmers when possible and don’t use pesticides in my own garden. Still, there’s definitely room for improvement.


    • Candi, do not feel guilty! I too have to budget what I can buy organic and what I cannot. I wrote a post recently about this dilemma:

      This post direct your to a great resource for knowing what items have the highest pesticide residual limits. The list is updated each year, AND they list the 15 “cleanest” items when you need to save money.


    • Hi Candi,

      I don’t buy all organic, either. My nearest greengrocer’s organic selection is changeable, but I buy organic when it’s available and if it’s less than 150% the cost of conventional. My ideal is to make it to the farmers’ market more often and buy directly from local farmers, some of whom I know don’t spray their crops even if they aren’t certified organic.


  3. Posted by Andrea on 03/05/2012 at 09:36

    This post is so important! I wish more people understood what the organic label really means.

    I try to find produce grown using organic methods but non-certified, because I’m aware that smaller-scale farmers simply can’t afford the high cost of seeking and maintaining certification, and I like supporting the underdogs in this corporate-controlled world of ours!


  4. […] to popular thought, organic does not mean pesticide free. It usually does mean free of synthetic pesticides (some synthetic substances, like pheromones, are […]


  5. […] to popular thought, organic does not mean pesticide free. It usually does mean free of synthetic pesticides (some synthetic substances, like pheromones, are […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: