Organic certification takes several steps and multiple years


Organic versus conventional farming has long been a controversial topic for Washington farmers and consumers. Many farmers choose to certify their land as organic, while others prefer to grow crops and raise livestock in the conventional way.

There are currently 371 certified organic farms in Washington state. As of 2018, Washington certified organic and transitional farm area accounts for over 130,000 acres. Yakima County holds the highest number of certified or transitional organic farms and farm area with 163 farms comprising 10,493 acres.

Farms are certified by USDA-Accredited certifying agents, like the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA). Only certified farms are permitted to label their food products as organic.

Following application submittal, an inspector visits the farm, the WSDA reviews the inspection report, and, if the farm meets the required criteria, the WSDA issues the organic certificate. To maintain  certification, organic farm operations are inspected annually. When existing organic farmers wish to expand their operations to previously uncertified sites, they must begin the certification process anew. Organic certification takes at least three months to complete.

Certified organic foods are required to comply with growing and processing regulations set forth by the USDA’s National Organic Program and the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. There are distinct rules for organic produce and meat. However, all organic food must be handled and grown without the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), sewage sludge, and ionizing radiation. More information regarding the USDA Organic seal can be found here.

Produce can only be labeled organic if it has been grown in soil in which prohibited substances have not been used for at least three years prior to harvest, including common synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Regulations for certified organic meat require that animals must be fed 100% organic forage and feed, and no antibiotic or hormone use. Livestock must also be raised in living conditions compatible with their natural behaviors, such as daily access to the outdoors and the ability to graze on pasture.

Rules for processed, multi-ingredient foods are more complicated. For example, regulations prevent artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors, and all ingredients must be organic, apart from additives like enzymes in yogurt.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations claims that the conversion of conventional to organic food production helps improve sustainability, climate change, biodiversity, ecological services, as well as water and soil health.

Critics argue that organic crops have, on average, low total yield and high yield variabilities. Moreover, organic foods can cost an average of 47 percent more compared to conventional options. Finally, others argue that organic food has a bigger environmental impact due to higher land use needs and increased deforestation.

Research shows that organic foods are not generally more nutritious than conventional food. Consuming organic food, however, may reduce one’s exposure to synthetic pesticide residue and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which are often present in higher levels than in conventional foods.

Naturally, each of us must decide whether the benefits of eating organic outweigh the higher price tag of most organic foods. Moreover, each farm and food producer operates differently. They should always be free to choose which method functions best for them, without being coerced by lawmakers or bureaucratic regulators. Farmers respond to consumers, and it is consumers served by a competitive market that creates the most choice and widest variety of products in the food supply.

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