What is organic?

Sep 8, 2015 11:50:00 PM

A discussion on the foundation of an industry and the soil where it matures.


Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon
— Doug Larson


Organic is a mainstream subject at the moment. The term is widely encompassing: methods,lifestyle, habits, principles. In relation to agriculture and food production, organic is an area of great interest to food suppliers, distributors, retailers and consumers. It’s a term that is closely scoped and dynamically evolving, and for good reason. Eight in ten US families purchase organic products, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), and US consumer sales of organic produce exceed $39B. 51% more families are buying organic products in the US this year than last year.


This heightened focus can naturally evoke a question to those within and outside of the industry: what is organic? How far throughout the supply chain does the definition of organic extend? Who defines and sustains the term? Leafy greens and kale chips? Meat? Milk? Body care products?


In this piece particularly, we will consider the basics — what it means to produce organically according to industry standards and sell products under the USDA Certified Organic label.Let’s start at the actual foundation … literally: the soil.


Although we often think of soil as lifeless or inert — a simple mix of earth and water — in reality, the soil’s dynamic cycle of biological and chemical processes makes it a living entity: the crucible of life
-Daniel Hillel


The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) sets forth and maintains a defined set of standards for organic farmers, ranchers, and food processors to produce organic food and fiber under the USDA Certified Organic label. These standards encompass soil and water quality monitoring, pest control, animal welfare and food additives, among many other areas.


The value of these standards is that they set forth a process of integrity for organic production throughout the supply chain.“Organic agriculture produces products using methods that preserve the environment and avoid most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics”.


USDA organic standards describe how farmers grow crops and raise livestock and which materials they may use.According to the USDA, organic farms and processors:


- Preserve natural resources and biodiversitySupport animal health and welfare

- Provide access to the outdoors so that animals can exercise their natural behaviors

- Only use approved materials

- Do not use genetically modified ingredients

- Receive annual onsite inspections

- Separate organic food from non-organic food


The USDA holds equivalency agreements with Switzerland, Korea, Japan, the European Union and Canada, recognizing that organic production methods in these countries are verifiable and comparable. This enables bilateral arrangements that reduce trade barriers and strengthen the supply chain. This ecosystem within the organic industry serves to regulate, certify and enable organic production from soil to store.


Daniel Hillel, in his book Out of the Earth, describes a green field outside of a window through the eyes of an environmental scientist, and it’s a captivating lifecycle characterization.


Fundamentally — the origin of it all, is the soil: “a seething foundry in which matter and energy are in constant flux. Radiant energy from the sun streams into the field, and as it cascades through the atmosphere-plant-soil continuum, it generates a complex sequence of processes: Heat is exchanged; water percolates through the intricate passages of the soil; plant roots suck up some of that water and transmit it through the stems to the leaves, which transpire it back to the atmosphere. The leaves also absorb carbon dioxide and synthesize it with the soil-derived water to form the primary compounds of life. Oxygen emitted by those leaves makes the air breathable for animals, which consume and in turn fertilize the plants. Organisms in the soil recycle the residues of both plants and animals, thus releasing nutrients for the renewal of life.The crucible of this foundry is the soil, a rich mix of mineral particles, organic matter, gases and nutrients, which, when infused with vital water, constitutes a fertile substrate for the initiation and maintenance of life.