What Organic Means

What does organic” mean and how does it differ from “natural”?

When it is used to describe plant products, food or other crops, animals, animal feed, or fibers, the term “organic” has a very precise legal definition. All products that are sold, or labeled, as organic must meet all requirements in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic regulations. Organic does not mean “pesticide-free.” Organic production and handling standards are summarized in this document. (See the full legal text of the National Organic Program here.)


“Natural,” on the other hand, has no legal definition. While it IMPLIES that products or materials are derived from naturally occurring sources, that assumption is not always accurate. We might also assume that “natural” means wholesome and safe, but there are many natural products that are neither wholesome nor safe. Strychnine, lead, mercury, nicotine, and many other deadly compounds are natural and in the past have all been used as pesticides. Today, no one considers these compounds wholesome or desirable additives in our food products; they are no longer registered and cannot be used as pesticides in organic production even though they are naturally occurring materials.

There is no relationship between “natural” and “safe”, or between “synthetic” and “unsafe”. Copper and sulfur, though natural elements used in pesticides, approved for organic production, are more toxic to humans than many conventional pesticides. Safe pesticide use, therefore, is not dependent on whether a pesticide is natural or synthetic, but on following all label directions for the particular product.

See “Terms to Know” to understand the relationships between conventional, organic, and sustainable production, local food, and integrated pest management.


Initial compilation courtesy of Lenora Jones

Washington State University Extension