COLUMBUS, Ohio — The words fresh, all-natural, green and eco-friendly can be found on products along grocery store shelves, but they may not mean anything specific. The term organic is different.

What You Need To Know

  • The term organic means a certain food or other agricultural products were produced according to the USDA organic standards

  • Organic methods combine cultural, biological and mechanical practices that involve cycling resources, promoting ecological balance and conserving biodiversity

  • Each week, Chuck Ringwalt and Andy Vance discuss a topic of concern involving agriculture

According to a Pew Research study, certified organic goods in the United States exceeded $7 billion in sales in 2019. The study also reported Ohio is one of six states with more than 500 certified organic farms.

"When you go to the grocery store, you've probably noticed the proliferation of marketing buzzwords — things like all-natural, local. And sometimes these words don't mean anything or they don't have a set definition. One of the things I really respect about organic is it does have a set definition. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a very extensive set of processes and regulations as to what you can actually market as organic and you can't use the word organic on a food label in this country if it doesn't meet those USDA certified requirements," agriculture expert Andy Vance said.

Vance said the process to become certified organic is intense.

"There are five steps a farmer must follow."

According to the USDA, the steps include developing an organic system plan, implementing that plan, having that plan inspected, having a certified agent review the inspection report and receiving a decision from the certifier.

"They have to adopt organic practices that the USDA says are acceptable. They have to make sure they don't use what are called 'disallowed practices or products,' so for example, you couldn't use genetically-modified corn seed," Vance said. "There's actually this 36-month transition period where you're not using the sort of conventional practices, but only using those organic products and practices, but you're not certified until after that 36 month period, so it's a really intense process."

Vance also discussed whether he believes it's possible for every farmer to go organic and whether or not they should.

"I won't say it's not possible because one thing I believe is that the U.S. farmer can actually accomplish anything we ask them to," Vance said. "I would argue that it's not a great idea to wish everyone be producing organic because of sustainability. The upshot of organic is that you might think this is better for the environment, but the trade off is that we generally don't get the efficiency. We generally don't get the volume of production under organic practices that we do under conventional, so it's taking more resources to produce less food."

The USDA publishes a variety of resources regarding certified organic foods.