The difference between organic and conventional food begins with the production process. Conventional farmers have the option to use things like pesticides, fertilizers containing synthetic ingredients, sewage sludge (the semi-solid waste by-product from municipal sewage treatment plants), or bioengineering to help produce their crops. Organic farmers do not use these items. Instead, they use strategies like crop rotation, mulching, and manure to help grow their products.
This difference applies equally to plant and animal products. For example, animals used to produce organic products, such as meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products are not given antibiotics or growth hormones. The following table lists the differences between conventional and organic farming:
|Use chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth||Apply natural fertilizers, such as manure or compost to feed the soil and plants|
|Apply insecticides to reduce pests and disease||Use beneficial insects (insects that eat other insects) and birds to reduce pests and disease|
|May use antibiotics, growth hormones, and medicines to promote growth and prevent disease||Give animals organic feed; rely on preventive measures, rotational grazing, a balanced diet, and clean housing to reduce disease|
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has national organic standards for agricultural products. These standards regulate the way all foods bearing the USDA organic label are grown, handled, and processed. The only exception to these standards is small organic farmers who sell less than $5,000 a year in organic foods.
These standards mean that organic products, from anywhere in the country, now fall into 4 categories. Only 2 categories are allowed to display the USDA organic label. The following table lists these categories and outlines what products making these claims may and may not contain.
|USDA Organic Food Labeling Requirements|
|100% organic products||can display the USDA organic seal|
|Organic products||can display the USDA organic seal|
|Made with organic ingredients (or similar statement)||cannot display the USDA organic seal.|
|Made with some organic ingredients||cannot display the USDA organic seal|
People who choose to switch to organic do so for many more reasons. Here is a list of things you may want to keep in mind while making up your own mind:
In the end, deciding whether buying organic is right for you will be a highly personal decision. Here are some additional buying tips to keep in mind:
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
US Department of Agriculture
Dietitians of Canada
Do I need to be certified organic? US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/DoINeedTobeCertifiedOrganicFactSheet.pdf. Accessed October 25, 2017.
Going organic: What's the payoff? Center for Science in the Public Interest website. Available at: https://cspinet.org/tip/going-organic-whats-payoff. Accessed October 25, 2017.
Introduction to organic practices. US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Organic%20Practices%20Factsheet.pdf. Accessed October 25, 2017.
Labeling packaged products under the national organic standards. US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/NOP%20Labeling%20Packaged%20Products.pdf. Accessed October 25, 2017.
Magkos F, Arvaniti F, Zampelas A. Organic food: nutritious food or food for thought? A review of the evidence. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2003;54(5):357-371.
Organic regulations. US Department of Agriculture website. Available at:https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic. Accessed October 25, 2017.
Understanding organic labeling. US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: http://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/organic-labeling-standards. Accessed October 25, 2017.
Last reviewed October 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 1/22/2014