What Lurks in the Shadows of Organic Farming?

This day in age, the term “organic” is everywhere.  There’s an organic version of almost any product sold in stores.  But what exactly does the term “organic” mean.  To a lot of people, if they are buying organic tea or organic produce, they think that means the product was grown 100% naturally, without the use of any chemicals or unnatural products.  In other words, they think that product was produced the way that nature intended.  It turns out that this is a huge misconception in our society, it’s a misconception that has been hiding in the shadows of organic farming for way too long.  We are going to take an in depth look at the USDA Organic Regulations (e-CFR Part 205, National Organic Program).  We’ll take a look at the process for a farm to become certified organic as well as the chemicals, both synthetic and non-synthetic that are allowed to be used on organic crops.  We will be examining the organic requirements that pertains to agriculture.  The actual document that lists the regulations is fairly long and a lot of it is written in legal jargon, here we’re going to attempt to break it down in an easy to read blog post!

If you want to look at the e-CFR Part 205, it is available here:

 e-CFR Part 205, National Organic Program

Obtaining and Keeping an Organic Certification:

If a farm wants to label, sell, or represent a product as “100% organic,” “organic,” or “made with organic…” then the farm has to be certified organic and there are a lot of hoops that they have to jump through to earn the right to use those terms.  It is worth noting that if a farm’s income from organic sales totals less than $5,000 annually then they do not have to obtain an organic certification nor do they have to develop an organic system plan, however the products from these small operations cannot be used as organic ingredients by other companies.

Let’s imagine that you own your very own farm and you really want to obtain an organic certification for your farm so your crops are much more marketable in today’s increasingly health conscious society.  In order to obtain this organic certification for your farm there are very specific procedures and regulations that you have to follow.

1.      Before you apply for your certification you are going to have to develop an organic system plan.  This is a plan that is agreed upon by both the farm and the certifying agency, in short this plan has to outline how the farm is going to “maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation, including soil and water quality [1, 205.200].”  This plan has to include a description of the farming practices to be used, a list of the substances that are going to be used on the farm, a description of a record-keeping system that must be implemented to ensure that the organic requirements within the e-CFR are being complied with, and a description of how the farm is going to be monitored to ensure that the organic system plan is actually being implemented.

2.      Keep and maintain very in depth records regarding the farms production, harvesting, and handling of their agricultural products.  These records must demonstrate compliance with the e-CFR’s, be kept for at least 5 years, disclose all activities and transactions of the farm in detail so they can be easily understood and audited.  These records have to be available for inspections during normal business hours.

3.      Your farm cannot use any synthetic substances except those allowed by the e-CFR’s (more on that later).

4.      You also can’t be using any non-synthetic substances that are prohibited by the e-CFR’s (more on that later).

5.      The land being used to grow your organic crops cannot have any prohibited substances applied to it for the past 3 years.  If you were using prohibited chemicals on your farm before you decided to switch over to being an organic farm, then this is going to be a three-year process for you.  Similarly, if you just bought your land to use for organic crops then this will also be a three-year process to obtain your organic certification unless you are able to get records from the previous farmer or land owner that show that none of the prohibited substances were used on the land within the past three years, good luck with that one.  The last land requirement states that the farm must have defined boundaries and buffer zones to prevent prohibited substances from being unintentionally applied to the organic crops.  If there aren’t any other farms around you then this won’t be an issue or if the farms around you are already certified as organic farms, then this won’t be an issue.  However, say that next to your farm is another farm that is not certified as organic.  From this neighboring farm there is a stream that runs through your farm.  You are going to have a mighty tough time obtaining an organic certification since you can’t ensure that there won’t be any prohibited chemicals in this water that runs through your farm.  Additionally, as the farmer, you have to choose and implement farming practices that either maintain or improve the condition of the soil as well as minimize erosion of the soil.  To keep nutrients in the soil you have to use: crop rotations, cover crops, or plant and animal materials.

6.      To grow your organic crops, you are going to have to use organic seeds, seedlings, or planting stock.  However, according to 205.204 if an organic version is not commercially available, then you can use a non-organic seed, seedling, or planting stock to produce your organic crop.  Similarly, if a seed or planting stock has been treated with a prohibited substance then you are allowed to use this to produce your organic crop if an untreated version is unavailable or if that prohibited substance is required to be applied by Federal or State regulations.

7.      Crop rotation has already been mentioned but it is worth noting again that on an organic farm the crops are required to be rotated.  I’m not entirely sure how this works on an organic tea farm since the tea trees can’t really be rotated around the farm.  Instead you might be required to rotate the ground cover crops around that you are using to ensure that the soil nutrients are being spread around, but again, I’m not entirely sure how that works for tea farms specifically.

8.      Pests, weeds, and diseases are fairly common on farms and 205.206 outlines in detail how your farm is allowed to deal with those problems.  Pests can be controlled with the followed measures but your farm is not limited to them: introduction of predators, making the habitat favorable for enemies of the pests.  Using lures, traps, and repellents are allowed.  For a weed problem, they are allowed to be controlled with: mowing, natural mowers (livestock), weeding by hand or using mechanical cultivation.  My personal favorite is that flame, heat, or electrical means can be used to control weeds.  Plastic and synthetic mulches are also allowed as long as they are removed at the end of the season.  Diseases have to be controlled with either management practices that minimize the spread of disease or applying non-synthetic biological, botanical, or mineral inputs.  If you are having a serious pest, weed, or disease problem on your organic farm and you just can’t get rid of them using these approved methods then you are allowed to use a synthetic substance that is approved for organic crops as long as your organic system plan lists that this substance will be used on your farm.  If your organic system plan does not list an approved substance, then you are not allowed to use it on your farm, even if it is approved for use on organic crops.

9.      Once your farm meets all of these requirements and you are following the requirements then you’re going to have to apply for your organic certification with a certifying agency.  These certifying agencies are third party companies that are certified by the USDA to certify farms as being organic.  That’s right, these agencies are certified to certify!  Along with filling out an application, you will certainly have to pay this certified agency a fee.  This fee varies, depending on which agency you use as well as the size and type of your farm.  I was unable to obtain reliable estimates for how much an organic certification might cost both in the U.S. and outside of the U.S.

10.  After you apply for your certification, your farm is going to have to pass on-site inspections which will be performed by the certifying agency.  The purpose of these inspections are to ensure that you are following your organic system plan.  The inspectors can inspect the entirety of your farm and all of the buildings, they will mainly be looking for evidence of prohibited substances or possible contamination of your crops.  They are allowed to take samples of your crops, soil, and water to be tested in a lab.

That is all that’s required to obtain your organic certification, piece of cake, right?  It is worth noting that there are three reasons that variations to these requirements may be granted.  1) If a natural disaster is declared by the Secretary.  2) Damage caused by drought, wind, flood, excessive moisture, hail, tornado, earthquake, fire, or other business interruption.  I don’t have the slightest idea what a “business interruption” is defined as.  3)  If you are conducting research or trials of “techniques, varieties, or ingredients used in organic production or handling [1, 205.290].”  205.290 also states that “temporary variances will not be granted for any practice, material, or procedure prohibited under 205.105 [1].”  205.105 defines the allowed and prohibited substances, methods, and ingredients in organic production and handling.

Once you meet all of these requirements and the certifying agency certifies your farm as organic then you have to maintain your organic status which basically requires an annual inspection, which you will of course have to pay for.

Synthetic Chemicals:

Now that we have gone over the rigid process and regulations for obtaining and maintaining the organic certification of your farm, you are probably wondering what chemicals you are allowed to use on your organic farm.  This is where things get really interesting for organic farms. 

You are permitted to use the following list of synthetic chemicals on your organic crops as long as the requirements in section 205.206 have proven insufficient for your pest problem.  This list can be found in 205.601:

Ethanol and Isopropanol can be used as an algicide, disinfectant, and sanitizer, including use on cleaning irrigation systems.

Calcium hypochlorite, Chlorine Dioxide, and Sodium Hypochlorite are all chlorine materials which are permitted for pre-harvest use as long as the residual chlorine levels are under the limit defined in the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Copper sulfate can be applied once every 24 months to be used as an algicide for aquatic rice systems.

Hydrogen Peroxide is permitted.

Ozone Gas is allowed to be used to clean your irrigation system.

You can use Peracetic Acid to disinfect equipment, seed, and asexually propagated planting material.  Peracetic Acid can also be used in hydrogen peroxide formulas.

Soap-based algicide / demossers are permitted.

Sodium Carbonate Peroxyhydrate can be used as an herbicide, weed barrier, or any other approved uses listed on the product label.

Soap-based herbicides are approved for use on the land surrounding your crops.

Newspapers and other recycled paper without glossy or colored inks can be used as mulch.

Plastic mulch and covers are approved as long as they are not polyvinyl chloride (PVC) based.

Biodegradable mulch film can be used.

Soaps and ammonium can be used as a large animal repellent as long as they do not come in contact with soil or any edible portion of the crop.

Ammonium Carbonate, Aqueous Potassium Silicate, Boric Acid, Copper Sulfate (only in aquatic rice production and is limited to one application per 24 month period), Elemental Sulfur, Lime Sulfur, Horticultural Oils, Insecticidal Soaps, Sticky Traps, and Sucrose Octanoate Esters are all approved for use as insecticides.

Pheromones can be used to manage insects.

Vitamin D3 is approved to be used as a rodenticide.

Ferric Phosphate can be used as snail or slug bait.

To manage plant diseases you can use: Aqueous Potassium Silicate, Copper Hydroxide, Copper Oxide, Copper Oxychloride, Copper Sulfate, Hydrated Lime, Hydrogen Peroxide, Lime Sulfur, Horticultural Oils, Peracetic Acid, Potassium Bicarbonate, and Elemental Sulfur.

For plant and soil amendments you can use: Aquatic Plant Extracts, Elemental Sulfur, Humic Acids, Lignin Sulfonate, Magneisum Sulfate, Liquid Fish Products, Vitamin B1, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and Sulfurous Acid.

Soluble Boron Products, Sulfates, Carbonates, Oxides, Silicates of Zinc, Copper, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Selenium, and Cobalt can all be used as micronutrients as long as they are not made from nitrates or chlorides.

Ethylene gas can be used as a plant growth regulator.

Lignin Sulfonate and Sodium Silicate can be used as floating agents in post-harvest handling.

Hydrogen Chloride can be used for delinting cotton seeds.

Microcrystalline Cheesewax can be used for log  grown mushrooms.

Synthetic Inert Ingredients that are classified as such by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can be used with non-synthetic or synthetic substances listed in this section as an active pesticide ingredient.  The EPA has two lists which list the synthetic inert ingredients.  The first is EPA List 4, which are “Inerts of Minimal Concern.”  The second is EPA List 3, which are “Inerts of Unknown Toxicity” which can only be used in passive pheromone dispensers.  We’ll focus on EPA List 4.

EPA “Inert” Ingredients:

The EPA defines an “inert ingredient” as “any substance (or group of structurally similar substances if designated by the Agency), other than an “active” ingredient, which is intentionally included in a pesticide product.  It is important to note, the term “inert” does not imply that the chemical is nontoxic [2].”  The inert ingredient list is basically a list of products that can be used in conjunction with pesticides and that the EPA itself says that it is not to be implied that “inerts” are nontoxic.  Yet, they are approved for use on organic crops.  This list of inerts exists because companies are not required to list the ingredients or percentages of any of their ingredients in any of their pesticides.  This is a list of chemicals that can exist in any pesticide (along with the active ingredients) but there is no way to know which pesticides have what chemicals in them.  There are way too many inerts to list here, in fact when you look at the EPA List 4, it has an insane amount of chemicals listed, you can find the list here:

 EPA List 4 - Inerts of Minimal Concern

Here are three chemicals of hundreds that can be found within that list:

Phenolfulfonic Acid is a strong acid that is listed as toxic and, “inhalation, ingestion, or skin contact with material may cause severe injury or death [3].”

Naphthaleneacetic Acid has very little information available on it, however the EPA lists it as being “Highly Toxic [4].”

Sodium Cyanide is a chemical that, according to the CDC, is “a highly toxic chemical asphyxiant that interferes with the body’s ability to use oxygen.  Exposure to sodium cyanide can be rapidly fatal [5].”  But it’s okay to spray it on organic crops.

There are hundreds of other chemicals that are listed on EPA List 4, which are approved for use on organic crops.  It’s impossible to list all of them here but the important thing is to know that it is perfectly acceptable to use these chemicals on organic crops.

Non-Synthetic Substances:

As we continue looking at the list of things that we can and cannot use on our organic crops on our farm we get to a list of non-synthetic substances that are prohibited for use in organic crop production.  This is in 205.602 of the e-CFR’s.

You are prohibited from using the following substances on your organic farm:

Ash from manure burning.


Calcium Chloride

Lead Salts

Potassium Chloride

Sodium Fluoaluminate

Sodium Nitrate


Tobacco Dust

What this list means for your farm is that you can use any non-synthetic substance EXCEPT for those listed above.  This includes highly concentrated chemicals of compounds that are found naturally in nature, these are often referred to as organic pesticides.  These organic pesticides are generally a lot less potent than the synthetic alternatives so farmers can either use a small amount of the synthetic pesticide or a larger amount of the organic pesticide [6].  It’s always been thought that the organic pesticides are safe to use since those same chemicals occur naturally in nature.  In 2010 the University of Guelph did a study on organic pesticides and found that “some organic pesticides can have a higher environmental impact than conventional pesticides because the organic product may require larger doses [7].”  This brings us to the end of the list of chemicals that you can and cannot use on your organic farm with your brand new, shiny, organic certification.

Ask Questions:

The idea of an organic certification is great, it’s just too bad that there are so many substances that are allowed to be used on the “organic” crops and furthermore that the majority of the public is misinformed as to what is allowed to be used on the organic foods that they pay a premium for.  It gives the organic products quite a deceptive name.  You certainly have organic farmers that do not use any of the approved organic substances or very few of them.  You also have farmers that use as many as these approved substances as they can.  It’s too bad that there isn’t any way of differentiating between the organic farms that truly don’t use any chemicals and the farmers that use a lot of these chemicals.  It also makes it quite frustrating for a lot of farms.  I’m reminded of a conversation that I had with a local produce farmer in Colorado a few years ago.  This particular farmer ran a family farm and this farm didn’t have an organic certification but instead they consider themselves to be “all natural,” which can mean a lot of different things.  But this particular farmer went on to explain that he doesn’t use any chemicals or synthetic fertilizers of any kind.  His neighbor on the other hand is certified as an organic farm and this organic farm is always spraying his “organic” crops with chemicals.  He is allowed to do this because it’s an approved chemical, meanwhile the farmer who is against the use of chemicals to farm his land is not allowed to be considered an organic farm unless he is able to pay for the very costly process of getting certified to be organic.  Even if he was able to pay for this process and obtain the certification there isn’t any way of differentiating his organic farm from his neighbors “organic” farm which is always being sprayed with approved chemicals.  It certainly isn’t a bad system and it is a necessary system in a society that is increasingly becoming health conscious, but that isn’t to say that it couldn’t be improved upon.  Next time you are at a farmers’ market, I encourage you to ask the farmers there about their cultivation techniques and about the chemicals that they use on their crops (if any). 

It's important to mention that the frustration that the local produce farmer in Colorado showed, is the same frustration that a lot of our tea farmers show.  They don’t see the point in shelling out a bunch of cash and spending a ton of time to obtain a certification that in their eyes is pointless.  All of the tea farmers that we get tea from go above and beyond these organic regulations.  It’s really quite amazing to hear about their natural cultivation techniques and processes and how it varies from farm to farm.

At Conundrum Tea, all of the teas that we sell are grown without the use of chemicals, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.  This is ensured by in person visits to each farm as well as developing a relationship with each farmer.  In our eyes, this is the absolute best way to ensure that natural cultivation methods are in fact being used instead of relying on a certification that allows an inordinate amount of chemicals to be used.  You have probably noticed that our website is full of beautiful photos, these are all photos of the actual farms and farmers that our teas come from!


[1] Ecfr.gov, "eCFR — Code of Federal Regulations", 2015. [Online]. Available:  http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=3f34f4c22f9aa8e6d9864cc2683cea02&tpl=/ecfrbrowse/Title07/7cfr205_main_02.tpl. [Accessed: 28- Dec- 2015].

[2] Inert Ingredient Frequently Asked Questions, 2014.  http://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-05/documents/faqs.pdf

[3] Chemicalbook.com, "PHENOLSULFONIC ACID | 1333-39-7", 2015. [Online]. Available: http://www.chemicalbook.com/ChemicalProductProperty_EN_CB6332613.htm. [Accessed: 28- Dec- 2015].

[4] Pesticideinfo.org, "NAA - toxicity, ecological toxicity and regulatory information", 2015. [Online]. Available: http://www.pesticideinfo.org/Detail_Chemical.jsp?Rec_Id=PC35115#Toxicity. [Accessed: 28- Dec- 2015].

[5] Cdc.gov, "CDC - The Emergency Response Safety and Health Database: Systemic Agent: SODIUM CYANIDE - NIOSH", 2015. [Online]. Available: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/ershdb/emergencyresponsecard_29750036.html. [Accessed: 28- Dec- 2015].

[6] NPR.org, "Organic Pesticides: Not An Oxymoron", 2011. [Online]. Available: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2011/06/18/137249264/organic-pesticides-not-an-oxymoron. [Accessed: 28- Dec- 2015].

[7] ScienceDaily, "Organic pesticides not always 'greener' choice, study finds", 2015. [Online]. Available: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/06/100622175510.htm. [Accessed: 28- Dec- 2015].

[8] Ecfr.gov, "eCFR — Code of Federal Regulations", 2015. [Online]. Available: http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=26b254e3ec275241162fb666aa219c7b&mc=true&node=pt40.24.180&rgn=div5. [Accessed: 28- Dec- 2015].

Posted on December 27, 2015 and filed under Organic.