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USDA Organic Label

I recently read a piece addressing "myths" about organic foods. Two myths were "busted": one that organic fruits and vegetables offer better nutrition, and the other that organic farmers don't use pesticides. I've also read that that "organic" is a marketing ploy to make money, and that organic certification is meaningless.

As someone who grows and purchases organic produce--and believes that organic farming and produce is healthier for us and our environment--I decided to conduct some research.

How is "organic" defined? The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) says, "USDA certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible."

Organic food or other agricultural products are produced using practices that support the cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. These practices include crop diversity and rotation, fertilizing with manure and compost, and very limited use of pesticides. Organic operations must maintain or enhance soil and water quality, while also conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife. Most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.

Organic farmers may indeed use pesticides, but only after other methods haven't worked. The USDA's National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances details permitted products for both organic and conventional farming. Only 25 synthetic pesticides are allowed for organic farmers, while conventional farmers can use 900.

As you might expect, pesticide use--or lack thereof--seems to be one of the reasons why people purchase organic produce. It certainly is why I do. As a farmer and gardener, I never assumed that organic produce would provide better nutrition; that just doesn't make sense. I also know, from my personal experience and my work at the Arboretum, that sometimes one has to resort to pesticides, and that some are relatively safe. The pesticides that organic farmers may use are highly regulated by the EPA, and some are essentially harmless (like horticultural or neem oil, or pepper).

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The USDA has been testing different kinds of agriculture over time, and they've found that organic systems: 1) Have more-fertile soil; 2) Use less fertilizer and much less herbicide; 3) Use less energy; 4) Lock more carbon in the soil; and 5) Are more profitable. Conventional systems have higher yields, and are better at reducing erosion.

To grow organically--by rotating crops and using fewer pesticides--takes much more work, hence the lower yields. I will not use pesticides at home, either indoors or outdoors, and my vigilance takes time. (I've been known to use Q-tips and diluted peroxide.)

But what really makes purchasing organic food worthwhile is its overall environmental benefit. Organic farming, in addition to benefits listed above, without question uses fewer pesticides, and that's enough for me. That means no glyphosate (found in Roundup), the culprit behind declining monarch butterfly and pollinator populations, as well as other pesticides that are toxic to pollinators, birds, and other wildlife. Here in Flagstaff we have the benefit of a CSA and Farmer's Market. We can ask farmers directly about their organic practices.

In short, if it's better for the environment, it's better for us.

Lynne Nemeth is Executive Director of The Arboretum at Flagstaff. To reach her with comments or ideas, please email


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