U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic Standards

Tractor in field

The intent and vision for the first national organic standards for the United States was mandated by an act of Congress in 1990 with the Organic Foods Production Act.

The actual standards weren't implemented for another 12 years, after an unprecedented amount of impassioned public input caused USDA to back down on including genetic engineering, irradiation and sewage sludge fertilizers. They are not allowed in organic food production.

The National Organic Standards define a system of practices designed to improve continually the health of the soil without synthetic, non-renewable inputs, and honor the natural diet and behaviors of livestock.

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 management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony."

Organic standards prohibit:

  • Genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), seeds or ingredients
  • Sewage sludge (biosolids) and synthetic fertilizers
  • Synthetic herbicides, insecticides or fungicides
  • Antibiotics or added growth hormones
  • Animal by-products in animal feed
  • Irradiation

Organic practices require:

  • Continual monitoring, maintenance and improvement of soil health
  • Crop rotation, mulching and use of compost to build soil tilth, encourage beneficial microbes, hold moisture and prevent erosion.
  • Outdoor access for all livestock
  • Pasture for all ruminants
  • 100-percent certified organic feed for livestock
  • Inspections of all farm fields and processing facilities

The organic standards currently does not have dedicated certification standards for commercially sold compost or fertilizer, supplements, beauty products, household cleaners, pet foods, or seafood.

More about: certified organic, organic food, USDA

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The "Dirty Dozen" (Plus)

Each year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) offers a Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce, compiled from U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

The "Dirty Dozen" (Plus) lists produce highest in pesticide residues and the "Clean 15" contains produce lowest in pesticides.

If you have to pick and choose, the Dirty Dozen are the ones to buy organic. Learn more at EWG's website.

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