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Organic Regulations & Politics - Misconceptions

Farms must be inspected and certified by a third-party agency in order to market their products as organic.

Farms choose

For many farmers, especially small, family farms, certification costs can be expensive. Many choose local agencies that are less expensive and/or support sustainable, organic farming. Others, who practice sustainable methods that go beyond "certified organic", choose to forgo certification completely – often because they are opposed to the state and national bureaucracy.

On the other hand, large, corporate farms often choose the USDA certification not only because it's the national standard, but because it has the fewest restrictions.

Important certifiers

Even prior to the USDA's organic program, other certification agencies have enforced strict standards of sustainability. In addition to prohibiting chemicals and synthetics, they monitor comprehensive farming practices, such as farms' long-term effect on soil fertility and eco-systems.

Until recently, "organic" implicitly meant "sustainable".

USDA's questionable label

Especially since the inception of the USDA certification, that assumption no longer applies. The USDA doesn't regulate farms' impact in the long-term; their only requirement is that no chemicals, synthetics, or genetically altered organisms are used.

Skillful, productive use of the land requires maintaining soil fertility and complex eco-systems, and the USDA's limited scope doesn't consider these vital factors.

In April 2004, the USDA weakened organic regulations, allowing chemicals and pesticides on "organic" farms and antibiotics and hormones in "organic" livestock. Fortunately, after thousands of people protested the changes, the USDA retracted its new directives the following month. (More...)

Ultimately, the USDA has a checkered history when it comes to maintaining food quality standards, and you should learn about other certifications as well.

Still no true standard

Based on different certification agencies and varying levels of "organic", a "certified organic" product – especially by the USDA – may or may not be truly organic, from a sustainable farm, or grown in an environmentally friendly way.
More about:
Converting to Organic
Certifications
Organic vs Sustainable
Benefits of Organics