In Food

What is Organic, Anyway?

Posted by: on Feb 19, 2012 | 4 Comments

I first bought organic as a sophomore in college. I don’t like milk and couldn’t ever use a half-gallon before it spoiled. However, I hadn’t discovered an alternative for cereal and baking. I noticed organic milk’s shelf life is longer than conventional milk’s. So, despite the cost difference and my college budget, I switched. I consider this moment the beginning of my own personal food revolution. However, at that time and for some time after, I continued to have no real concept of what organic meant. When I finally asked, I discovered the answer isn’t as straightforward as you’d think.


The Organic Movement began in the 1920s in Europe. Soil erosion, poor diet, and soil remediation through composting spurred the first organic advocates (Reed, 2010). After WWII, in the 60s and 70s, the movement began to focus on agricultural pollution from war chemicals turned pesticides (Reed, 2010). Activists were particularly concerned about unknown interactions and summation of chemicals within the environment; the unintended victims, non-target species poisoned by the pesticides; and pests adapting resistance to the very chemicals meant to kill them, requiring heavier applications (Carson, 1962). In other words, when you introduce several pesticides into the same environment, how do they react with one another? What other chemicals do they form? How do species respond to them over time? Additionally, as these chemicals accumulate in the bodies of prey, they are concentrated at dangerous levels in the bodies of the predators, including humans.

Over the last century, the Organic Movement has successfully worked its way into mainstream culture. In fact, as of 2009, organic represented 3% of total food sales. Despite the inevitable morphing over time, the movement has continuously questioned conventional farming methods and their impact on human health and the environment. Organic focuses on eliminating the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, reducing nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and using natural resources and energy responsibly during production. It requires a holistic view (Cáceres & Rigby, 2001). The farm is a whole, cyclical, closed system (Reed, 2010) that should be self-sustaining and dependent on local, renewable resources (Bockman et al., 1999). However, modern society typically uses the term in conjunction with USDA organic certification, which does not require a closed system or dependence on local, renewable resources.

USDA Definition of Organic

In 1990, the US government officially regulated “organic” through the inaction of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) under the 1990 Farm Bill. The USDA defines organic agriculture as

“an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”

Pesticides and fertilizers

The term “organic” is essentially a label that guarantees the product is produced in accordance with the definition above and OFPA. To label a product “organic” under OFPA, it cannot be produced using synthetic pesticides unless those pesticides are on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. The list also prohibits certain natural substances, like arsenic. Synthetic chemicals are placed on the list if they are not harmful to human health or the environment, the use of the chemical is necessary for production or handling because a wholly natural substitute is unavailable, and they are consistent with organic farming/handling (OFPA). In place of pesticides, organic farmers use mechanical weeding, cover crops, crop rotation, natural predators to control pest levels, and companion planting (planting crops beside one another that discourage or attract pests) (Chandler, 2008; Reed, 2010). OFPA also does not allow synthetic fertilizers. Instead, growers use compost, manure, and cover crops to aid soil fertility, i.e. provide the nutrients need to grow crops.

Seafood, livestock, dairy

OFPA also addresses standards for seafood, livestock, and dairy products. Wild caught seafood can actually be labeled organic after following the proper procedures. Livestock, however, must be fed organic feed without plastic pellets for roughage, manure, or urea, a chemical compound found in urine. Producers cannot use growth promoters or hormones, including antibiotics. Non-therapeutic doses of antibiotics are not allowed. The standards do not allow routine synthetic internal parasiticides and medications (other than vaccines) are not allowed unless the animal is ill. Diary livestock must be cared for in accordance with these regulations for 12 months prior to the sale of the milk or milk products.

What does the organic label mean?

In addition, the organic label differs depending on the percentage organic ingredients in a processed product (USDA).

  • If 100% organic, the label will say “100% Organic.”
  • A simple USDA Organic seal means 95% or more of the ingredients are organic.
  • When the label says, “Made with Organic Ingredients,” that means at least 70% are organic.
  • If the product contains fewer tan 70% organic ingredients, the organic ingredients are identified in the ingredient list only.

The codification of organic practices helped the movement grow. However, ensuring marketability and feasible mass production of organic also meant compromising on some of the goals and ideals of the original movement. Therefore, there are arguments between supporters of the original organic movement’s ideals and the USDA organic standards. Additionally, some organic practices have adverse environmental effects. For more information, look for my upcoming posts on sources of agricultural pollution and the pros and cons of organic practices.


  1. Bockman, C.; Kaarstad, O.; Laegreid, M. (1999). Agriculture, fertilizer, and the environment. CABI Publishing in association with Norsk Hydro ASA: Norway.
  2. Cáceres, D. and Rigby, D. (2001). Organic farming and the sustainability of agricultural systems. Agricultural systems, 68, 21-40.
  3. Carson, Rachel (1962). Silent spring. Houghton Mifflin Company: New York, NY.
  4. Chandler, Dave (2008). The consequences of the ‘cut off’ criteria for pesticides: Alternative methods of cultivation. European Parliament: Brussels. Retrieved from:
  5. Reed, Matthew (2010). Rebels for the soil: The rise of the global organic food and farming movement. Earthscan: London.


  1. Betsy Rogers
    February 20, 2012

    Hi Hali! I got a little lost between all the sections of your blog… couldn’t seem to find my way back to the top page… do you have a “Home” button you can add at the bottom of each post? That might make it easier for those like me…!
    Bravo on such a well planned blog!

  2. Eat the Leaves » Agricultural Pollution
    February 25, 2012

    […] are we continuing to use them? Is it solely cost motivated and bottom-line business strategy? Is organic the alternative? And just how much better is organic […]

  3. Beth
    February 29, 2012

    I would be really curious what happened to you when you drank organic milk. And how is organic milk different from milk that we used to take directly from the cow at home? I mean, as far as I know, we didn’t use any medicines on the cows unless one was ill. That was a long time ago, of course, but I am very curious.

    Excellent article. I really learned a lot here and what was nice was it was concise, well documented and to the point. Good for you!

    • Hali
      February 29, 2012

      Well organic milk comes from cows raised in accordance with the USDA organic standards. This means no antibiotics, hormones, things of that nature. It also means organic feed. Raw milk on the other hand is milk directly from the cow. Raw means unpasteurized. I’ve never had raw milk. Raw milk may be produced organically or not, it depends on the farmer. I didn’t really know about raw milk when I was still drinking it. These days I tend to use coconut or almond milk (soy in a pinch). I am researching raw milk right now and will probably do a post on it soon! It’s a very contentious issue these days.


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