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
Biological diversity (biodiversity)
The variety of plant and animal species living in a specified
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Organisms that feed primarily on dead organic material, breaking it
down into humus.
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.
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.
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
The wearing or washing away of soil through the movement of water,
wind, glaciers, or animals.
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
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
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
An antique variety of a plant popular in the 18th, 19th, and 20th
centuries, the seeds of which have been passed down from generation
The result of organic material being decomposed into a dark
soil-like material that contains plant nutrients.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Any material that was recently living or produced by a living
organism and is capable of being decomposed.
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
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.
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.
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
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.)
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
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.
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.)
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
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
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
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
Any plant or portion of a plant that is collected or harvested
from a site that is not maintained under cultivation or other
Undigested material, soil, and bacteria deposited by a worm.
Worm manure. (see Vermicast)
*Definition taken directly from
the USDA’s Organic Standards.