Does ‘organic’ food mean chemical-free?

Pesticides are used in organic farming both in the European Union (EU) and the USA, in line with organic-approved pesticide lists, and are generally derived from natural sources rather than synthetic substances.

In both EU and US regulations, chemically treated seeds and starter stocks can be utilised, and synthetic chemicals are allowed under specific circumstances.

The use of synthetic chemicals is allowed in the EU and USA under exceptional conditions or when an organic alternative is not available, but what the exceptional conditions are is not explicitly defined, creating legal loopholes for misuse.[9], [10]

Even when organic crops are treated with only organic-approved substances, contamination of soils with harmful non-organic substances is a globally recognised problem. Pesticide residue testing is performed as a standard regulatory practice in the EU across organic and conventional produce, without discrimination for any specific substance tests in between, although it is done for monitoring rather than for compliance or as a protective measure to avoid consumption of contaminated produce. In Europe, over 97% of foods tested have been found to contain pesticide residues, with 13.5% of organic products testing positive – both data recorded within legal limits determined by the authorities.[11] EU monitoring has identified synthetic pesticides in a wide range of organic food products and even found traces of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), a highly persistent and toxic synthetic pesticide that has been banned in the EU and the USA since the 1970s.[12]

In the USA, synthetic pesticides and herbicides used in conventional farming are less restricted than in Europe, with some highly harmful substances banned in the EU still approved for use in the USA.

Are GMO (genetically modified organism) inputs allowed in crop production? 

No, and lab tests are run to guarantee no GMO is present in organic produce.

Is GMO (genetically modified organism) technology allowed in crop production?

No, but there are no means to test if certain inputs have been obtained as a result of GMO technology. For example, ascorbic acid (E300) used in bread-making is normally produced with GMO bacteria, but the organic industry self-declared that this ingredient is not obtained with the aid of GMO technology, and it can therefore be added to organic-certified bread. Organic food regulations have no means to guarantee that an organic product is GMO technology-free other than relying on industry self-declarations.

9. Official Journal of the European Union (2007), Council Regulation (EC) No 834/2007. http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2007:189:0001:0023:EN:PDF
10. US Government Publishing Office, Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, Title 7: Agriculture, Part 205: National Organic Program. https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/retrieveECFR?gp=&SID=a5b155ba6da8c49616dcd44de509f65d&mc=true&n=pt7.3.205&r=PART&ty=HTML
11. European Food Safety Authority (2017), The 2015 European Union Report on Pesticide Residues in Food. https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/pub/4791
12. The Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food (2015), Report on the Pesticide Residues Monitoring Programme for Quarter 1 2015. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20151023155227/http://www.pesticides.gov.uk/Resources/CRD/PRiF/Documents/Results%20and%20Reports/2015/Q1%202015%20FINAL.pdf