Organic Versus Natural
What’s the Difference? Is There A Difference?
When products are labeled with the USDA Organic symbol, consumers can expect and trust that:
- No toxic synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fumigants were used in growing crops or while they were in storage
- No chemical fertilizers or sewer sludge were used as fertilizer, and soil fertility is maintained via incorporation of biological soil amendments, compost, cover crops, and crop rotations,
- No planting of genetically engineered (GE) crops or use of cloned animals, or use of GE ingredients in food manufacturing
- No synthetic hormones or antibiotics are used on organic livestock farms, and when animals must be treated to combat a life-threatening infection, the animal must be sold and converted to conventional production,
- No artificial colors or synthetic flavors and sweeteners
- No trans fats
- No irradiation
The definition of “natural” is both imprecise and variable. According to the USDA, there is no clear definition, nor any enforceable standard within the food industry, though many natural products are marketed as “sustainable” with one or more of the following claims:
- No pesticides or artificial chemicals
- No artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives, or other additives
- “Family farm” raised
- “Only natural ingredients”
- “Whole ingredients” or “natural” foods
- “GMO free”
But “natural” foods are often grown on farms applying synthetic pesticides, including several posing risks to people and the environment. “Natural” foods are manufactured from crops grown with conventional, energy-intensive fertilizers, and frequently contain one or more products derived from GE corn or soybeans.
“Natural” foods often do contain one or a few ingredients grown using sustainable agriculture methods or organic farming, both avoiding applications of dangerous chemicals and protecting soil and water resources.
The world of “natural” foods gets even murkier on farms raising livestock, where claims are made implying that animals are raised in “natural” settings and are not given drugs and high-energy feeds to promote rapid growth. Some brands selling “natural” meat and dairy products do require farmers to not administer hormones and low doses of antibiotics to boost animal growth, but these claims are rarely not backed up by meaningful enforcement and penalty provisions.
Only the detailed provisions set forth in the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) rule require farmers to develop and follow a comprehensive farm system plan that encompasses how crops are grown, soil fertility enhanced, pests are managed, and animal health is maintained.
NOP rules also mandate that all certified organic farm operations must be inspected every year to make sure all organic system plan requirements are adhered to and that no prohibited materials have been utilized. Farmers breaking the rules will lose their certification and may no longer display the organic seal on their product labels.