Natural Foods Merchandiser

A brief history of organics

The concept of "organic" seems pretty simple, but in our modern food system— where chemical fertilizers, pesticides and genetically-modified seeds are termed conventional—setting and enforcing organic regulations is complicated. As retailers, you’re charged with the task of explaining it all to your customers, so here’s a refresher course.


As part of the United States Department of Agriculture, the National Organic Program regulates and enforces standards for all organic producers and processors. The NOP oversees certification of farms, processors, manufacturers and handlers of organic products. Organic certifiers are accredited, but not employed, by USDA.


  • As use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides gained wide acceptance in the 1940s, the first communities of organic supporters also began to sprout around the U.S. and Europe. Early advocates included J.I. Rodale, founder of Rodale Institute.

  • In the 1970s, calls for better oversight of organic led to the creation of grassroots organizations such as California Certified Organic Farmers, the first group to certify organic farms in North America.

  • The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, part of the 1990 farm bill, set the first government regulations for organics. It led to the creation of the National Organics Standards Board, a 15-member board appointed by the secretary of agriculture to advise USDA on organic rules. NOSB’s recommendations became the foundation for the current NOP.

  • NOP organic labeling regulations went into effect in October 2002. According to the original organics law, 5 percent of a certified organic product can consist of non-organic substances that are included on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. The list, which began with 77 substances deemed acceptable in certified organic products by the NOSB in 2002, has grown to 265 substances. Organic producers and processors may petition to include synthetic substances for inclusion on or removal from the list. Since the inception of the list, only one substance has been removed.

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