The organic farming movement began in the United States in the 1940s. Strong but disorganized, the movement left each state to define "organic" on their own. It wasn’t until 1990 that Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) to develop a national standard for organic food and fiber production. And those rules weren’t finalized and implemented until 2002.
Nearly 20 years later, there’s still a lot of confusion around the term “organic,” especially in the cannabis industry where new “organic” cannabis products are being unveiled by the hour. The designation has been repurposed as a marketing buzzword and used so much that its definition is all but lost in the consumerism shuffle. But its definition does still matter. And the philosophies and approaches behind it could be the answer to some major issues we’re currently facing, like climate change.
What Does “Organic” Mean?
Organic means that no chemically-formulated, manmade materials like growth stimulants, antibiotics, pesticides, or certain fertilizers were involved in the manufacturing and production of a product. Where it gets tricky, and where the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic certifications come into play, is when those organic practices are applied in the production of a product.
How to Read Organic Labels
The USDA has four different levels of organic: 100% organic, organic, made with organic ingredients, and specific organic ingredients. According to the USDA’s materials, they look for products that are “...produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”
“100% organic” products are also called USDA Certified Organic (emphasis on certified). They’re manufactured and produced organically every step of the way. That means starting from the bottom—literally—with the soil. No prohibited substances like synthetic fertilizers or pesticides can be applied to the soil for three full years prior to harvest.
Products simply labeled “organic” mean they’re mostly organic, but up to 5% of their ingredients can be non-organic. This category is allowed to use the USDA Organic Seal like the 100% organic category.
Those products that are labeled “made with organic ingredients” have at least 70% certified organic ingredients. These products can’t use the USDA Organic Seal nor can they present themselves as an organic product.
The “specific organic ingredients” label means less than 70% of the ingredients used in the product were certified organic. These products also cannot use the USDA Organic Seal or present themselves as organic products.
Why Is Being USDA Certified Organic Important?
USDA Certified Organic products do more for us than just support a healthy diet. Producing food organically creates a positive chain reaction that helps offset—and if implemented at large, reverse—the effects of climate change. When you use organic, everything in the process benefits, from the atmosphere to the soil to the consumer, and it all starts on the farm.
Benefits of Organic Farming
The easiest way to understand the benefits of organic farming is to look at the drawbacks of conventional farming. On the conventional side, farming strategies and techniques once implemented to increase production and efficiency have led to more negative outcomes than positive ones.
Conventional farming involves the use of the plow and synthetic chemicals. Using a plow, or tilling the land, causes soil erosion and destroys important fungal networks by disrupting the soil structure. This disruption ultimately causes enough damage to seal off the soil’s surface, resulting in poor water filtration. All of this leads to weaker soil, which means synthetic chemicals and fertilizers are then needed to encourage plant growth. Those synthetic chemicals, in turn, weaken the soil even more. Eventually, the soil is so weak from being tilled and from the chemicals killing the microbes living in it that it can no longer be used to grow anything.
This process of killing living soil and leaving behind unfarmable dirt is known as desertification. Since soil and plants are two major absorbers of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the more desertification spreads, the more CO2 remains in the atmosphere, trapping solar radiation and warming the planet.
Organic farming, on the other hand, works with nature instead of against it. Organic farmers still face the same challenges of insects, disease, and weeds, but they solve those problems using natural processes and techniques.
The main thing that can help fight against those challenges is, again, healthy soil. Healthy soil grows strong plants, and strong plants are more resilient to pests and disease. Organic farmers also use other natural crop-saving techniques like deploying beneficial insects to handle pests and rotating crops to mitigate disease.
By avoiding synthetic chemicals, organic farming creates a domino effect of benefits. If the soil isn’t disrupted and the plants aren’t sprayed with pesticides, the soil stays healthy and biodiverse. Plants absorb their nutrients from the healthy soil, and since they’re not absorbing anything synthetic, they grow stronger and more resilient. The consumer, in turn, takes in a cleaner product free of any chemicals that shouldn’t be consumed by humans. Plus, with healthy soil and crops, more CO2 is absorbed from the air, helping to cool the planet and combat climate change.
Organic Farming and Climate Change
We know soil is the foundation of crop health, and ultimately, planet health. Unfortunately, humans have damaged and contaminated a lot of the available land on the planet. But, there are organic processes that can help reverse the damage we’ve done.
Phytoremediation, for example, is the process of planting crops specifically to absorb contaminants in the soil. Once the soil is clean, the crops are cleared, and the ground can be used for farming again. Cannabis, and more specifically hemp, is actually one of the best crops for phytoremediation because it can absorb sub-soil elements other plants can’t access. It’s also an incredible absorber of heavy metals and was even used to remove radioactive elements from the ground after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Implementing phytoremediation techniques directly opposes the effects of climate change because it creates healthy soil and plants that absorb carbon from the air. Using hemp for phytoremediation offers double the benefits because hemp is also a strong absorber of CO2. It’s one of the best crops to use for capturing and keeping atmospheric CO2, a technique known as carbon sequestration.
Cannabis and the Value of USDA Certified Organic
We know plants absorb nutrients from the soil, which is why earning a USDA Certified Organic label is important and requires rigorous, yearly soil testing. It’s also why it’s important to search out that USDA organic certification when it comes to your cannabis.
USDA Certified Organic Cannabis
Cannabis is incredibly effective at absorbing carbon, heavy metals, and contaminants from the soil. While those properties are beneficial to the earth, it unfortunately means the cannabis you’re consuming could be contaminated. This is why it’s so important to use USDA certified organic cannabis products. Since the other three organic labels—organic, made with organic ingredients, and specific organic ingredients—don’t require every step of the process to be all-natural, you could be consuming a product that might have some organic ingredients but uses cannabis grown in heavily-contaminated soil.
Consider the growing contamination concern regarding heavy metals in cannabis vape cartridges, for example. Soil that’s not USDA Certified Organic can contain heavy metals from pollution and runoff. If cannabis is grown on that soil and then used to make concentrates, all those heavy metals ultimately end up in your vape. With no standardized approach for heavy metal testing in vapes, no legislation around that testing, and the fact that hemp can now be grown anywhere in the United States, it’s never been more important to be sure your vape—or any cannabis product—is USDA certified organic.
Organic Key Takeaways
Simply put, USDA Certified Organic will always be your best option for your health and your planet.
The USDA has four different levels of organic: 100% organic, organic, made with organic ingredients, and specific organic ingredients.
100% organic, or USDA certified organic, is your most natural option because it starts at the beginning of the process with the soil.
Starting with healthy, organic soil is important because plants absorb what’s in the soil. If
heavy metals are in the soil, the plant will absorb them, and they’ll find their way to you in your next meal. Or in your next cannabis product.
Using USDA certified organic cannabis products is particularly important because cannabis does an exceptional job of absorbing toxins and heavy metals from the soil. This is one reason heavy metals in cannabis vape cartridges is a growing concern.
Conventional farming disrupts nature's well-designed growth systems with pesticides and other manmade materials. After decades of disrupting, we’re starting to see the toll those techniques can take on us and our planet. Fortunately, organic farming has shown us how we can reverse that damage. As consumers, one of the best ways we can help continue that reversal and heal our planet is by choosing USDA Certified Organic products.