Navigating Agricultural Certifications

Agricultural certifications on our food products are supposed to help us as consumers discern the differences in how our food is grown and processed so we can make informed decisions; however, navigating their meanings and understanding what the certifications mean for farmers can be confusing. Knowing the basics of agricultural certifications will help us as consumers decide how to most effectively align our purchasing decisions with the agricultural practices that we want to support!


Organic Certification

Organic certification means that farmers are growing their agricultural crops without the use of synthetic pesticides, chemical dyes, chemical fertilizers, irradiation, synthetic solvents, or genetic engineering. For certified organic products, at least 95% of the product needs to be from organic origins. For produce to be certified organic, soil health, weed control, pest management, and how produce is processed all need to meet stringent guidelines established by the USDA. Farmers that want an organic certification must pay to be certified as well as take additional steps and cost burdens to ensure their agricultural commodities meet the organic standards; generally this means that the farmer is taking on increased responsibility for their land, crops, and how their crops are processed. Organic farms are inspected annually by a representative from the certifying agency, this creates increased accountability and allows farmers to be apprised of any updates to organic certification policy. Organic farmers will often charge more for their crops, but this is representative of the increased costs and efforts they incur to grow their crops without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Buying organic may be important to you if you want to support farms that foster their land by not adding synthetics to the soil, care for their crops with mechanical methods rather than chemicals, and eliminate pests naturally.


Certified Naturally Grown

Certified Naturally Grown is a certification that farmers can get if they do not use synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or genetically modified organisms. In this way, the basics of Certified Naturally Grown are much like the foundation of an organic certification. The difference between the two certifications is the verification process. Unlike organic certification, Certified Naturally Grown relies on peer farmers to inspect a farmer’s land, processes, and practices. This means that the certification is done by fellow farmers instead of a government or agricultural enforcement agency. Being Certified Naturally Grown can be a great stepping stone and resource for farmers that are just starting out, operating on a smaller scale, or want to work their way up to organic certification. Just remember, that because there is no overseeing agency, there needs to be a higher level of transparency from farmers. Being Certified Naturally Grown is a good marketing strategy for farmers and a way to help brand themselves, but overall does not give farmers the same added value that an organic certification would. While there may be increased costs to make their farm naturally grown, there are far less costs in obtaining certification, whereas organic certification can be quite expensive for farmers.


GAP Certified

GAP or Good Agricultural Practices is a USDA program that farmers can participate in to be certified that their produce/agricultural products are grown meeting all food safety requirements and USDA guidelines. This certification shows retailers that a farmer is growing in compliance with the USDA food safety requirements. For many retailers and purchasers this is essential in order to do business with a farmer. It makes sure there is less risk for the entity buying the agricultural commodity, and it helps the farmer be able to sell to more businesses. GAP certification involves that the farmer or producer takes a class outlining the safety requirement and standards; the farmer then implements these practices on their farm and is inspected by a USDA auditor for compliance. GAP certification is less about selling produce directly to consumers at a venue like a farmers market, and more for the farmer to be able to sell to purchasers who require certain safety measures be met.


FSMA Certification

FSMA or the Food Safety Modernization Act is an FDA program to set the basic guidelines and food safety standards for agricultural production. FSMA certification involves farmers taking a class on food safety, creating a plan and implementing it on their own farm, and then be inspected by an accreditation entity. FSMA asks farmers to identify possible hazards, correct any food safety concerns, create a recall program, and keep records of all farm processes. FSMA certification standards differ depending on the area the farm is located and the size/reach of the farm. Farmers will most likely not advertise their FSMA certifications to consumers, as it is the very lowest certification that they must be in compliance with in order to sell agricultural goods. Unlike the other certifications, FSMA is an FDA regulated certification that all farmers must be in compliance with if they are selling agricultural food products.


Egg Certifications

Free-Range, Cage-Free, No Antibiotics, Animal Welfare Approved, and Certified Humane, are just some of the labels we often see on eggs, whether it be at the grocery store or directly from our local farmer. Each of these means something slightly different for the farmer, the chickens, and for the consumer. Free-Range and cage-free have the same weight in terms of how eggs are produced: cages are restricted but there are no set standards for the amount of space that each chicken has and there are no animal welfare regulations governing how the birds should be treated. Natural labeling, organic certification, and no-use of antibiotics, have no basis for how animals are treated, the amount of space they have, and cages are not prohibited. If animal welfare is a factor in your purchasing decisions, try scouting out producers that have certifications specific to animal welfare like Certified Humane, Global Animal Partnership, or are Animal Welfare Approved. You can also ask your local farmer about how their chickens are raised to get a better idea of how the animals are cared for.


These are just some of the most common agricultural certifications that we are most likely to see from our local farmers and producers. While certifications can tell us a lot about a farm and how they operate, building a relationship with your local farmers is the best way to learn more about where your food comes from, how it is produced, and how that farm aligns with what is important to you as a consumer.