Organic standards are designed to prohibit synthetic substances in organic production while allowing for the use of natural substances. There are some exceptions to these standards, which are carefully documented in the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.
The National List includes both natural substances that are prohibited for use within the organic system and synthetic substances that are approved for use.
Substances on the National List are reviewed every five years through the Sunset Review Process. This review is conducted by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a citizen advisory committee comprised of farmers, consumers, retailers, scientists, environmentalists, processors and certifiers who are appointed to advise the USDA on the National Organic Program (NOP). The NOSB meets publicly twice per year to discuss and vote on substances included on The National List. When reviewing these substances, the NOSB takes several factors into account including effects on human health, effects on the farming ecosystem, toxicity, availability of effective alternatives, probability of environmental contamination, potential interaction with other materials used, and overall compatibility within a system of sustainable agriculture. Throughout the Sunset Review Process, the NOSB invites written and in-person oral comments and their meetings are free and open to the public. Once they vote on whether or not to renew a substance on The National List, the NOSB makes their recommendation to the USDA.
Currently, the National List allows for around 25 synthetic pest control products in organic agriculture, all of which have shown minimal problems to our health and the environment.
Examples include Soap, Copper, and Sulfur. In comparison, conventional farming allows for over 900 synthetic pesticides. In the organic system, only 79 non-agricultural minor ingredients are allowed in food processing, all of which have been very carefully vetted. In the conventional food system, there are more than 3000 “Generally Recognized as Safe” ingredients allowed in the US, for use to create flavors, colors and textures that they believe are marketable to the consumer. Some, like FD&C Yellow No. 5 are considered by many consumer groups to be linked to behavioral problems in children.
Since 2008, The National List has shown a trend of no-growth, with only 5 synthetic pesticides added and 45 denied, removed or further restricted.
The National Organic Program continues to evolve through a democratic review process. While USDA Organic certification is not perfect, it is an ever-evolving system and the most quantifiable, transparent, and trackable system we have to remove chemicals from our food system, and our environment.