The word organic is used in a number of different contexts in today’s food systems. For us, the key contexts are as follows:

Organic horticulture / gardening refers to the science and art of growing fruits, vegetables, flowers, or ornamental plants by following the essential principles of organic agriculture, in which plants must be grown without the use of (synthetic) pesticides, fungicides, or inorganic fertilizers, and prepared without the use of preservatives. Certified Organic foodstuffs must be grown on land that has not been treated with chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides for at least three years.

Organic food refers to food produced using organic farming methods, which are certified according to very rigid farming standards.

Organic seed is easily identifiable by way of the words “Certified Organic” appearing on a seed packet. These words have a specific legal meaning, and can only be used to identify seed grown in compliance with all the rules and regulations contained in the USDAs National Organic Program. In the United States, organic regulations specify that the land in which crops are grown cannot have had prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest, and that the operation must be managed according to an Organic System Plan that is approved and regularly inspected by a USDA accredited certifier. Organic seed must be grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and the use of sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering are prohibited.

Organic certification is a certification process for producers of organic food and other organic agricultural products. In general, any business directly involved in food production can be certified, including seed suppliers, farmers, food processors, retailers and restaurants. While specific requirements vary, they generally involve a set of production standards for growing, storing, processing, packaging and shipping food components that include:

  • avoidance of synthetic chemical inputs (e.g. fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives), irradiation, and the use of sewage sludge
  • avoidance of the use of genetically modified seed
  • making use of farmland that has been free from prohibited chemical inputs for a number of years (often three or more)
  • for livestock, adhering to specific requirements for feed, housing, and breeding
  • keeping detailed written production and sales records (in the form of an audit trail)
  • maintaining strict physical separation of certified products from non-certified products
  • undergoing periodic on-site inspections

Organic matter, organic material, or natural organic matter (NOM) refers to the large pool of carbon-based compounds found within natural and engineered, terrestrial and aquatic environments. It is matter composed of organic compounds that has come from the remains of organisms such as plants and animals and their waste products within the environment.