From the Ground Up: What Does It Mean to be Certified Organic?

Karen Adler's picture

This is the first of a three part series. 

The Spirit of Organic

At the heart of organic certification is what many farmers, researchers, and advocates call the “spirit of organic.”  This spirit is described by the USDA National Organic Program, which defines organic agriculture as a production  system that is managed to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.
So, what does it mean to be certified organic? At its essence, it means that when farmers and ranchers grow food and fiber products in accordance with the organic rules and principles, they become stewards of our soil, our water, and the very lives of the myriad plant and animal species on our planet. 

But what about those chemicals? Isn’t it the basis of organic farming to avoid of the use of prohibited chemicals for pest control and fertilization, and to use natural inputs for these purposes? Yes, it is crucial that organic farmers do not use prohibited synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. But thinking about organic farming as chemical avoidance and substitution of natural substances is putting the shopping cart before the horse manure. The basis of organic farming is a holistic approach.
This leads us to the first step that farmers and ranchers take to have their operation become certified organic:  Develop an organic system plan. 
The organic system plan is the foundation of the organic certification process. Created by the producer or handler seeking certification, it details how an operation will comply with the regulations based on its unique characteristics.
Each plan is tailored to the type of operation, but every plan covers all of the practices of the farming system, which include tilling, grazing, harvesting, storing, and transportation. In their plan, farmers describe the strategies they will employ that lead to overall system health, including the replenishment of soil fertility, and the maintenance of biological diversity. Farmers cover their use of the management techniques that are emphasized in organic farming, such as crop rotations and the use of composted animal manures and green manure crops. 
We’ll go deeper into the meaning and methods of organic certification in the next Organic Science Friday post. To explore more about how organic farming systems benefit the environment, our health, and our economy, you can read Organic Farming Research Foundation’s comprehensive new publication, Organic Farming For Health and Prosperity

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