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8 Differences Between Organic Food & Sustainable Food


Sustainability and organic are not the same. Beyond the limited scope of the National Organic Program (NOP), there are no strict rules set up to ensure that organic farmers or organic food production operations follow eco-minded practices.

As a member of the organic industry it's important to be realistic about the limits of organic certification. You should be able to separate organic food facts from sustainable food facts so you can market organics honestly and successfully educate organic consumers.

Following are some major differences between sustainable food and certified organic food.


1. Sustainable is Unofficial but Measurable

Lettuce crop in central California.
Photo by Gary Kramer, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

USDA Certified Organic is a real certification. Sustainable is not a certified label or official policy. Most people consider sustainability a philosophy that describes planet protective actions that can be continued indefinitely, without causing damage to the environment.

That said, while you can't officially label a food product as "Sustainable," sustainable farming is not just a philosophy. Sustainability is observable and measurable via economic profit, social benefits for the community and environmental conservation.


2. Sustainable is Small

Small farm
Photo by Tim McCabe, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Less is almost always more sustainable than more, no matter if you're dealing with the stuff you own, the size of your home, or yes, even the size of the land you farm on.

A sustainable farmer may own less land and grow diverse crops to help enhance the soil and conserve land resources. A sustainable farmer might also experiment with verticle planting or allow animals to graze on cropland to save space.

An organic farmer may use more land than necessary and waste resources, because land size is not covered by NOP policy.

3. Sustainable is Water Efficient

Drip irrigation in a vineyard in California
Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS

NOP policy doesn't require that farmers or processors attempt to conserve water resources. Sustainable farming and processing methods do try to conserve water.

Sustainable farming methods may include using reclaimed water for some crops, planting drought-tolerant crop species or using reduced-volume irrigation systems.

4. Sustainable is Energy Efficient

Bushland, Texas, wind turbines generate power for submersible electric water pumps
Image Courtesy of Agricultural Research Service

Most modern farms, even organic farms, along with food processing plants, are heavily dependent on non-renewable energy sources, such as petroleum.

Sustainable food farmers and processors know that the continued use of non-renewable energy can't go on forever and thus attempt to conserve energy now, not later.

A sustainable food system may rely partially on alternative energy sources such as wind, solar or water-based power.

5. Sustainable is Low Emission

Fresh from the dairy truck
Photo © Flickr user Dave_S.

If your goal is to help lower emissions, then local sustainable food, not organic food is your best bet. Organic certification does not cover issues such as fossil fuel used for food production or food transport. Many organic food growers and companies ship organic food products thousands of miles from farm to warehouse to store and elsewhere.

Ideally, locally grown organic food is optimal for health and low emissions. However, in terms of fossil fuel use only, organics can't usually compete with locally grown sustainable food, unless an alternative fuel is used for transport trucks.

6. Sustainable is More Humane

Organic cows grazing in pasture
Image Courtesy of Organic Trade Association

Organic certification policy includes extremely limited rules about animal access to pasture, but the USDA does not officially mandate animal welfare and well-being through NOP. Organic livestock can spend a lot of time in confinement with little thought given to their overall well-being.

In a more sustainable livestock system, a farmer considers the well-being of livestock and will provide ample outdoor space so that animals can root, peck and graze naturally. A sustainable farm provides a more comfortable indoor space as well.

Human treatment of animals is something any farmer can or cannot choose to implement, but organic certification certainly won't ensure decent animal treatment.

7. Sustainable is Eco-Friendly Packaging

Organic tomato sauce
Image Courtesy of Trish Crapo via Organic Trade Association

Sustainable food means considering the final packaging. For example, you can grow perfectly organic strawberries, then place them in tiny plastic bins, then covers them with plastic shrink wrap, then wrap everything in a bigger box. That's a ton of packaging and not so eco-friendly.

Another example is using glass over plastic. Plastic containers, made with non-renewable petroleum, are less eco-friendly than fully recyclable glass containers.

Sustainable packaging uses the least amount of resources necessary. Ideally sustainable packaging should be 100% recyclable and printed with eco-friendly inks as well. Not all certified organic food is packaged in such a sustainable manner.

8. Sustainable Extends Beyond the Food

Stream habitat project near Petaluma on Ranch in Sonoma County, CA
Photo by Lynn Betts, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Organic certification is nice but NOP policy doesn't mandate that a farmer or company act sustainably and ethically. For example, farming decisions based on sustainability should extend to other issues, such as a paperless office, incentives for using less gas-based transportation, protecting community beyond the farm, fair working conditions for workers and so on.

True sustainability extends beyond basic farming goals into management and individual goals and lifestyle choices. Organic policy doesn't cover much in terms of full company or full farm sustainability, but a truly sustainable business attempts to be eco-friendly in many ways, not simply with how food is grown.

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