These words are commonly used in organic farming and ecological studies. We hope this helps you better understand organic farming as well as the care, vision, and regulation that goes into food carrying the organic label. Terms marked with an asterisk are taken directly from the USDA’s Organic Standards.




The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.

Behaviors and/or body structures that make a species well-suited to survive in a particular environment.

“With oxygen.” Aerobic bacteria that require oxygen to carry out their life functions will produce a sweet, earthy-smelling compost.

Clustering, as of soil particles, to form granules that aid in aeration and water penetration.

To improve soil through the addition of various substances.

“Without oxygen.” In a compost, anaerobic bacteria that live in the absence of oxygen will give off rotten odors.




Single-celled or non-cellular organisms found in soil, water, air, organic matter, and in the bodies of plants and animals. Organic soil contains billions of bacteria that make the soil fertile by recycling nutrients from dead plants and animals and converting nitrogen in the air into a form that plants can absorb. Most bacteria are beneficial and do not cause disease.

Capable of being broken down into simpler components by living organisms.

Biological diversity (biodiversity)
The variety of plant and animal species living in a specified geographical area.

Biological control
Management of pests within reasonable limits by encouraging natural predator/prey relationships and avoiding use of toxic chemicals.

That part of a given habitat consisting of living matter, expressed as weight of organisms per unit area.

Inserting genes into plants to make them manufacture drugs, vaccines, enzymes, antibodies, hormones or industrial chemicals such as plastics, detergents, and adhesives.

Brix mix
A fertilizer formulated to increase the brix (sugar content) of growing vegetables, trees and vines, flowers, herbs, and ornamental crops. By raising the brix levels in plants, a farmer can increase yields and reduce insect and fungus attacks. Maintaining a high brix level helps the crop deal with adverse climactic conditions that can cause stress, and thus a lower yield. The brix scale, which represents the percentage of sugar by weight in a solution, was invented in the late 1800s by Austrian scientist Adolph F. Brix.

A toxin produced by a bacterium called “bacillus thuringiensis.” This bacterium is a disease of caterpillars, but it is harmless to other insects and humans.

Buffer zone*
An area located between a certified organic production operation or portion of a production operation and an adjacent land area that is not maintained under organic management. A buffer zone must be sufficient in size or other features (e.g., windbreaks or a diversion ditch) to prevent the possibility of unintended contact by prohibited substances applied to adjacent land areas with an area that is part of a certified operation.




Certification or Certified*
A determination made by a certifying agent that a production or handling operation is in compliance with the National Organics Act and the regulations in this part, which is documented by a certificate of organic operation.

Physical contact between unpackaged organically produced and non-organically produced agricultural products during production, processing, transportation, storage or handling, other than during the manufacture of a multi-ingredient product containing both types of ingredients.

The process by which soil particles are pressed together, forcing air out and creating a dense soil where plant roots have trouble getting oxygen and growing through the soil. Usually caused by walking or driving on soil.

The product of a managed process through which microorganisms break down plant and animal materials into more available forms suitable for application to the soil. Compost must be produced through a process that combines plant and animal materials with an initial can ratio of between 25:1 and 40:1. Producers using an in-vessel or static aerated pile system must maintain the composting materials at a temperature between 131 and 170 degrees F for 3 days. Producers using a windrow system must maintain the composting materials at a temperature between 131 and 170 degrees F for 15 days, during which time the materials must be turned a minimum of 5 times.

Crop rotation*
The practice of alternating the annual crops grown on a specific field in a planned pattern or sequence in successive crop years so that crops of the same species or family are not grown repeatedly without interruption on the same field.

Digging up or cutting the soil to prepare a seed bed, control weeds, aerate the soil, or work organic matter, crop residues, or fertilizers into the soil.

Cultural methods*
Methods used to enhance crop health and prevent weed, pest, or disease problems without the use of substances. Examples include the selection of appropriate varieties and planting sites; proper timing and density of plantings; irrigation; and extending a growing season by manipulating the microclimate with green houses, cold frames, or wind breaks.




Organisms that feed primarily on dead organic material, breaking it down into humus.

Detectable residue*
The amount or presence of chemical residue or sample component that can be reliably observed or found in the sample matrix by current approved analytical methodology.

Disease vectors*
Plants or animals that harbor or transmit disease organisms or pathogens which may attack crops or livestock.

The physical movement of prohibited substances from the intended target site onto an organic operation or portion thereof.




Ecological imbalance
A lack of functional relationships among parts of an ecosystem.

Living things — and the physical environment in which they live — that form a complex, interconnected web of interactions and relationships.

The wearing or washing away of soil through the movement of water, wind, glaciers, or animals.

Excluded methods*
A variety of methods used to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes and are not considered compatible with organic production. Such methods include cell fusion, microencapsulation and macroencapsulation, and recombinant DNA technology (including gene deletion, gene doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes when achieved by recombinant DNA technology). Such methods do not include the use of traditional breeding, conjugation, fermentation, hybridization, in-vitro fertilization, or tissue culture.



Soil that supports and maintains healthy and abundant plant growth.

A single or blended substance containing one or more recognized plant nutrient(s), which is used primarily for its plant nutrient content and which is designed for use or claimed to have value in promoting plant growth.

An area of land identified as a discrete unit within a production operation.




Genetic Engineering (GE)
IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) definition. Genetic engineering is a set of techniques from molecular biology (such as recombinant DNA) by which the genetic material of plants, animals, micro-organisms, cells, and other biological units are altered in ways or with results that could not be obtained by methods of natural mating and reproduction or natural recombination. Techniques of genetic modification include, but are not limited to: recombinant DNA, cell fusion, micro and macro injection, encapsulation, gene deletion, and doubling. Genetically engineered organisms do not include organisms resulting from techniques such as conjugation, transduction, and natural hybridization.

Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)*
A plant, animal, or microorganism that is transformed by genetic engineering. The result of genetic engineering is called a “product of genetic engineering” or a “derivative of GMOs,” depending on the circumstances. See Excluded methods. (Note: GMOs are not allowed in organic products.)




An antique variety of a plant popular in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, the seeds of which have been passed down from generation to generation.

The result of organic material being decomposed into a dark soil-like material that contains plant nutrients.




Inert ingredient*
Any substance (or group of substances with similar chemical structures if designated by the Environmental Protection Agency) other than an active ingredient which is intentionally included in any pesticide product.

Ingredient statement*
The list of ingredients contained in a product shown in their common and usual names in the descending order of predominance.

Any person retained or used by a certifying agent to conduct inspections of certification applicants or certified production or handling operations.

The act of examining and evaluating the production or handling operation of an applicant for certification or certified operation to determine compliance with the Act and the regulations in this part.

Exposure to ionizing radiation. Food irradiation is a synthetic process that is not allowed in organic production.




Larvae (plural); Larva (singular)
The immature, wingless stage in the life of insects, after hatching from an egg but before metamorphosing into pupas or adults.

Any number of containers which contain an agricultural product of the same kind located in the same conveyance, warehouse, or packing house and which are available for inspection at the same time.




Organism large enough to see with the naked eye. (See Microorganism)

A metabolite is any substance produced during metabolism of another substance. Can also refer to the end product (what is remaining after metabolism) or a by-product of another compound (i.e., the compound dimethylthiophosphate is the metabolite byproduct of the organophosphate Phosmet).

The process by which chemical changes in cells convert food into energy, assimilate nutrients, and release waste products.

The process that insects go through in developing into adults. In complete metamorphosis, the cycle begins with an egg, followed by a wingless larva, followed by a resting pupa stage where the insect forms a cocoon and emerges as a very different-looking, flying adult. In incomplete metamorphosis, an egg hatches into a wingless nymph, which grows into a winged adult that closely resembles the larva.

Very minute living things, whether plant or animal, including bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and actinomycetes.

A localized area or habitat that has a uniform climate.

Organism requiring magnification for observation. (See Macroorganism)

Cultivation of a single species.

Any nonsynthetic material, such as wood chips, leaves, or straw, or any synthetic material included on the National List for such use, such as newspaper or plastic, that serves to suppress weed growth, moderate soil temperature, or conserve soil moisture.



National List*
A list of allowed and prohibited substances as provided for in the National Organic Act.

National Organic Program (NOP)*
The program authorized by the Act for the purpose of implementing its provisions.

National Organic Standards Board (NOSB)*
A board established by the Secretary under 7 U.S.C. 6518 to assist in the development of standards for substances to be used in organic production, and to advise the Secretary on any other aspects of the implementation of the National Organic Program.

A sweet substance produced inside a flower that attracts and acts as a food source for insects.

Small (usually microscopic) roundworms with both free-living and parasitic forms. Not all nematodes are pests.

A salt of nitric acid. Potassium nitrate or sodium nitrate used as fertilizers produce nitrates that, if overabundant, can leach out of the soil into crops and into water supplies.

Non-point source pollution (NPS)
Nonpoint source pollution occurs when water runs over land or through the ground, picks up pollutants, and deposits them in surface waters (lakes, rivers, estuaries, coastal waters) or introduces them into groundwater.

Nonsynthetic (natural)*
A substance that is derived from mineral, plant, or animal matter and does not undergo a synthetic process as defined in section 6502(21) of the Act (7 U.S.C. 6502(21)). Nonsynthetic is a synonym for natural as the term is used in the Act.

Not known to cause any adverse physiological effects in animals, plants, humans, or the environment.




A labeling term that refers to an agricultural product produced in accordance with the Act and the regulations in this part. See Organic 101 for more information about organic farming.

Organic matter
Any material that was recently living or produced by a living organism and is capable of being decomposed.

Organic production*
A production system that is managed in accordance with the Act and regulations to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.




The process by which certain insects lay eggs inside or on the bodies of other insects. As the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the host insect, eventually killing it.

A substance's tendency to remain chemically active for a long time.

Persistent toxic chemicals
Detrimental materials that remain active for a long time after their application and can be found in the environment years, and even decades, after they were used.

A general term for chemicals used to destroy living things that people consider pests. More specific terms include: “insecticide,” a substance that kills insects; “herbicide,” a substance that kills plants/weeds; “fungicide,” a substance that kills fungi; “fumigant,” a substance that kills all organisms in the soil (a soil sterilizer); “rodenticide,” a substance that kills rodents.

An expression for degree of acidity and alkalinity based upon the hydrogen ion concentration. The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14: pH7 is neutral; less than 7 is acid; greater than 7 is alkaline.

The process by which green parts of plants are able to convert water and carbon dioxide molecules in to a sugar molecule, using light energy from the sun to break and rearrange the molecular bonds.

A mass of tiny spores appearing as a fine powdery substance found on flowers. Pollen grains contain the male reproductive cells of plants.

The action by which pollen from one flower is received by the stigma of another flower of the same species. Once a flower has been pollinated, the pollen grains travel down pollen tubes into the ovaries of the flower, where a fruit or seed case will develop.

A plant that lives for more than 2 years and often many years. These plants usually develop woody trunks and stems.

Precautionary principle
The principle that states that when an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken, even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

An animal that eats other animals.

An animal that is eaten by other animals.

Prohibited substance*
A substance the use of which in any aspect of organic production or handling is prohibited or not provided for in the Act or its regulations.

The resting stage in complete metamorphosis during which an insect creates a cocoon. The insect lives in this cocoon until it emerges as a winged adult.




Recombinant bovine growth hormone: a synthetic growth hormone, used to stimulate milk production in dairy cows. (Note: rBGH is not allowed in organic farming.)

Residue testing*
An official or validated analytical procedure that detects, identifies, and measures the presence of chemical substances, their metabolites, or degradations in or on raw or processed agricultural products.

The process of insects adapting to a pesticide over a period of time, making the pesticide progressively less effective, and requiring larger and stronger applications of the pesticide to achieve the same result.




Sewage sludge*
A solid, semisolid, or liquid residue generated during the treatment of domestic sewage in a treatment works. Sewage sludge includes but is not limited to: domestic septage; scum or solids removed in primary, secondary, or advanced wastewater treatment processes; and a material derived from sewage sludge. Sewage sludge does not include ash generated during the firing of sewage sludge in a sewage sludge incinerator, or grit and screenings generated during preliminary treatment of domestic sewage in a treatment works. (Note: Use of sewage sludge is not allowed in organic farming.)

Soil health
The condition of the soil, including its ecosystems (minerals, nutrients, and microbial activity), pH, and structure.

Basic category of biological classification, characterized by individuals that can breed together and produce offspring that can also produce young.

State organic program (SOP)*
A state program that meets the requirements of section 6506 of the Act, is approved by the Secretary of Agriculture, and is designed to ensure that a product that is sold or labeled as organically produced under the Act is produced and handled using organic methods.

The top part of the pistil in flowers where pollen from another flower must land for the flower to become pollinated.

A substance that is formulated or manufactured by a chemical process or by a process that chemically changes a substance extracted from naturally occurring plant, animal, or mineral sources, except that such term shall not apply to substances created by naturally occurring biological processes.




The process of removing some plants to provide room for the remaining plants to grow and develop.

The maximum legal level of a pesticide chemical residue in or on a raw or processed agricultural commodity or processed food.

A seedling which has been removed from its original place of production, transported, and replanted.




Unavoidable residual environmental contamination (UREC)*
Background levels of naturally occurring or synthetic chemicals that are present in the soil or present in organically produced agricultural products that are below established tolerances.

United States Department of Agriculture




A single worm casting or a quantity of worm castings. Worms “work” material by ingesting, excreting, and re-ingesting it. Vermicast is extensively worm-worked and re-worked. It may be overworked and has probably lost plant nutrients as compared vermicompost. Vermicast has a fine, smooth texture, which may dry with a crust on the surface. (See Worm casting)

Mixture of partially decomposed organic waste, bedding, and worm castings (excretions). Contains recognizable fragments of plant, food, or worm bedding material, as well as cocoons, worms, and associated organisms. As a verb, “to carry out composting with worms.”

The process of using worms and associated organisms to break down organic waste into material containing nutrients for plant growth.

A plant that has grown on its own, without humans intentionally planting it.




Wild crop*
Any plant or portion of a plant that is collected or harvested from a site that is not maintained under cultivation or other agricultural management.

Worm castings
Undigested material, soil, and bacteria deposited by a worm. Worm manure. (see Vermicast)



*Definition taken directly from the USDA’s Organic Standards.


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