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What Does it Mean to be Organic?

More and more you are seeing organic options in stores. It’s no surprise to see an increase in organic options when, according to Pew Research, four in ten Americans say they eat partially or mostly organic. While you may know this is a positive shift in the food industry you may not know what it means to be certified organic. Organic produce is more than refraining from the use of pesticides to grow crops. To earn that “USDA Organic” seal, produce must meet strict standards in a variety of areas. These include soil quality, pest control and weed management.

Soil quality and management are the foundation of organics. This makes perfect sense as this is where the produce receives nutrients and calls home until harvest. Organic produce must be grown in soil that has not had synthetic fertilizers or pesticides applied for three years prior to harvest. Additionally, seeds used to grow the crop cannot be genetically modified. This means that all organic produce is non-GMO. Farm inspections are conducted yearly to check seed sources, soil conditions, water systems, cross-contamination and weed and pest control.

Additionally, farmers must use natural production processes to be considered organic farmers. There are three processes that farmers must incorporate to properly manage and utilize to be considered organic. There are various methods farmers can use within these processes to obtain desired results.

1) Soil Fertility – Fertile soil means robust crop growth. The use of compost and animal

manures add to soil quality. The use of cover crops also protect fields from wind and rain.

2) Crop Rotation – Switching crops over seasons can disrupt insect life cycles, lessen soil erosion and deter soil-based plant diseases, keeping produce healthy.

3) Pest Management – Farmers use the acronym PAMS (prevention, avoidance, monitoring and suppression) to tackle pest control. Some of the tactics used in PAMS include releasing predatory insects to reduce pests or smothering weeds under mulch.

With all the steps and precautions farmers must take to be certified organic, in addition to the cost of the certification itself, it’s easy to see why organic produce often costs more. While we see the benefits of organic produce for our own health and that of the environment (and farmers of course!), going fully organic may not always be a viable option. A general rule of thumb is to choose organic items that you cannot easily wash and items with edible skin.

Additionally, the Environmental Working Group releases their “Dirty Dozen” list each year informing the public of produce that contains the most pesticide residue and is recommended to buy organic. Some of these include strawberries, apples, kale, grapes and spinach. You can see the full list here.

So there you have a break down of what organic actually means, and some tips for when to choose organic products if you generally buy both organic and conventional products.

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