Right now, the U.S. government only officially recognizes two standards for organic foods: the USDA's Organic Seal and the equivalent certificate from Canada. That's made it hard for producers of organic foods from overseas to get recognized for their sustainable practices and charge accordingly. But NPR reported today that a landmark agreement between officials in the U.S. and European Union will allow European organic certification to be marketed with impunity in the United States, and vice versa.
The agreement, which will take effect June 1st, marks the end of years of negotiation between agricultural regulations across the Atlantic, in which each side has accused the other of not being rigorous enough. They now both concur that the organic standards in each market are more or less equivalent.
In general, organic agricultural methods are those which do not employ synthetic or petroleum-derived chemicals in the production of foodstuffs. In practice, the exact terms of those standards are tricky; you can read the full American regulations on the USDA's website and the EU's regulations on the website for the European Commission on Agriculture. One key idea -- taken from the European regulations -- is that "external resources should be limited to organic resources from other organic farms, natural or naturally obtained materials and low soluble mineral fertilisers."
Some allege that organic producer is healthier for people than so-called "conventional" agriculture, and most agree that organic agriculture is better for the long-term health of the environment.
The National Organic Program has been monitoring the "organic" label throughout the U.S. since 1990. Before that, a panoply of other agencies offered different standards of organic certification with varying degrees of authority.
Farmers sometimes complain about the cost of USDA certification, and organic purists gripe that it's easy to meet the USDA's organic standards without being truly sustainable -- but it's also been a major force for mandating a clear standard for agricultural practices. The negative counterpoint to the rigor of the organic standards has, in recent years, been the label "natural," which is almost unregulated, and so subject to massive abuse on the part of food producers.