Consumers today have more options than ever when navigating the grocery store aisle. Several varying labels can be found in the meat and produce section that specify the different ways each product was produced— conventional or organic. But what’s the difference?
USDA approved organic agriculture are products produced using sustainable practices that avoid the use of most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics. The USDA estimates that the U.S. has the largest market in the world for organic goods, valued at over $39 billion.
One of the primary differences between conventional and organic crops is the use of GMOs, which cannot be present in 100 percent USDA certified organic products. GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are plants that are developed by combining genes or sections of genetic material from one plant or organism to another to create a desired trait—such as resistance to an insect. GMOs have a rigorous review process and must be proven safe to grow by the USDA, safe for the environment by the EPA, and safe to eat by the FDA. After being on the market for about 20 years, there is no evidence to suggest that GMOs are harmful.
USDA organic, however, does not mean that a crop is pesticide or fungicide free. Organic farmers, like conventional farmers, have more than 20 options of pesticides and fungicides, as outlined by the USDA Certified Organic program, and some of these do include copper and sulfur anti-fumigants, and naturally occurring Bt toxin.
Another difference between conventional and organic can be found in meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs. Animals raised for USDA organic meat and dairy must consume organic plants and feed, and cannot be raised using antibiotics or growth hormones.
All farmers want to make sure their animals are healthy and free of disease, so that they do not have to use antibiotics to treat or control illness. When it is necessary to fight disease, conventional farmers may use an antibiotic to prevent, control or treat that disease. This is the humane thing to do for the health of the animal, and in some cases may be life-saving for an animal. Organic farmers are not allowed to use antibiotics on their animals, but if an animal gets sick, it may be necessary to use an antibiotic. Animals on organic farms that are treated with antibiotics must be removed from the herd, and meat or milk from those animals cannot be sold as organic.
For animals treated with antibiotics, each antibiotic product has an individual withholding time, as determined by the FDA. All animals treated with antibiotics must go through the specified withholding time before they can enter the food supply. Meat and milk are safe to consume because they are under continuous surveillance for violative residues.
When labeling products, food companies are allowed to label their foods as “USDA Organic” if a minimum of 95 percent of the ingredients in their product are organic. Only products labeled as 100 percent organic are 100 percent organic.
All farmers and ranchers want food that is safe for consumption. Whether produced by conventional or organic standards, the entire food process must have the necessary precautions to keep food safe and free from contaminants, and consumers should take the same precautions when washing and preparing the foods in their home.
 USDA. Organic Agriculture. April 17, 2015 http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentidonly=true&contenti…