If you live in the U.S., chances are you are among the 84 percent of American consumers who purchase organic food. Whether you buy it at the grocery store or the farmers market, you trust that food marketed as organic has been raised without toxic chemicals, using farming methods that are environmentally sustainable. At a minimum, you expect organic farmers to forgo the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer responsible for the dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and much of the food system’s greenhouse gas footprint. You also expect they’ll avoid common herbicides associated with cancer risk and the development of herbicide-resistant superweeds. And, a bit more ambitiously, you expect organic farmers will take proactive steps to manage for soil health and biodiversity. But how do you know?
As the organic sector has grown from its counterculture origins to a $39 billion industry, the audit and inspection process for organic foods has formalized. The definition of the word “organic” is now a matter of federal law, and any farmer or food company marketing its products as organic must keep careful records, submit to an annual inspection and refrain from using any chemicals not included on the approved list regularly updated by the Organic Materials Review Institute. This regulatory infrastructure has, rightly so, led consumers to trust the organic label.