What is the Difference Between Organic and Sustainable?

Derek Ma Mar 15, 2024
54 People Read
Table of Contents
  1. Requirements for a product to be USDA Organic?
    1. Are there environmental benefits of organic production?
  2. What is sustainable farming?
    1. Sustainable farming is small
    2. Sustainable farming is water efficient
    1. Sustainable farming is energy efficient
    2. Sustainable farming is low emission
    3. Sustainable farming is eco-friendly packaging

Sustainable and organic do not necessarily mean the same thing.  

Organic is defined as the product of a farming system that avoids the use of man-made fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators, and livestock feed additives.  

Furthermore, organic products are not produced from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). 

While the definition of organic is pretty straightforward, the definition of sustainable can be interpreted in several different ways.  Here are three general definitions of environmental sustainability.

  1. Sustainability is the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” - United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development.

  1. Sustainability is the capacity to improve the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of the Earth’s supporting ecosystems.” - International Union for Conservation of Nature.

  1. Sustainability is about stabilizing the currently disruptive relationship between earth’s two most complex systems—human culture and the living world.” - Environmentalist Paul Hawkin.

Organic illustration

Organic food production can be argued as better for the environment.  

However, there are no strict rules that ensure organic farmers or organic food production follows sustainable practices.  

If organic farming simply means farming without synthetic chemicals or GMOs, then organic farming is not necessarily sustainable.  

So, what are the requirements for organic farming and what is sustainable farming?

Requirements for a product to be USDA Organic?

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic products have a strict production and labeling requirement.  

The USDA lists three general requirements that products must meet in order to be labeled USDA Organic.

  1. Produced without excluded methods, (e.g., genetic engineering, ionizing radiation or sewage sludge). Policy on genetically modified organisms (pdf)

  2. Produced using allowed substances. View the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (National List).

  3. Overseen by a USDA National Organic Program-authorized certifying agent, following all USDA organic regulations.

Are there environmental benefits of organic production?

Yes, there are several ways organic crop production is better for the environment than conventional food producers.

Organic food production helps to eliminate soil and water contamination.  

Since USDA organic food production prohibits the use of synthetic chemicals, there poses no risk of contamination of the soil and groundwater by those chemicals.  

Conventional farming, on the other hand, typically uses great amounts of artificial fertilizers and pesticides.

Organic farms typically implement natural farming methods that can help preserve local wildlife, conserve biodiversity, and reduce soil erosion.  

These methods include: using mixed planting as a natural pest control measure, maintaining field margins and hedges, and keeping non-crop vegetation to cover the soil and prevent the wind from carrying away the top fertile soil layers.  

Although organic farming practices are better for the environment than traditional farming methods, there are other important factors to consider when looking at whether a farm and its produce are sustainable or not.

What is sustainable farming?

Sustainability is a great philosophy that, while unofficial, can be measured.  

According to Jennifer Chait, there are several ways both conventional and organic farms can become more sustainable.

Sustainable farming is small

Less is almost always more sustainable than more, no matter if you’re dealing with the stuff you own, the size of your home, or yes, even the size of the land you farm on.  A sustainable farmer may own less land and grow diverse crops to help enhance the soil and conserve land resources.

 - Jennifer Chait

Large industrialized farms typically seek maximum sustainable yields with little regard for social and environmental consequences.  

Even worse, industrialized farms typically focus on producing just one crop or commodity.  

Small and diverse family farms are becoming less and less common. However, we can help bring them back if we start supporting these farms and buying their products. 

Sustainable farming is water efficient

The Federal Energy Management Program and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency developed 14 water efficiency best management practices (BMPs) to help agencies and farms increase their water efficiency.

Click on the link to learn more about these practices.

Agriculture is the most intensive user of ground and surface water in the United States.  

It accounts for approximately 80% of the nation’s consumptive use.  

Supporting farms that implement good water efficiency practices can prompt other farms to start implementing these practices as well.

Some examples of these practices include using reclaimed water, planting drought tolerant crops species, and using reduced volume irrigation systems, such as drip irrigation.

Sustainable farming is energy efficient

Sustainable farmers practice energy efficiency and conservation on their farms.  

Efficiency means increasing the work or yield per unit of energy (for example, getting more miles per gallon); conservation means reducing total energy usage (for example, using fewer gallons of fuel).  

Most modern farms are heavily dependent on non-renewable energy.  

Sustainable farms practice energy conservation by using renewable resources such as solar, hydro, and wind energy.  

There are several ways that a farm can increase its efficiency.  Some farms or ranches can become more efficient by maintaining equipment better, improving building efficiency, and/or using more efficient motors and lighting.  

Sustainable farming is low emission

Reducing your food miles can help the environment.  

When you shop at grocery stores, many of the products will travel hundreds of miles to reach your cart.  

Food that travels by plane or long truck trips uses a large amount of fuel and has a significant carbon footprint.  

Shopping at local farms and farmers markets significantly reduce food miles.

Supporting local farms and farmers markets also benefit the local economy and consumers.  

Buying from local farmers will benefit the local economy and reduce the likelihood that a farmer will have to sell his land for development.

“Agricultural landscape will only survive as long as the farmer is profitable.” - Farmers Market Authority

Buying from local farmers also leads to healthier and better tasting food.  

Studies have shown that fresh produce loses nutrients quickly.  

Therefore, the longer produce is in transit, the less fresh and nutritious it will be.  In addition to being more fresh and nutritious, locally produced food has typically less packaging.

Sustainable farming is eco-friendly packaging

“Sustainable food means considering the final packaging. 

For example, you can grow perfectly organic strawberries, then place them in tiny plastic bins, then cover them with plastic shrink wrap, then wrap everything in a bigger box. 

That's a ton of packaging and not so eco-friendly.” - Jennifer Chait

Sustainable packaging should use the least amount of resources necessary. 

Ideally, sustainable packaging should be 100% recyclable.

Where can I find sustainable food brands?

There are several brands that provide great and sustainable food products. 

Below are a list of several earth friendly brands that I recommend you try.

Organic Valley

Nature's Path


Patagonia Provisions

Back to the Roots


One Degree Foods

Justin's Splendid Ice Cream

Table of Contents
  1. Requirements for a product to be USDA Organic?
    1. Are there environmental benefits of organic production?
  2. What is sustainable farming?
    1. Sustainable farming is small
    2. Sustainable farming is water efficient
    1. Sustainable farming is energy efficient
    2. Sustainable farming is low emission
    3. Sustainable farming is eco-friendly packaging