All About Organic

Foods that are grown and produced without the use of artificial or man-made pesticides, fertilizers, additives and genetically modified organisms.

Organic farming focuses on ecosystem management with minimal external inputs, particularly of a synthetic nature, and emphasizes the use of renewable resources and conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality.

The National Organic Standards Board ruled on an official definition of organic agriculture in 1995, which stated that “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.” The definition also stated that the philosophy behind organic practice is to integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.

The certification process is a lengthy and costly one, involving applications, on-site inspections and interviews, as well as annual fees and update inspections and reports. However, only companies that are certified can use the term organic, with very few exceptions (exempt companies still need to comply with the regulations specified by the USDA). In general, the certification requirements involve farming on land that has been chemical-free for a certain amount of time, using no synthetic chemicals like fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms, and, if producing both organic and non-organic products, keeping the two well-separated. In Europe, the European Union has rules regarding the production, labeling and marketing of organic products, but the actual interpretation, certification and enforcement of these rules are left to member states, as are the penalties for breaking the rules.

There are a number of reasons why organic agricultural practices are advantageous when compared to conventional farming methods. The most obvious is the ability for consumers to buy produce, meats and other food products that do not contain pesticides, herbicides and other synthetic chemicals (The Environmental Protection Agency considers about 60 percent of herbicides, 90 percent of all fungicides, and 30 percent of all insecticides to be carcinogenic).

From an environmental standpoint, organic farming helps protect the earth. Organic farming can help prevent soil erosion, protect water quality from pesticides and other pollutants, and save energy since organic farmers use more labor-intensive practices and utilize “green” crop covers and fertilizers instead of synthetic fertilizers that use energy to produce them. Additionally, organic farming practices promote biodiversity by rotating crops and planting different types of crops, which can help soil retain minerals and nutrients and minimize pest damage.

Choosing organic products can also have an economic impact. Many organic growers are small, independently owned farmers who have found that organic farming is one of the few remaining ways they can stay competitive with larger-scale farms. And finally, while organic products are often pricier than their conventional counterparts, the prices of non-organic products often don’t show the hidden costs that taxpayers shoulder for the regulation and testing of pesticides, hazardous waste cleanup, environmental damage and federal subsidies.

History

Organic farming can be seen as a return to the world’s earliest farming practices, before synthetic methods were even invented. In fact, most farmers were not using mechanized methods, mass-rearing techniques and petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides until after World War II, when chemicals used for munitions, such as ammonium nitrate and organophosphate (nerve gas) were developed into chemical insecticides.

These types of chemicals helped farmers increase their yields, reduced labor costs, and, in some cases, produced food that was more shippable and had a longer shelf life.

Beginning in the 1960s, a building grassroots movement (fueled by books like Silent Spring by Rachel Carson) expressing concern over the use of chemicals to grow and package foods began supporting farmers and producers using organic methods, which lead over the next several decades to private, and then governmental, regulations to define and certify organic growing practices.

In the past decade, the organic industry has grown about 20 percent per year, according to the Organic Farming Research Foundation. And major manufacturers and retailers, most notably the world’s largest grocery retailer, Wal-Mart, have taken note of the trend and increased their organic offerings.

Context

Organic growing practices might be better for the environment, but they’re not necessarily easier on the pocketbook. Expect to pay between 15 and 20 percent more for organic dairy products than for conventional alternatives, and two to three times more for organic meats. Organic fruits, vegetables, and canned goods will also ring higher at the cash register.

They cost more because not using pesticides means more hand-weeding and the chance of losing more of the crop; organic farmers often practice crop rotation, growing crops in some years that could be less profitable. What’s more, the certification process can be costly and time consuming, often costing a farmer or a company between $400 and $2,000 a year, as well as the time spent completing applications, participating in inspections, and making changes to comply to the standards.

With large companies such as Kraft, Dean Foods, General Mills, Dole and Wal-Mart jumping into the fray, many are concerned that these large conglomerates will find loopholes in the certification regulations, or otherwise find ways to dilute them. Already, the Organic Trade Association, spurred by large manufacturers, has successfully lobbied to change regulations to allow certain synthetic food substances to be used in the processing and preparation of organic foods.

External Links:

Wikipedia - Organic Food

Organic Trade Association

The Organic Center

California Certified Organic Farmers’ Top 10 Reasons to Buy Organic

Organic Consumers Association

Organic Farming Research Foundation

Oranges to Oranges—Organic produce may not be any healthier than the conventional kind

Organic Food Standards and Labels: The Facts

Wal-Mart’s Organic Offensive

Further Reading:

Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen by Anna Lappé and Bryant Terry

The Whole Organic Food Book: Safe, Healthy Harvest from Your Garden to Your Plate by Dan Jason

Organic Living in 10 Simple Lessons by Karen Sullivan

Organic Farming Changes Everything for a Community in India By Ginny Figlar

Top Fruits and Veggies to Buy Organic By Wendy Rickard

Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew by Samuel Fromartz

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