That's a question our customers often ask us, and the answer's tricky for any number of reasons—the first one being the gazillions of accepted definitions and designations for the term "organic." We decided to tackle the issue point-by-point and explain how the term (and agricultural practice) applies to the seeds we sell, and how we feel about organic certifications.
First, let's slap some definitions on "organic" and similar labeling terms, so we're all on the same page.
Organic, organic, and Natural: What the Heck's the Difference?
Terms get co-opted, trademarked, and manipulated in the name of marketing. We'd like to think that certain labels and designations are set up to protect the consumer, and while they usually do, that's not always the case. Loopholes in FDA regulations, for example, make it easy for beauty care manufacturers to label their products as "natural." While they may have to list the main ingredients in their product, they're exempt from listing the nastiest-of-nasty chemicals contained in additives they legally claim to be "trade secrets"—usually fragrances or flavorings.
So not only do you need to read the labels, but you need to know how to read between the lines on those labels...and it's a pretty good idea to understand the language.
- Relating to or derived from living matter. e.g., "organic soils."
- (of food or farming methods) produced or involving production without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals, e.g., "organic farming" or "organic meat."
- 1. *Trust us, you have to visit the actual definition entry (er... rant)*
- 2. A grocery term for "twice as expensive," e.g., "My wife always buys organic. That's why I have no money."
Naturally, there ain't no official regulations on "natural."
As we mentioned above, there's a disparity between what's labeled as "natural" and what's actually good for us. And by the way, we're not going to dither about cyanide being an organic compound extracted from stone fruit. Just because something is derived from nature doesn't mean you, we or anyone's dumb enough to eat it. (Well, okay. Some people are.) We place a lot of weight on buzzwords to determine what's good for us and the environment.
While the USDA has guidelines for organic certification, the FDA has had a pretty tough time coming up with consistent and precise definitions for "healthy" and "natural." (Here's a link to terms applied to meat and poultry, just for kicks).
As reported in Food Processing: The Information Resource for Food and Beverage Manufacturers, "After two years of silence, the FDA is indicating it will try to define the term 'natural' for food labeling purposes. FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb also pledged on March 29 to advance salt reduction goals across the food supply, a move building on the Obama Administration's healthy eating agenda, but going against President Trump's deregulatory push."
Well, Gottlieb resigned within a year, and as far as we can tell, nothing's changed since. It's up to us as individuals to decide what's healthy and what's not.
Big "O" vs. Little "o"
A lot of food producers refer to products officially certified by the USDA as "Big O" organic. "Little o" organic is assigned to fruits, veggies, and protein raised using the same (or similar) principles, but by farmers who haven't gone through the arduous certification process. In reality, there's no rule or trademark setting one letter case apart from the other, and "certified organic" labeling doesn't require capitalization.
But a lot of us who garden using sustainable practices can't help but use air quotes when referring to our "organic" veggies as if we'd get busted for making false claims. The term has been around long before there were official regulations, though, and many gardeners and small-scale farmers feel their own standards are equal or superior to those set forth by the USDA.
What Does "Organic Certification" Mean?
In 2001, Congress established the National Organic Program to develop and enforce standards for organic certification and labeling. The following are the three main benchmarks for organic status, taken verbatim from this USDA labeling factsheet:
- Produced without excluded methods (e.g., genetic engineering), ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge.
- Produced per the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.
- It is overseen by a USDA National Organic Program-authorized certifying agent, following all USDA organic regulations.
To go along with the theme of threes, here are the different classifications of "organic-ness":
- 100 percent organic
- "Made With" (organic ingredients)
All of these rules determine which inputs farmers can use to amend soils, reduce weed and insect loads, and preserve wooden fences and outbuildings. They regulate the solutions they can use to clean implements, tools, irrigation infrastructure, and feed and water delivery systems. Inspections by USDA-approved certification organizations keep producers on their toes, ensuring that products from crops and livestock are free from antibiotics, chemical insecticides, repellents, and herbicide residues.
Speaking of livestock, to be eligible for 100% Organic certification, they must be raised on organic pasture, hay, and grains, which brings us to...
Can Produce and Grains Really Be Organic?
Time to cut to the chase. First, let's separate the intentions and practices behind organic farming (both big and little "o") from the quality of the final product. In spite of all efforts, we can't completely control the environment in which our food is produced.
Certified organic farms are required to maintain buffer zones around their production fields to reduce drift from pesticides and herbicides applied on nearby properties. These buffers are important to prevent cross-pollination between transgenic (GMO) and non-GMO crops. There's no standard measurement for buffer zones (50 feet is common), nor specifications for runoff ditches, windbreaks, or physical barriers. That's up to the certifying agency to decide, on a case-by-case basis.
It's unreasonable to expect any food raised outside of a petri dish to be free of all contaminants, but organic practices absolutely reduce the effects of soil, water, and aerial pollutants on and in the "final product."
"To meet the USDA organic regulations, farmers and processors must show they aren't using GMOs and that they are protecting their products from contact with prohibited substances from farm to table." — Organic Farming Research Foundation
For example, grains harvested where there are high concentrations of pollutants, pesticides, and herbicides may have lower germination rates. A study on cereal crop contaminants found that grain, "as a food category, represent[s] one of the main dietary sources of foodborne contaminants..." and "the potential sources for the contamination of grains are mostly environmentally based and include air, dust, soil, water, insects, rodents, birds, animals, microbes, humans, storage and shipping containers, and handling and processing equipment."
Still, the nutritional benefits of whole grains far outweigh the risks, according to authors Frank Thielecke and Anne P. Nugent. Grains raised under "organic-ish" practices are even less of a concern.
What Garden Seeds Most Likely Qualify As "Organic"?
As far as seeds for planting vegetable and ornamental gardens are concerned, we haven't found evidence that pollution affecting one generation could produce contaminated produce in the next. If anything, there's a hint that, through natural selection, plants become more tolerant of environmental toxins.
Heirloom seeds are the products of traditional seed saving. Each season, growers collect seeds from the best fruits, flowers, and vegetables on the best open-pollinated plants in a generation. Each gardener or farmer has their own criteria, but most emphasize hardiness and productivity without the need for too many (or any at all) artificial inputs.
Open pollinated seeds, by the way, reproduce naturally without human intervention. They're pollinated by wind, insects, bats, or birds, and they produce plants that are "true" to their parent stock.
Hybrid seeds come from crosses between two genetic lines of a particular heirloom species. Hybrids may or may not require hand-pollination, but they're not the same thing as what we now refer to as genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). Farmers and gardeners have been hybridizing plants long before the first microscope came about.
The reason seed savers (and survivalists, it so happens) avoid hybrids is because their offspring don't grow "true" to their parent's characteristics. In other words, the traits for which of the plants were bred won't necessarily manifest themselves in subsequent seasons. If you're stocking seeds for Armageddon, open-pollinated heirloom seeds are the way to go.
A Note on GMOs
You may have heard of "Roundup Ready" GMO commodity corn and soybeans. These transgenic plants are designed to withstand heavy applications of glyphosate while in the growth and maturing phase. In this case, it's the glyphosate that's probably more dangerous than modified DNA in the seeds or produce, especially if the latter isn't thoroughly washed before eating.
Roundup itself is reportedly safe to use if you follow the instructions—it supposedly breaks down and disappears from the soil within a couple of weeks, allowing for safe planting afterward. Just be sure to wear full-coverage clothing, an N95 respirator, and gloves when you apply the herbicide; glyphosate's been linked to a crapton of health problems in people who regularly come into contact with it.
Remember how we can breed heirloom and open-pollinated seeds for hardiness, and how some plants are becoming resilient to environmental pollutants? Well, weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup, requiring even harsher, more destructive chemical herbicides.
On the other hand, GMO crops incorporating genes from the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacterium greatly reduce chemical pesticide use. Bt, which farmers have applied to crops since 1928, targets a specific taxonomic order of insect larvae and is safe to other organisms.
Or so they say.
Seed Needs: Start Your Garden With a Clean Slate
Our seeds are either heirloom varieties or traditional hybrids, and all come from vigorous natural genetics. Best yet, our seeds are fresh—completely new stock each season—and kept in climate-controlled storage until we fill your order.If you want to follow organic (or Organic) practices, you'll be on track with our vegetable, fruit, and ornamental seeds. Contact us to place an order, and bookmark our gardening blog for growing tips and plant spotlights!