What is Organic? A Guide to Understanding Organic Products
Updated: Sep 13
The organic movement originated in the 1940s as farmers, consumers, and activists sought food grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Concerns around human health and the environment led to the creation of organic farming practices.
Organic production takes a holistic, ecological approach. It emphasizes natural fertilization techniques like composting, crop rotation to improve soil health, and biological pest control over synthetic inputs. The goal is to sustain ecosystems while reducing pollution and harmful residues in food.
Organic Standards and Pesticide Use
For a product to be certified organic, it must comply with specific standards about how ingredients are grown and processed.
In the U.S., the USDA National Organic Program sets strict guidelines. Their organic seal verifies that 95%+ of a product's ingredients meet requirements around:
Land management - No synthetic fertilizers or prohibited pesticides can be used for 3+ years before harvest. Farmers must maintain soil fertility through organic methods.
Pest control - Natural biological controls must be prioritized. Limited approved synthetic substances can be used as a last resort. All pesticides must appear on the National List.
Other organic requirements related to seed sourcing, crop rotation, on-site inspections, and contamination avoidance.
While organic operations ideally avoid all pesticides, there are some exempted synthetic substances approved for limited use (details about the substances that can go into the 5% of non-organic ingredients can be found here). Still, organic farming greatly restricts pesticide application compared to conventional methods. As a consequence of the strict set of criteria for products to be labelled "organic", consumers can be assured that certified organic products like food and textiles are produced more sustainably than their non-organic counterparts.
In the UK, independent charities like the Soil Association also certify organic products and provide their own organic seals. The Soil Association is the UK's leading organic certification body, operating one of the most established and trusted certifications globally. They certify over 70% of all organic products in the UK, auditing operators from farmers to processors to ensure organic integrity throughout the supply chain. The Soil Association's organic standards exceed the EU organic regulations in many areas like animal welfare, agroforestry requirements, and restrictions on controversial inputs. When you see the Soil Association's recognizable symbol, you can trust that rigorous standards have been met. Supporting brands certified by reputable bodies like the Soil Association benefits the growth of organic agriculture.
Identifying True Organic Products
When shopping, examine labels for respected organic seals like the USDA logo in the US or Soil Association symbol in the UK. Research brand standards and production methods. While no system is perfect, certified organic is defined by strict regulations to benefit our health and environment. An informed public can continue supporting the organic movement's growth.