The word "organic" must be getting quite weary of being tossed around, often rather carelessly, over the last decade or two. It's difficult to succinctly explain what it means or why it is important. There is much confusion amongst many consumers as to what, and who, is exactly organic. Let's see if I can help with that discussion.
A lot of people perceive organic food as being produced without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and petroleum based fertilizers. And they are correct. This is a core principle of organics. As organic farmers we are ecologists, and we are concerned with the integrity of the food we eat and the environment which produces that food. We avoid putting harmful substances onto the food or into the soil or water. But an organic system is bigger than that. It is really a holistic approach to growing or producing food that emphasizes not only "no chemicals" but also techniques that are ultimately beneficial to farmers, consumers, communities, soil, water, animals, and the planet as a whole.
For example, much attention is paid to soil building. The theory is that healthy soil leads to the growth of the healthiest plants. We strive for soil that can provide not only the big three nutrients of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous but also the full range of necessary micronutrients and organic matter. The resulting crops are stronger and have an increased resistance to pests and disease. They also produce vegetables with higher levels of nutrition and natural sugars, which makes them taste especially good. Soil building can be a complex task, but it is achieved mainly through adding compost and aged animal manures and by intensively growing nutrient fixing cover crops like buckwheat, sorghum, oats, and rye.
Another important aspect of organic production is recognizing the interconnectedness of all things within natural systems. Healthy soil leads to a strong population of beneficial soil dwellers like earthworms and nematodes. Preserving and enhancing wildlife habitat leads to a healthy population of birds and bats which can help us to control certain damaging insects. Keeping bee hives helps to pollinate our crops, leading to higher yields. Cultivating certain plants and flowers that are attractive to beneficial insects like predatory wasps and lacewings can help control bad bugs like aphids and cabbage moths. And natural weed control methods like interplanting green manures and living mulches not only suppress weeds but ultimately adds to soil fertility.
All of these things, taken separately, might not seem like very big deals. Eliot Coleman calls them "one percenters". One percent by itself is not very much. But a few together is three percent, and then five. Pretty soon you can be at ten or even fifteen percent of "good things" on your farm. It takes a long time, perhaps a lifetime, to build this kind of system. But it's worth it, and you might as well start somewhere. Because the benefits are found not only in healthy food and a clean and enhanced natural environment. They can be found also among the community of people that surround and participate in this system. In this way we can ensure our own food sovereignty and preserve the rural landscape for us and for the future.
This is one of the most common questions asked of me at farmer's markets. The answer can be difficult, but it really needn't be. The USDA has a set of strict organic standards called the NOP (National Organic Practices). These standards are enforced through much paperwork and through inspections conducted by various organizations around the country who are acting as certifying agents for the USDA. In Ohio this organization is the Ohio Ecological Farming and Food Association (OEFFA). You can access the NOP standards at their website www.OEFFA.org. A grower in Ohio may also certify through another sanctioned agency, such as MOSA or NOFA, but they are all using the same set of standards mandated by the USDA. Basically, if a grower or producer has USDA organic certification as conferred by one of these organizations they are organic as defined by law. These producers will have a certificate and signage displaying this fact, usually incorporating the round, green, white, and black USDA organic symbol. As an informed consumer you have every right to ask a producer about certification.
Now, there are a number of very reputable, hard working, and talented growers in our area who are operating in a manner which could possibly be termed organic. Their produce and products are often excellent, and they add much to the vibrancy of the local foods scene. You may see them using terms like "spray free" or "natural" or "sustainable". They will not, or at least should not, be selling their products as organic if they do not have the certification. Many farmer's markets have this as a rule in their by-laws. And in fact it is also a federal law that carries a fine if broken. Honestly, I believe this is to keep the larger corporations from profiting on the term organic by simply slapping it on their labels in the super market. But it does make certification a useful consumer tool. When in doubt, look for certified organic. As for producers choosing not to certify the reasons can be wide and varied. Unfortunately this does put the onus on you the consumer to ask questions of the grower to determine if they have a product that appeals to you. You may well find that these non-certified products and the people that produce them are very much to your liking.
We purchase our seeds from three main sources; Johnny's Seeds in Albion, Maine, High Mowing Seeds in Wolcott, Vermont, and Fedco Seeds in Waterville, Maine. As a certified organic grower we are required to use certified organic seed whenever it is available. These companies carry quite a few organic varieties. In the case of High Mowing, all their offerings are certified organic.
I am often asked if I save seed from year to year. Sadly, I really do not. I occasionally will save a particularly good squash or pumpkin, and I've been known to save some amount of potato or bean seed. But for the most part I am planting such a large amount of seeds of so many varieties that saving that much seed would take just about all of my time. There is also a germination issue in that I'd like to be able to insure the highest percentage of germination possible by purchasing fresh seed every year. This is not to say that I don't see value in saving seed. In fact if I encourage it. I applaud those that undertake this task. It not only contributes to your own food sovereignty but greatly increases your knowledge of the food you are growing.
The NOP standards allow for the use of non organically produced seed only after an exhaustive seed search for organic seed of that variety has been done. There is paperwork involved. On my farm I would estimate I use about 75% certified organic seed. The rest of the seed is not grown organically but is allowed because no organic version of that seed currently exists. We are not, under any circumstances, allowed to use Genetically Modified Organisms (seed) or treated seed. This is expressly prohibited under NOP standards.
Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) seed refers to a variety of seed whose dNA has been artificially spliced in a laboratory setting. Monsanto is one of the leading producers of GMO seeds in the world. A basic description of what they do to seed is to cut the dNA strands of a product, say corn, and splice in a piece of dNA from another source that carries a specific trait that they find desirable. The most common example is the trait of resistance to glyphosate, sold commercially (by Monsanto) as Round Up, an herbicide. The seed produced thus is commonly referred to as "Round Up Ready".
Notice that the resistance to glyphosate trait comes not from another corn plant, but from another source, totally unrelated to corn. This is the difference between creating a GMO and developing a hybrid variety of vegetable or other plant. A hybrid is a cross between two plants (or animals) of the same species, different genus. In agriculture this is a very important tool for combining two or more desirable traits in one plant. Hybridization has been practiced for centuries and has led to important advances in food production. It is a naturally occurring modification, meaning that these two plants, if they were growing next to each other, could and very likely would procreate and develop this hybrid offspring on their own. Creating a GMO involves cutting and splicing dNA in a lab in a manner that would never occur naturally. The two sets of dNA are not related in the slightest and are most likely not even in the same phyla, let alone species.
This type of science raises a number of issues for organic agriculture and for those who care about the integrity of the natural world. It can be a long discussion, and one worth having, but I will keep it brief. There are no long term studies on the health effects of eating food that has been altered in such a way. GMO seeds have only become widespread in this country over the last decade or so. Perhaps eating a vegetable whose dNA has been spliced with some unnaturally occurring other dNA piece is harmless. But perhaps not. I have my doubts.
Further, promoting the growth of crops which rely on the application of chemicals to work properly seems slightly insane to a farmer such as I. Instead of working within natural systems to defeat pests and weeds, Monsanto goes the route of toxic science to achieve food production. And they have convinced thousands of farmers to join them. To me it makes no sense to engage in a food production system that results in the poisoning of the environment through ever increasing use of harmful sprays.
There are a number of other complicated legal issues surrounding GMO seeds and Monsanto in particular. OEFFA and a number of other organizations are a part of a lawsuit that has been filed in New York concerning some of these issues. It makes for very interesting reading, and you can learn more about the suit and those involved at www.OEFFA.org or at www.pubpat.org.