Organic vs. "Organic": How Much Does Certification Matter? | Civil Eats

Organic vs. “Organic”: How Much Does Certification Matter?

Whenever we go to the farmers’ market together, my husband and I disagree about whether we should buy the pricey certified organic berries (my husband’s vote) or the less expensive ones grown without certification, but described by the farm as “sustainably produced.” If I look deep into a farmer’s eyes and she tells me that her fruit is “no-spray,” I’ll buy her berries, saving almost a buck a pint. (After all, the strawberries we grow in our own backyard are not certified organic, but I feel good about eating them.)

Lately I’ve been wondering–is my husband right, or is no-spray enough? And what about the assertion—sometimes made by conventional growers—that certified organic farms use pesticides too?

Toxicity: It’s All Relative

In most cases, even certified organic produce is not pesticide-free. But compared to most conventional produce, it can mean a big step in a less-toxic direction.

“The overarching concept is that natural pesticides are allowed and synthetics are prohibited, unless specifically allowed,” says Nate Lewis, a senior crop and livestock specialist at the Organic Trade Association. Furthermore, before they can use any approved pesticides, organic farmers must prove that they have a preventative plan in place—and that the plan is failing to prevent pests.

So while most organic farmers rely on plant-based pesticides such as Pyrethrum (from chrysanthemum flowers), extracts of the Benin tree, neem oil, or an extract of the Japanese knotweed root (an effective fungicide), they can occasionally use synthetic pesticides—with strict limitations.

There are roughly 40 synthetic substances farmers can use under U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic standards, says Lewis. Some of these are as innocuous as newspaper, which is allowed for use as mulch or as a “feedstock” for compost, or sticky traps, which provide a physical function (trapping insects) and then are removed from the field at the end of the year.

Others include zinc, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, and cobalt—essential plant micronutrients that cannot be used as insecticides or fungicides in most cases. Instead, they’re usually used as soil amendments. (A full list of the chemicals that are allowed under USDA organic standards is available at the Organic Materials Review Institute.)

About 26 of the 40 synthetic substances allowed in organic crop production are considered pesticides. But these have restrictions, too. For example, soap-based herbicides can only be used on right-of-ways and ditches, but can’t come into contact with organic food. Boric acid, which is a synthetic insecticide, can be used for pest control, but can’t come into contact with crops or soil. Similarly, ammonium carbonate can only be used as bait in insect traps.

This list is constantly under scrutiny and is therefore always being revised. For example, until recently, USDA organic standards made an exemption for the use of antibiotics—specifically tetracycline and streptomycin—to be sprayed on organic apple and pear orchards to prevent fire blight, which is highly contagious and can wipe out a whole orchard.

“It was only allowed at bloom time, which is the only time the orchard is susceptible, so there’s no residue on fruit,” explains Lewis. Nonetheless, the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) let the exemptions for these antibiotics expire—starting October 2014.

But just because a chemical comes from a plant doesn’t make it safe. Rotenone, a toxic pesticide that’s derived from the roots of several tropical and sub-tropical plants such as the jicama, can no longer be used on crops in the U.S.—even conventionally farmed ones.

“Rotenone has quite the sordid past,” says Lewis. Toxic to humans—it’s classified as “mildly hazardous” by the World Health Organization—rotenone has been linked to Parkinson’s disease in farmworkers. The Environmental Protection Agency revoked its use as a pesticide in 2007, after the companies distributing and selling rotenone voluntarily cancelled all food use registrations for it.

Last year, the NOSB recommended that it be put on the prohibited list by January 2016. But according to Miles McEvoy, Deputy Administrator of the National Organics Program at the USDA, the agency has more work to do before it can follow the NOSB’s recommendation. Until that happens, Rotenone can still be used on organic banana crops grown in tropical countries like Ecuador.

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Despite these allowances, the pesticides and herbicides used on conventional farms are still significantly worse. Take organophosphates, for instance. This class of pesticide is used on conventional peaches, apples, grapes, green beans, and pears. According to Pesticide Action Network’s database, organophosphates are some of the most toxic insecticides used today. They have been shown to “adversely affect the human nervous system even at low levels of exposure” and hamper neurological development in children. The commonly used herbicides Glyphosate (Roundup) and Atrazine, have also both been shown to act as endocrine disruptors, meaning they interfere with the endocrine (or hormone system) in people and many animals.

Is Talking to Your Farmer Enough?

Oregon farmer Don Kruger, the owner of a 150-acre farm on Sauvie Island and two Portland farm stands, abhors labels. “I honestly would rather talk to the customers, if I could, or have them talk to my staff,” he says.

In the 14 years he’s owned his farm, he’s never sprayed a pesticide directly on any food crop. Yet, he says, “I have no interest in being straight-up organic. It gives me a little wiggle room to do things I might need to do.

Kruger uses a conventional fungicide on his raspberries. “The Tulameen is the best tasting raspberry—it’s fabulous. But the problem is, it’s prone to root rot,” he says. “I could grow another, inferior grade raspberry, but I don’t want to.” He sprays the plant just as it’s starting to leaf—before it blossoms or fruits.

He also uses an herbicide called Impact (a broad spectrum herbicide with topramezone as the active ingredient) on his corn. It kills the weeds—grass, pig weed, thistle, etc.—that would otherwise hinder the corn’s growth. “Otherwise you have to hand hoe it, and it’s really tough to do,” Kruger says. He sprays when the plant is two inches high and that’s it. “There’s no chance it’s on the corn,” he says.

Kruger believes he is offering a more affordable option, a middle-ground for folks who want local food that’s not conventional, but don’t mind that it’s not certified organic either. He is known in Portland for having the most affordable produce around and he prides himself on that.

But not everyone has the time for a 10 minute long conversation with their farmer about his growing practices and the nuances of what and when they spray. Furthermore, there are a lot of unregulated terms—like “no-spray” and “sustainably grown”—that get tossed around. And not everyone is as forthright about their practices as Kruger.

David Lively, vice president of sales and marketing at Organically Grown Company, the largest organic produce wholesaler in the Northwest, says farmers markets aren’t always as transparent as many customers believe. “There have been instances where growers selling produce at farmers’ markets have been busted for selling conventional as organic and product they bought off the market as their own.” Lively thinks—and many others in the organic movement agree—that organic certification offers the consumer extra assurance.

Other Reasons to Go Organic

At the end of the day, organic agriculture is about much more than reducing pesticide use. To grow food organically, farmers must build their soil, using techniques like composting, cover crops, and crop rotations rather than fossil fuel-intensive synthetic fertilizer. Doing so is a lot more work. But on an environmental level, that matters.

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Excess nitrogen from fertilizer not only ends up in the atmosphere as nitrous oxide (where it’s a very potent greenhouse gas), it also ends up in our waterways and aquifers, where it causes everything from nitrate poisoning in drinking water, to toxic algae, to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Organic farms must also agree not to use genetically engineered seeds.

It’s true that organic certification requires a time commitment on the part of the grower. In addition to a 12-page application, as well as regular audits, organic farmers must document a great deal of what they do. The cost to farmers is also a factor, but it doesn’t have to be prohibitive. The USDA has a cost-share program that reimburses farmers 75 percent of the cost of certification, up to $750 per type of farming. Connie Carr, the certification director at Oregon Tilth, which inspects and certifies food producers for the USDA, says farmers take advantage of it.

“So if your certification costs $1,000”—the upper end of what a small farmer would pay per year—“you’ll get $750 back,” says Carr. Fortunately for farmers, this funding was renewed in the 2014 farm bill.

To help streamline the paperwork, which Carr says is no more arduous than applying for a loan or for college, the National Organic Program at the USDA introduced a “Sound & Sensible” initiative in 2013, which works with farmers to remove barriers to certification. Now, re-applying for certification each year is much easier (a farmer only has to submit changes) and some certifiers have launched online applications.

Will these changes lead to more certified organic farmers? It’s too soon to say. But one thing is clear: Consumer demand for organic food continues to grow. Organic food in the U.S. has been growing by an average of 13 percent per year over the past decade and reached $35 billion last year. Most farmers who take the plunge and go organic will have no problem selling their crops—and they’ll be able to charge a premium for them, too. And why shouldn’t they? Hoeing weeds by hand, cover-cropping, and keeping meticulous records is hard work. Maybe next time I’ll spring for those certified organic berries.


Curious about other sustainable farming labels? Stay tuned for a 2nd installment on alternative certification programs.

Hannah Wallace writes about food politics, regenerative agriculture, wine, cannabis, and travel for a wide variety of publications including Bloomberg, Conde Nast Traveler, Inc., Food & Wine, The New York Times, Reasons to be Cheerful, Portland Monthly, Vogue, and Wired. She has been a regular contributor to Civil Eats since its founding in 2009. Read more >

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  1. Thank you so much for this illuminating and important article! I generally DO trust farmers at farmers' markets, as the high cost of organic certification is so prohibitive. Once a farmer told me "I would eat my greens right off the ground," and yes, I did believe him! I am much more wary of USDA certified organic produce from countries such as Mexico. I would choose to support small, local family farms here in the USA instead. I look to buy organic, and do ask about the farming practices. Sustainable and organic are not the same thing to me.
    Great article...thanks!

    Michele Jacobson
  2. Dag Falck
    Excellent article. I often hear the: "but organic farmers use lots of pesticides too" argument, and this article addresses most of the issues.
    Another common factor not mentioned is that pesticides are things that kill or slow down pests, weeds, or fungus etc., and anything that accomplishes this is a pesticide, such as hand picking bugs, salt on slugs, water spray on aphids etc.
    Thanks for writing a well researched article on this important topic.
    Farmers "not spraying pesticides directly on crops" does not satisfy me and really is not much different than conventional farming. Roots and soil also are affected by most pesticides, and plants will take it up. I'll pick certified organic every day.
  3. It's a tough call as more farmers are now selling directly into the local market drop their organic certifications. I tend to trust long established farms or those willing to put their practices in writing (thus subject to scrutiny by others at the farmers market). If I have to ask, the story can change. Too many farmers here in South Florida say they don't use chemicals, but forget about that nice dose of RoundUp to clear the fields before planting.
    In one of his books, Will Allen said he thought many shoppers at farmers markets were bypassing him because they just refused to buy from a dark skinned man. I suspect it had more to do with his poor marketing, not explaining his growing practices loud and clear in writing.
  4. Sally F.
    Organic certification is over-rated. Always has been. So many loopholes and workarounds in the NOP. So little a customer can do to protect her grocery money except peer into the farmer's eyes and expose oneself to whatever truly is lurking in there. Not to mention the rampant conflict of interest in organic certification and farm inspection. Most farms are inspected by good friends (and often distant relatives) who are, themselves, overly infatuated with the idea of "organic". Not an impartial professional policing system at all. I do just as well purchasing my foods from Walmart. At least they don't try to mislead me and overcharge me for it. No cogent reason to fear conventional farming practices, just because you don't understand them.
  5. the soil is the most important aspect of Organic farm management and I did not read much concern about what goes on/into the soil. People should be asking about cover cropping, if manure is used and if it aged, or better composted. Do they soil test and if so what are the issues with the soil on their farm. realize all successful farmers use pesticides of some kind. On my farm, Boulder Belt Eco-Farm, we use OMRI approved 'cides such as neem for bugs and oxidate for fungal and bacterial issues. We are not certified Organic but we were for 6 years back in the 1990's so know how to manage the farm Organically and how to build soil and fertility which is hallmark to a great Organic farm. Ask about how the soil is treated
  6. I just wanted to point out that building soil on organic certified farms is not always done. In my experience so far... None of the organic certified farms around us build their soil at all. In fact, they spread plastic over the entire field and feed it through irrigation that goes up the sides of the plastic rows. The only thing they do around us, is to plow the weeds down into the soil, before placing the thousands of feet of plastic over the field. We believe that soil is the key. We use mulch and compost/vermicompost tea to feed the microbes and soil life. We also use only use OMRI certified feeds/products and in the rare occasion, OMRI approved insecticide. Find a BRIX meter. This will tell you how much nutrition...
  7. Well done article: I think the organic farming plan is one important way farmers must document their practices to organic inspectors.

    Organic certification also gives assurance when you can't talk to the farmer--for example, when the farmer sells to wholesalers like Organically Grown Co. The main reason farmers avoid it, though, is time. It also requires systems in place to track everything which some farmers are not interested in doing.

    As for the comment that inspection doesn't mean anything, talk to organic farmers and you will get a different view. It's not an easy process undertaken with "friends." It's rigorous and arduous which is why many otherwise avoid it.
  8. faith martian
    I try to buy from farmers that I know and how they grow. more and more at the farmers market it is local, but not organic. I am trying to grow more on my own. My raspberries are infected with aphids and after 5 batches of ladybugs, they have not been totally eliminated. Any suggestions for what to do now and how to eliminate them for the winter? Thanks!!!
  9. Chris D
    I buy crops from farmers that aren't certified organic if they confirm the follow organic practices & don't use persistent synthetic chemicals. You must ask precise questions. Pesticides include insecticide, fungicide, herbicide and others. Some are approved for organic, others aren't. E.g., organic growers can use Bt. Ask about each input, as some think pesticide just means insecticide. Ask for input names. Ask if the soil is fumigated before planting. Ask about synthetic soil amendments e..g., NPK. Ask what they use for post-harvest storage & preservation. Ask if they use GMO varieties. I choose certified or certifiable organic because I care about workers, and those living downstream and up/downwind, who are harmed by non-organic input,
  10. Matthew
    @ Sally F:

    You state, "Most farms are inspected by good friends (and often distant relatives) who are, themselves, overly infatuated with the idea of “organic”.

    Evidence??? Quite a big accusation if you don't have it.
  11. Good article! My small acreage farm has been certified organic since 1992. We sell most of our produce locally, and get to meet our customers face to face. I tell people, if organic is important to you, support your certified organic growers. I know of a couple of situations here at our farmers market where the customer asked a vendor "do you spray?" and the vendor made an eye to eye response of "no". As it turns out, the customer wasn't asking the right question. A better question would be "how do you manage your weeds and pests on your crops?" In one instance, the grower honestly didn't spray herbicides, but they used a pelletized herbicide. In another instance, the farmer was on leased land and the land owner sprayed herbicide, so the farmer in essence wasn't lying, because they did not actually do the spraying themselves. Integrity often is lost in situations where a person just wants to make the sale. When you buy certified organic from a local farmer, not so easy to flat out lie about it because we have to prove EVERYTHING that we do. That said, if organic matters to you, grow it yourself to be certain or support your local certified organic farmers!

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