What does “organic” mean?

According to organic.org, it means produce and other ingredients grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines organic as the following:

“Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”

But what does any of this really mean? As consumers, the information we get is often overwhelming and conflicting, and it tends to exaggerate claims about organic produce being either 1) chemical-free or 2) costing exorbitant amounts of money to make the switch.  By the way, neither of those claims are outright truths.

Let’s begin with the myth that organic farming does not use pesticides.  Where this “claim” originates has to do with organic producers not using the same synthetic pesticides used by conventional agriculture. However, mass production farming is just that and still requires pest management. Many of the approved chemicals that are used in organic farming are done so more frequently because of the standards placed on organic production. So, it’s less about the use of pesticides and more about the origin of the pesticide. Also consider that “natural” foods are not the same as organic foods. Natural pesticides should not be considered “safe” or “better” simply because they occur naturally in certain plants.


a helicopter hovers closely above a green field, spraying chemicals from a wide device attached to its underside
A field is sprayed with pesticides in California


Now let’s examine the cost aspect of going organic. The truth is, because organic food has become so mainstream, there are options available that won’t break the bank.  And, as supply continues to grow, prices will continue to drop.  Nevertheless, there are some organic products that do cost more, but we should take into account the amount of labor that goes into its production.  In some cases, organic production could be more labor intensive, meaning it requires more man hours to ensure a healthy crop.  Not to mention conventional farms have federal subsidies available to them for which organic farms may not qualify.

Besides the farmer who manages the crop, who are the people putting in those man hours, and how is organic farm labor different from conventional?  We’ve already covered the use of pesticides, so obviously pesticide exposure is still an occupational hazard farmworkers face despite working on an organic farm.  But what about the effects of the physical labor, work conditions, long hours, exploitation of farmworkers, not earning a living wage, wage theft, and insufficient farmworker housing, to name a few concerns?  Does organic farming really make a difference in the lives of farmworkers?  Is it building a sustainable workforce?


2.25.16 AZ Improper Clothing Backpack Sprayer1
A farmworker applies chemicals to a field in Arizona.  He is not wearing the proper personal protective equipment.


As you can see, the more you uncover, the more questions arise. The point is not to make “organic” the bad guy here, it’s merely to point out that the topic isn’t as cut and dry as some proponents of organic production may lead you to believe.  Like with everything in life, there are two sides and we all need to be informed.

AFOP Health & Safety works hard to make sure that farmworkers know the hazards they face and how to protect themselves when working in the fields, whether the produce being grown is conventional or organic.  And, as consumers, we have the right to know what we’re eating & buying, and how it is grown.  If this issue concerns you, we encourage you to educate yourself and make your own decisions – for your own health and the health of those who pick your food.


Previous blogs


Further resources:

Why the ‘chemical free’ organic industry has a ‘pesticide problem’

Click to access What%20is%20Organic.pdf




Click to access Organic%20Practices%20Factsheet.pdf