The Difference Between Organic and Sustainable Food

Sustainable and organic do not mean the same thing. Beyond the limited scope of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program (NOP), there are no strict rules set up to ensure that organic farmers or organic food production operations follow eco-minded practices.

For members of the organic industry, it's important to be realistic about the limits of organic certification. You should be able to separate organic food facts from sustainable food facts so you can market organics honestly and successfully educate organic consumers.

Here are eight major differences between sustainably grown food and certified organic food.

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Sustainable Is Unofficial but Measurable

Organic lettuce crop on a farm in the hills of California.
Photo by Gary Kramer, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

USDA Certified Organic is a real, government-sponsored certification. "Sustainably grown," on the other hand, is not a certified label, nor is it governed by any kind of official policy. Instead, most people consider sustainability a philosophy that describes planet-protective methods that can be continued indefinitely, without causing damage to the environment.

That said, while you can't officially label a food product as "sustainable," that doesn't mean sustainable farming is just a philosophy. Sustainable practices are observable and measurable via economic profit, social benefits for the community, and environmental conservation.

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Sustainable Is Small

Farm houses nestled under bluffs and trees
John P Kelly/Photolibary/Getty Images

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 your farmland.

A sustainable farmer may own less land and grow diverse crops to help enhance the soil and conserve land resources. A sustainable farmer might also experiment with verticle planting or allow animals to graze on cropland to save space.

Because land size is not covered by NOP policy, an organic farmer may use more land than necessary and waste resources. Of course, they do not have to—but the label "organic" doesn't dictate their commitment either way.

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Sustainable Is Water Efficient

Drip irrigation system on an organic farm.
George Rose / Contributor/Getty Images

NOP policy doesn't require that farmers or processors attempt to conserve water resources. Sustainable farming and processing methods, however, do prioritize water conservation.

Sustainable farming methods may include using reclaimed water for some crops, planting drought-tolerant crop species, or using reduced-volume irrigation systems. NOP policy says that reclaimed water can be used to water crops.

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Sustainable Is Energy Efficient

Windmills set in the hills
Alexandros Maragos/Moment/Getty Images

Most modern farms (even organic farms) and food-processing plants are heavily dependent on non-renewable energy sources, such as petroleum. Sustainable food farmers and processors favor the use of renewable energy, knowing that non-renewable energy is finite and won't go on forever.

A sustainable food system may rely partially on alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, or water-based power.

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Sustainable Is Low Emission

Freight truck driving by fields of wheat
Jetta Productions/Blend Images/Getty Images

If your goal is to help lower emissions, then local, sustainably grown food, not organic food, is your best bet. Organic certification does not cover issues such as fossil fuel usage in food production or transport. Many organic food growers and companies ship organic food products thousands of miles from farm to warehouse to store and elsewhere.

Ideally, locally grown organic food is optimal for health and low emissions. In terms of fossil fuel use only, though, organics can't usually compete with locally grown sustainable food, unless an alternative fuel is used for transport trucks.

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Sustainable Is More Humane

Dairy cow grazing on grass on a farm
Michael Marquand/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Organic certification policy includes extremely limited rules about animal access to pasture, but the USDA does not officially mandate animal welfare and well-being through NOP. Organic livestock can spend a lot of time in confinement with little thought given to their overall well-being.

In a more sustainable livestock system, a farmer considers the well-being of livestock and will provide ample outdoor space so that animals can root, peck, and graze naturally. A sustainable farm provides a more comfortable indoor space as well.

Human treatment of animals is something any farmer may or may not choose to implement, but organic certification alone certainly won't ensure decent animal treatment.

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Sustainable Is Eco-Friendly Packaging

Compostable packages of mushrooms at Trader Joe's
 MICHAEL LOFENFELD Photography/Contributor/Getty Images 

Thinking sustainably 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.

One simple sustainable packaging move is to choose glass over plastic. Plastic containers, made with non-renewable petroleum, are less eco-friendly than fully recyclable glass containers.

Sustainable packaging uses the least amount of resources necessary. Ideally, sustainable packaging should be 100% recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable and printed with eco-friendly inks as well. Not all certified organic food is packaged in such a sustainable manner.

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Sustainable Extends Beyond the Food

Sunrise over a farm
Hugo/Moment/Getty Images

Organic certification is nice, but NOP policy doesn't mandate that a farmer or company act sustainably and ethically. For example, farming decisions based on sustainability should extend to other issues, such as a paperless office, incentives for using less gas-based transportation, protecting the community beyond the farm, and fair working conditions for workers.

True sustainability extends beyond basic farming goals into management and individual goals and lifestyle choices. Organic policy doesn't cover much in terms of full-company or full-farm sustainability, but a truly sustainable business attempts to be eco-friendly in many ways, not simply in how it grows food.