Do you really know what the terms organic, local, natural, and sustainable mean when it comes to fruits and vegetables? Some of the definitions (or lack of) might surprise even educated consumers.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty definitions, let’s get rid of a few misconceptions.
First, organic fruits and vegetables are not necessarily local and vice versa. Get to know area farmers and their specific practices and pay attention to where things are grown if these things are important to you.
Second, organic does not mean pesticide-free. Some organic farmers choose not to use any pesticides, but there is a list of products that are approved for use in organic production.
Third, use of the words natural and sustainable are not regulated. Anyone can call their produce all-natural or sustainably grown.
Now that I think about it, organic is the only term of those I mentioned that is somewhat clearly defined. To be labeled as organic, produce must be grown according to specific practices outlined in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. A farm that sells less than $5,000 a year in organic agricultural products does not have to certify. Farms selling more than $5,000 a year must certify to call their produce organic.
To become certified organic, a farmer must provide records for the previous three years of their land. The records must show that synthetic fertilizers and certain pesticides — those disallowed in organic production — have not been used on the property during those three years. Farmers must also submit a plan defining their practices and what substances will be used in production.
Government inspectors review applications for organic certification and visit the farm prior to approval. They may also inspect the farm annually or anytime there is a report of a possible violation.
Everything that goes into production on an organic farm must be organic, except for the few exceptions on the list. Think about seeds, plants, compost, manures and mulches. Because each item bears more risk and generally is more labor intensive to produce, the overall cost of production goes up significantly.
Maintaining soil fertility and managing pest problems are two of the biggest challenges organic farmers face. Remember what I said about pesticides? The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances defines what products organic producers can use. Some of the products, including lime sulfur, copper sulfate and horticultural oils, are also commonly used by conventional fruit and vegetable producers.
Some farmers follow organic practices but choose not to certify because of the paperwork and certification fees. That means produce labeled as conventional is sometimes grown organically but not labeled as such.
Defining local seems to be a million-dollar question right now. Some define it as in-state, even though in our area Missouri and Nebraska are closer than western Kansas. Some think of local as a radius, generally in terms of miles. If I try to buy local from a hundred-mile radius, what about the farm two miles outside of that?
Some agencies are trying to define local with regional marketing programs. A campaign called Buy Fresh Buy Local has chapters scattered across the nation. An upcoming labeling program in our area, Our Local Food, will highlight producers from counties along the Kansas River Valley.
Natural and sustainable
Like I said before, natural and sustainable have no regulatory definition when it comes to fruit and vegetable production. If you see these claims, talk to the grower to find out what it means to them, or research the farm/company name if it is a larger brand. A few new initiatives, like Certified Naturally Grown, have regulations like the National Organic Program but are regulated by participating farmers.