What Does Organic Mean? A Guide To Organic Foods

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The term “organic” is seen in more and more places. Produce stands lure in customers by selling organic fruits and vegetables. Grocery stores attract shoppers by stocking organic food products on store shelves. Department stores carry garments fashioned from organic materials. Organic foods, clothing and household products are gaining popularity as people become more concerned about their health and the environment.

A Quick Definition Of Organic Living

Organic is a way of growing produce, livestock and non-food products such as landscape plants and textiles without the use of synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides, antibiotics or hormones. Using organic practices is one way of assuring that food is grown in healthy and natural conditions and that non-food products do not contain any harmful chemicals.

The main reason for choosing organically produced foods and other products is health. The use of chemicals and synthetics to grow plants and animals has a toxic effect on humans and on the environment. Some chemical pesticides have been shown to cause cancer. Synthetic fertilizers leach into water systems and reduce water quality and harm aquatic wildlife. Chemical plants release toxins that increase air pollution. Choosing organic products is one way to clean up the environment and keep the food supply safe.

How Do You Know A Product Is Really Organic?

To ensure that consumers are actually receiving organically grown products, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has set standards for organic labeling on food and other agricultural products. In order to be certified as organic, the methods used to produce the agricultural product must use cultural, biological and mechanical practices that promote recycling, ecological balance and biodiversity.

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According to USDA organic standards, in order for a product to be considered organic, the following standards must be met:

  • Crops cannot be produced using synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, sewage sludge, irradiation or genetic engineering.
  • Livestock must meet animal health and welfare standards, cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones, must be fed 100% organic feed and have access to the outdoors.
  • Multi-ingredient foods must contain 95% or more certified organic content.

Food and agricultural products that have been certified as organic carry the “USDA Organic” label. This label provides the assurance that the product has been produced, processed and certified according to national organic standards. Labeling requirements are determined by the percentage of organic ingredients in a product:

  • If a product label states “100 percent organic,” it must only contain organically produced ingredients using organic processing aids. Water and salt are not included in this determination.
  • If a product label says “organic,” it must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients.
  • If a product label states that a product is “made with organic ingredients,” the product must contain at least 70% organic ingredients and cannot be produced using any excluded method, sewage sludge or radiation.

How To Grow An Organic Home Garden

Many home gardeners also choose to grow vegetable crops and maintain landscapes using organic methods. Organic gardening isn’t just about using organic pesticides and organic fertilizers to keep a yard looking attractive. Organic gardening follows ecological principles and natural processes to grow bountiful gardens. It isn’t necessary to make the transition to organic gardening all at one time. Organic gardening starts with building healthy soil. Other organic practices can be implemented during the gardening seasons.

The most important ingredient to a healthy organic garden is healthy soil. When the soil is healthy, it provides plants with all of the needed nutrients, water and oxygen they need to thrive. To keep soil healthy, organic matter must be added on a regular schedule. The organic matter improves drainage, prevents compaction and slows soil erosion. Sources of organic matter include:

  • Composted animal manures. Animal manures should be composted before using in the garden. Composting manure stabilizes the nitrogen and destroys weed seeds and pathogens. Do not apply manures around growing plants.
  • Compost. Build a compost bin for lawn clippings, leaves and other yard waste.
  • Worm Compost. Use composting worms to make fertilizer out of coffee grounds, tea leaves, vegetable peelings, egg shells and other kitchen waste.
  • Green Manure. Grow clovers, hairy vetch, ryegrass and buckwheat as cover crops. Cover crops attract beneficial insects and are tilled into the soil to add organic matter.

Organic gardening practices attempt to limit the use of any type of pesticide. To minimize the use of pesticides and successfully manage disease in the garden, practice prevention. Here are a few organic tips that will keep a yard pest and disease free:

  • Choose disease-resistant plant varieties.
  • When buying plants, select healthy plants. Look for spots and lesions on the leaves and stems. The root system should be white or light in color, show no signs of decay and not wrap around the plant.
  • Provide space between plants for air circulation and sunlight intensity.
  • Mulch flower beds and vegetable beds to inhibit weed growth.
  • Practice sanitation. Keep garden tools, planting trays, and harvest containers clean to prevent the spread of plant diseases. Remove dead plants to prevent them from harboring harmful insects.
  • Create an inviting habitat for beneficial insects such as lady beetles, wolf spiders and damsel bugs. These bugs will rid a garden of harmful insects.
  • Many insect problems can be solved with insecticidal soaps, diatomaceous earth, neem and horticultural oils. Read and follow label directions carefully.

Including organic practices in the yard and garden will not only create a healthy and lush landscape, but it will create a healthier environment for your family. Lawns and gardens that are fertilized with compost and mulch will show fewer signs of disease and pests. Vegetable gardens that are not sprayed with synthetic pesticides will be more nutritious and better for your family’s health.

Last Updated: February 8, 2012
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About Coletta Teske Coletta Teske has 25 years' experience in tech journalism, as well as home and gardening topics. She has freelanced for Fortune 500 companies such as Boeing and Microsoft, published more than two dozen computer books for Prima Publishing and Macmillan, and worked as a freelance correspondent for West Hawaii Today. Coletta has been an avid gardener since she was 2 years old. While living in Hawaii, she achieved a lifelong dream of becoming a certified master gardener.

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