It’s almost impossible to go to a grocery store without seeing the word “organic” at every turn. But what does it mean for something to be organic? What are the standards of certification? And how much does it cost to be certified? Deciding whether or not to buy organic can be quite overwhelming to the average shopper.
If you see the “USDA Organic” or “Certified Organic” seal on your food, the ingredient list and contents should be 95% certified organic. According to the USDA, this means the ingredients are free of synthetic additives like pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and dyes, and must not be processed using industrial solvents, irradiation, or genetic engineering.
As a consumer of food, purchasing organically certified food is appealing because of the requirement to be grown more naturally and without synthetic agents. As a producer of food, being certified organic can offer a number of benefits. However, obtaining organic certification is an expensive and lengthy process that many small farms cannot afford.
The “USDA Organic” seal might be common at the grocery store, but among smaller, local food producers there are other certifications that review standards at a more sustainable cost.
Certified Naturally Grown, for example, offers peer-reviewed certification to farmers and beekeepers. More than 750 farms and beekeepers across 48 states are CNG-certified, including 15 in Arizona.
CNG members are required to pay dues of up to $200 (although the actual amount can be determined by members), sign a declaration accepting terms of participation, and arrange annual inspections. The terms of participation vary based on the type of farm, but in general mean that the farmers don’t use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicide, or GMOs, just like certified organic farmers.
Barbara Rose of Bean Tree Farm, a farm in Tucson that grows and harvests native desert foods like cactus fruit, said that going through the USDA to become organically certified would be a waste of time. Instead, her CNG-certification offers similar standard requirements in a more communal form.
“What I like is that, in order to be certified you have to be proving every year that you’re doing more than minimum standards,” Rose said. “You’re taking care of your land which is the core purpose of why we have a farm and why we have a community here.”
While the USDA offers expansive cost-sharing programs to help mitigate the costs of becoming USDA Certified Organic, it still isn’t always the best route for smaller farms.
“To me, I thought it was really important to support an alternative to organic certification that is more industrial organic,” Rose said.
Others, like Chaz Shelton of Merchant’s Garden, use CNG as an entry point. Shelton wanted to ensure that his farm’s standards were up to par, so he obtained a CNG certification when he started his hydroponic and aquaponic farm (hydroponics is growing plants without soil, and aquaponics combines raising aquatic animals with hydroponics).
Shelton explained that this low cost, low point of entry was obtainable and allowed him to meet organic standards.
“We were new in farming so we wanted to know what was safe and what wasn’t safe and we wanted to make sure we were never doing unsafe farming practices,” Shelton said. “So that’s kind of why we went through that whole process.”
Today, Merchant’s Garden has a Monterey Bay Seafood Watch certification, and is the only farm in Arizona with Monterey Bay-certified fish. They also have a USDA certification that allows them to work with large distributors and schools.
It’s the emergence of better opportunities and standards requirements that motivates many farmers to obtain some kind of certification. Joe Marlow of SouthWinds Farm in Tucson said if he were to obtain a UDSA certification, it would offer peace of mind for consumers and he might be able to work with more restaurants.
However, he also noted the high cost of official certification, which can range anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. The USDA offers a cost-sharing program to make it more affordable for farmers, but Marlow said the audit trail can be difficult for smaller farms to keep up with.
While the “USDA Organic” label offers benefits to both producers and consumers, it’s not the only certification And, for smaller farms, there are other more affordable and more fitting options.
The pressure to shop for products with the “USDA Organic” label can be overwhelming, but it’s not the only option. At the local level, certifications like CNG provide similar standards and benefits and are often more beneficial for the people that grow our food.
“It’s great,” Shelton said. “It helps build a stronger community.”
Header image by Jeff Smith.