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NC State Extension

Organic Certification Federal Standards

By: Jim Riddle, organic policy specialist, Rodale Institute’s www.newfarm.org and Tony Kleese, former executive director, CFSA
To become a certified organic production operation, the farm and farm practices must comply with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and the USDA National Organic Program rules and regulations (Federal Register, Vol. 65, No. 246, pgs. 80367-80663). In simplified terms, these National Organic Standards require, for crop farms:

  • 3 years (36 months prior to harvest) with no application of prohibited materials (no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or GMOs) prior to certification;
  • distinct, defined boundaries for the operation;
  • implementation of an Organic System Plan, with proactive fertility systems; conservation measures; and environmentally sound manure, weed, disease, and pest management practices;
  • monitoring of the operation’s management practices;
  • use of natural inputs and/or approved synthetic substances on the National List, provided that proactive management practices are implemented prior to use of approved inputs;
  • no use of prohibited substances;
  • no use of genetically engineered organisms, (GMOs) defined in the rule as ”excluded methods”;
  • no sewage sludge or irradiation;
  • use of organic seeds, when commercially available (must not use seeds treated with prohibited synthetic materials, such as fungicides);
  • use of organic seedlings for annual crops;
  • restrictions on the use of raw manure and compost;
  • maintenance or improvement of the physical, chemical, and biological condition of the soil, minimize soil erosion, and implement soil building crop rotations;
  • fertility management must not contaminate crops, soil, or water with plant nutrients, pathogens, heavy metals, or prohibited substances;
  • maintenance of buffer zones, depending on risk of contamination;
  • prevention of commingling on split operations (the entire farm does not have to be converted to organic production, provided that sufficient measures are in place to segregate organic from non-organic crops and production inputs);
  • no field burning to dispose of crop residues (may only burn to suppress disease or stimulate seed germination – flame weeding is allowed); and
  • no residues of prohibited substances exceeding 5% of the EPA tolerance (certifier may require residue analysis if there is reason to believe that a crop has come in contact with prohibited substances or was produced using GMOs).

The entire federal organic standards can be viewed on the USDA’s National Organic Program website–Program Standards.