Chapter 2

Organic Crop Certification

The National Organic Program

In 2002, when the United States Department Agriculture (USDA) adopted the National Organic Standard that spells out what farmers and food processors must (and must not) do to be certified “organic,” as mentioned the organic industry already had a long history of relying on third-party certifiers to ensure the integrity of their products and practices. The regulations can be found under Title 7, Part 205, of the Code of Federal Regulations. Title 7 deals with agriculture, one of 50 broad topic areas that are subject to Federal regulation.

The regulations include certification requirements, which producers must meet to sell their products as organic. Organic certification is the process of verifying compliance with organic regulations. The assessment process is carried out by a third-party certifying agency—an independent body that is not linked to either the seller (the farmer) or the buyer. These agencies include private for profit and non-profit agencies, as well as public state-run certifying agencies. There are costs for the initial certification as well as the annual recertification and the cost of certification varies from agency to agency. Producers have the right to select any certifying agency that is accredited by the USDA NOP. Once certified the seller can market their products as “USDA Certified Organic” and display the official USDA organic seal on their packaging (See Figure 2.1).

Exemption from Organic Certification

To sell, label, or represent their products as “organic,” growers and processors who sell organic products valued at $5,000 or more a year must be certified by a certifying agent accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). If gross sales are less than $5,000 a year, certification is optional; however, some states may require growers to register with the state-certifying agency.

Organic Equivalence Arrangements with Trading Partners

Many other countries, including Japan, Canada, and members of the European Union (EU), have their own standards for organic products. Operations certified to the National Organic Program (NOP) can ship to coutries (e.g., Japan, Canada, and the EU) that have equivalence arrangements with the United States. The arrangement recognizes the NOP standards and other coutries organic standards as equivalent, which eliminates the need for U.S. organic operations to have separate certifications.

Understanding the National Organic Program Practice Standards

The standards that farmers and processors must meet to achieve organic certification are administered by the National Organic Program and defined in the federal rules and regulations titled “7 CFR Part 205.” This document includes the national list of approved and prohibited substances, production and handling standards, labeling standards, certification standards, and the accreditation procedures and standards for organizations that certify producers and processors.

§205.2: Organic Production Defined

Organic production is defined as a system that is managed to “respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”

§205.103: Recordkeeping

For any certified operation producing agricultural products intended to be sold or labeled as “100 percent organic,” “organic,” or “made with organic ingredients” records must be maintained that document all production, harvesting, and handling practices.

§205.105: Allowed and Prohibited Substances

Certified organic products must be produced and handled without the use of sewage sludge, ionizing radiation, and most synthetic substances. The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (often referred to as the “National List”) specifies allowed synthetic substances and prohibited nonsynthetic substances for use in crop and livestock production in parts §205.601 to §205.604.

§205.201: Organic Production and Handling System Plan

Certified producers and handlers must develop an organic system plan in cooperation with an accredited certifying agent.

§205.202: Land Requirements

Any field or farm parcel intended to produce crops represented as “organic” must be managed in accordance with the provisions set forth in §205.203 through §205.206, have no prohibited substances applied for the 3 years immediately preceding crop harvest, and have distinct, defined boundaries and buffer zones to prevent unintended application or contact with prohibited substances from surrounding acreage.

§205.203: Soil Fertility and Nutrient Management

Producers must utilize tillage and cultivation practices that maintain or improve physical, chemical, and biological conditions of soil and minimize soil erosion. Crop nutrients and soil fertility must be managed through rotations, cover crops, and applications of plant and animal materials.

§205.204: Seeds

Unless otherwise unavailable, producers must use organically grown seeds, annual seedlings, and planting stock.

§205.205: Crop Rotation

Because crop rotations maintain or improve soil organic matter content, provide for pest management, manage deficient or excess plant nutrients, and provide erosion control, producers must implement a crop rotation including but not limited to sod, cover crops, green manure crops, and catch crops.

§205.206: Pest, Weed, and Disease Management

Producers must use management practices such as crop rotations, sanitation measures, and cultural practices taking into account site-specific conditions to prevent crop pests, weeds, and diseases. Pest and weed problems may be controlled through mechanical or physical methods such as habitat development for natural pest enemies; nonsynthetic controls such as lures, traps, and repellents; biodegradable mulching, mowing, livestock grazing; or plastic mulch (provided that it is removed after each season).

§205.271: Facility Pest Management

Organic handling operations must implement practices that protect organic products from contact with prohibited substances and prevent the commingling of organic and nonorganic products.

§205.272: Commingling and Preventing Contact with Prohibited Substances

Producers or handlers of organic facilities must utilize management practices that prevent pests and control pests through physical, cultural, and mechanical means such as traps, light or sound, and lures and repellents made with substances allowed on the National List.

Click on the following topics for more information on organic crop certification.