"Organic" and "Sustainable" — What They Are and Aren't

These two concepts can be easily mixed up

Organic tomatoes might well be grown in a greenhouse that doesn't use efficient energy practices.

When we buy either organic or sustainable food, we're making a “green choice.” Often the same foods are both organic and sustainable — but not necessarily.

To be labeled "organic" in the United States, foods must follow regulations set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program. The USDA defines "100% organic" as something produced using no antibiotics, hormones, genetic engineering, radiation or synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Foods labeled simply "organic" must contain 95% organic ingredients, with the balance coming from ingredients on an approved National List.  The Grace Communications Foundation, a major advocate for environmental and public health programs, further defines organic agriculture as "an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony."

"Sustainable" is not an officially recognized designation for food products, but in 1990, the USDA did define sustainable agriculture as "an integrated system of plant and animal production practices" that would enhance environmental quality, make the most efficient use of non-renewable and on-farm resources, sustain the economic viability of farm operations, and — here's the big one — "Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”

Obviously, many organic foods are sustainably raised or produced and many sustainably raised or produced foods are organic. It's good to remember, though, that the two don't always go hand-in-hand. It's possible to grow organic tomatoes, for instance, in a greenhouse that doesn't use efficient energy practices, while a chicken raised on a sustainable farm might conceivably be given non-organic feed.


Buying foods that are either organic or sustainable is a good thing. Buying foods that are both is best.