USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service implemented a National Organic Program in 2002 as a way to support organic farmers and processors and provide consumer assurance. USDA harmonized the differing standards among dozens of State and private certification organizations that had emerged by the late 1990s, and continues to update rules on organic production and processing.
- USDA requires organic farmers and food handlers to meet a uniform organic standard and makes certification mandatory for operations with organic sales over $5,000. About 50 State and private certification programs in the U.S., and over 40 foreign programs, have been accredited by USDA.
- The 2008 Farm Act includes a new provision-the Organic Transition Support provision-which makes conservation practices related to organic production and transition eligible for Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) payments, subject to a $20,000 annual limit and an $80,000 cap over a 6-year period.
Steps for Organic Certification
The steps to become a certified organic farming or handling operation include picking an organic certifier, following national organic standards, keeping records of practices and materials used, and having an annual inspection. A 3-year transition period is required for land used in organic production unless records prove that no prohibited substances were used in or near the production area during the previous 3 years.
An applicant must submit specific information to an accredited certifying agent.
Information must include:
- The type of operation to be certified;
- A history of substances applied to land for the previous 3 years;
- The organic products being grown, raised, or processed;
- The organic system plan (OSP)--A plan describing practices and substances used in production. The OSP also must describe monitoring practices to be performed to verify that the plan is effectively implemented, a record-keeping system, and practices to prevent commingling of organic and nonorganic products and to prevent contact of products with prohibited substances.
USDA's National Organic Program--Provides the complete regulatory text of the national organic standards and the contact information for USDA-accredited certifiers and State organic contacts.
Certification Provides Consumer Assurance
"Certified organic" means that agricultural products have been grown and processed according to USDA's national organic standards and certified by USDA-accredited State and private certification organizations. Certifying agents review applications from farmers and processors for certification eligibility, and qualified inspectors conduct annual onsite inspections of organic operations. Inspectors talk with operators and observe their production and processing practices to determine if they are in compliance with organic standards that, for example, virtually prohibit synthetic pesticide use in crop production and require outdoor access for animals in livestock production.
Technical Assistance Expanding
Congress has increased Federal research funding on organic farming in recent years, and U.S. universities and Federal agricultural experiment stations have broadened their organic research and education projects. For example, according to the Organic Farming Research Foundation, 18 States had land-grant institutions with research acres under certified organic management in 2003, up from 6 States in 2001 (see State of the States PDF icon (16x16) for a listing of projects in each State). Organic farming systems trials-in experiment stations and onfarm settings-seek to answer basic research questions about yields, profitability, and environmental impacts, as well as to address farmer-defined management and production obstacles to adoption of organic production systems.
National and Regional Links for Information
Cooperative Extension System's eOrganic, a collaboration of Land Grant Research and Extension, NGO, and government partners--offers articles on organic production and marketing, including an introduction to the organic certification process and a discussion of organic inputs--and links to local Extension offices.
ATTRA (National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service)--Publishes online technical bulletins on the steps for organic certification, organic production and marketing methods, and State-level organic enterprise budgets PDF icon (16x16) .
USDA's Alternative Farming Systems Information Center (AFSIC)--Offers resource lists, directories, bibliographies, databases, and research tutorials on organic production, marketing, and foods, including a directory of marketing resources, and bibliographies on organic livestock production and the evolution of organic and sustainable agriculture.
USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program--Offers an online bulletin on the organic transition process and other reports on ecological production methods.
USDA's Market News Service (AMS)--Provides price reports on organic poultry and eggs at the national level and organic grains in the Upper Midwest and Eastern Corn Belt (use the main AMS page to access the latest biweekly reports). Some organic fruits and vegetables in terminal market and shipping point price reports are also available. AMS also publishes monthly estimates of total U.S. sales of fluid milk products, including whole and reduced-fat organic milk.
Rodale Institute--Publishes an online news bulletin, The New Farm, with organic farming perspectives and research updates, as well as a comparison of organic certifiers. Consolidates current USDA and other organic price information.