Learn How To Understand Organics

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Organics can be confusing. The food you eat can be USDA certified organic, but the pesticides, herbicides and fungicides used to treat them can’t be. It’s all about inputs and outputs. Suzanne Wainwright-Evans, Ornamental Entomologist and owner of Buglady Consulting, helps put it into layman’s terms: “This is where people get confused sometimes – when they think something like an insecticide is organic,” she says. “The insecticides are not organic – it’s that they’re approved for usage on organics. There’s a big difference between being approved for usage on organics and being organic.”

Organic Ornamentals

We’ve probably all tried organic food at some point, whether it’s an apple, egg or loaf of bread. But how does the term apply to flowers? Some consumers might even be under the impression that if it’s a plant, it’s natural and must be organic anyway. Or, others might wonder, if something isn’t actually consumed, why should it matter if it’s organic or not? But it’s not just about the plant. It’s about the process used to grow it and how much impact it has on the environment.

The OMRI Certification Process

Certification from an entity like OMRI is what Suzanne Wainwright-Evans calls the “Good Housekeeping seal” for organics. So what exactly does OMRI do, and how does the process work?

“OMRI determines which input products are allowed for use in organic production and processing,” says Miguel Guerrero, marketing director for OMRI. “We accept applications from manufacturers of products such as natural fertilizers and pest controls. We review those applications against our standards, which are based on the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). Therefore, OMRI reviewed and approved products may be legally allowed for use in certified organic farming or animal production.”

Guerrero adds that all acceptable products are licensed with the trademark seal: “OMRI Listed.”

“While we are a type of certification service, we try not to promote ourselves as an organic certifier per se, because we do not examine the agricultural outputs, like apples or cheese,” he notes. “This job is left to accredited certification agents.”

A list of all OMRI Listed products is available online at www.omri.org.

In order for a product to be called organic, it has to meet standards set by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). For a greenhouse growing ornamental plants, those plants can be considered organic only if a representative from the USDA checks all the inputs used, including pesticides, and ensures that they’re all approved for usage on organic crops. The recent Top 100 Growers survey conducted by TGC’s sister magazine, Greenhouse Grower, found that only 12 percent of the Top 100 growers grow organic products. Evans says she doesn’t know of many ornamentals growers that are USDA certified organic, either. “What I’m seeing more is they’re pulling parts of it into their program. They’re using the biocontrol, or they’re using the organic insecticides and now the biodegradable pots,” she says.

But, the question some growers have is: will consumers be interested enough in organic plants for it to be worth the investment?

The answer, Evans says, is simple: “Look at Wal-Mart selling organic clothing. Do you care if you’re clothing is grown organically or not? Obviously
consumers do.”

All Natural Vs. Organic

It’s easier to label something “all natural” than it is to call it organic. According to Evans, all natural products aren’t as closely regulated. For items like pesticides, she says, a lot of companies use natural botanical extracts, and the market is being flooded with products like these. But, if the plants from which the botanical oils were extracted were grown using conventional pesticides, the products cannot be approved for use on organics. Instead, they’re often labeled as natural.

She also notes that different states have different rules and regulations when it comes to organics. “The federal (regulations) are the broadest, and then the states may be more specific,” Evans explains. “You have to meet the national (standards) first, and then you have to meet your state.”

Getting Certified

If you see a product with the USDA certified organic label on it, Evans says it’s no small feat. In order to use that label legally, there are a number of hoops a company must jump through. The easiest path to USDA organic certification, though, according to Evans, is to go through an independent certification service, such as OMRI (probably the best-known one) or Oregon Tilth, or any other number of certifying bodies. Evans stresses that companies like these are in no way affiliated with the government, but, if something is OMRI Listed, for example, you can rest assured it will meet government standards for organics.

“It’s basically like the Good Housekeeping seal,” says Evans. “What it does is it takes the guesswork out of the consumer wondering if it’s really organic or not.”

Ann-Marie Vazzano was managing editor of American Fruit Grower magazine, a Meister publication.

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