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Know Your Label: Certified Naturally Grown

Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) was created as a grassroots nonprofit to serve a sector of farmers that are predominantly excluded from the National Organic Program due to their small size and the high cost of certification fees. Today’s story is all about Certified Naturally Grown.

It’s week two of Know Your Label! If you are just joining us, in this series we are diving into the legitimacy, relevance and history of the food certifications and claims you see everyday! Today’s story is all about Certified Naturally Grown.


Know Your Label: Certified Naturally Grown

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In 2002, the USDA launched the National Organic Project (NOP) which included the Organic Certification that we reviewed last week. The same year, Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) was created as a grassroots nonprofit to compliment the NOP and serve a sector of farmers that were predominantly excluded from the program due to their small size and the high cost of certification fees: “direct-market farmers producing food for their local communities.” Although Certified Naturally Grown products cannot use the label of organic, the principles of organic are at the very core of CNG. That being said, besides the clientele, there are 3 main differences between Certified Organic and Certified Naturally Grown: (1) certification criteria, (2) certification process and (3) transparency.


1) Certification Criteria:

There are five different categories for certification: produce, livestock, mushrooms, apiary (beekeeping) and aquaponics (combination of raising fish and soilless growing). The rules for produce and livestock build on the organic requirements but add a number of missing pieces. Specifically with livestock, CNG strengthens the standards for access to pasture and living conditions. For produce, on top of being synthetic free, other regulations include the use of tillage and crop rotation. Regulations for mushrooms are specific to both indoor and outdoor growing. Two examples of mushroom regulations include the use of buffers between operations and potential sources of contamination, and the prohibition of spawn that is contaminated or genetically altered. Apiary standards were created to provide beekeepers a certification for their safe and healthy practices, addressing the fact that honey can never truly be organic since beekeepers cannot control what their bees might touch. The standards include elevation of hives and recommendations of specific breeds and races of bees that are resistant to certain diseases and will increase the gene pool. Lastly, regulations for aquaponics were created in 2016 to address an up and coming farming practice in which plants such as lettuce and tomatoes are grown in pots of water with fish as fertilizers, rather than plots of soil that must be synthetically fertilized. As with traditional produce, the seeds must be certified organic or “certified naturally grown”. Standards for aquaponics also include the species and health of the fish, and factors such as the pH of the water. The specific certification criteria for each program are too numerous and detailed for this post, so check out the CNG website for more information.


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2) Certification Process:

Rather than having audits conducted by a third party, as is common with most food certifications including USDA Certified Organic, CNG uses a model called the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS), which is designed to foster relationships and knowledge exchange between local farmers. CNG therefore relies on annual mandated peer-reviews by other farmers or beekeepers in the program.  Peer-reviewers are encouraged to share tips and advice while walking through a farm. This helps reduce the paperwork and lower the fees that often limit small farms from receiving other certifications, such as USDA Organic, which can cost more than $1000 depending on the size and location of the farm. Note that unlike with other certifications, the participation fee is not a fixed amount and is made as a donation to CNG.


3) Transparency:

As part of the Participatory Guarantee System model, transparency is fundamental to CNG. The application and audit reports for every farm registered as Certified Naturally Grown can be found on the website for other farmers and consumers to use a resource for “best practices”. This openness also serves as another manner to check that farmers and beekeepers are complying with the regulations.


Although Certified Naturally Grown has stricter regulations and a more open form of review than Certified Organic, CNG openly admits that “no one can ever really know what may or may not be happening on an isolated farm at 5am on a Sunday morning.” While Certified Naturally Grown is not a tell all about the true nature of your product, it sure is a great starting place to knowing more about your product.


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GC Content Writer: Marissa Lazaroff