Organic agriculture is perhaps best defined in contrast to conventional agriculture that produces most crops and animals used for food in the US. Many crops grown conventionally use genetic modification, high levels of synthetic agrichemicals, and other methods to maximize production in the short term. Animals raised conventionally are fed corn- and soy-based compound feed containing routine antibiotics to maximize weight gain and minimize time to maturity. Conventional agriculture supplies the ingredients for most processed foods sold by national and international food companies.
By contrast, organic agriculture in the US refers to producing food using naturally occurring rather than synthetic substances and prioritizing ecological health while adhering to national organic guidelines. Organic agriculture and organic food have gained popularity in recent decades as an alternative to the negative environmental and public health consequences linked to conventional agriculture. As part of a broader paradigm shift toward more sustainable food systems, organic agriculture offers promising avenues for food production that can benefit human health, farming economies, and the environment.
WHAT IS ORGANIC AGRICULTURE?
The majority of US farms practice conventional industrial agriculture. Organic agriculture is an alternative method of food production that systematically avoids the harms of conventional agriculture on humans, animals, and the environment. While not a complete solution for food system transformation, organic agriculture can contribute to a sustainable food system that preserves natural resources, safeguards food quality, protects human and animal health, and provides economic stability for farmers and rural economies.
Organic agriculture makes use of naturally occurring ecosystem services, minimizing or eliminating artificial inputs central to conventional industrial agriculture: synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers, antibiotic drugs, and genetically modified seeds. Focusing on ecosystem health helps organic agriculture avoid the harms generated by industrial farming practices that generate large short-term yields and profits at the expense of long-term food system sustainability, environmental health, and animal welfare.
Organic agriculture promotes long-term food system sustainability using many of the same traditional land management practices and philosophies that define sustainable agriculture. What distinguishes organic agriculture from sustainable farming in the US is the robust set of organic certifications and laws to verify and label foods produced according to nationally defined organic standards. These standards allow consumers to make conscious choices between conventional and organic products in grocery stores, restaurants, and other venues.
In the US, organic agriculture traces its roots to the early 20th century as farmers grew concerned with the negative outcomes of conventional practices. So-called “humus farmers” rejected the shortcuts enabled by synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, instead focusing on “feeding” their soil and its community of organisms with natural compounds, including biological compost, green manure crops, perennial forages, and natural rock dusts.
By the 1940s, the term “organic” gained popularity in part due to Jerome Rodale, considered to be one of the leaders of the modern US organic movement. Alternative farming approaches multiplied and grew more extensive over the next thirty years, fueled in part by consumer demand based on mounting awareness of broader environmental problems. Faced with the need to reconcile local and regional differences among a diverse national patchwork of organic marketing terms, practices, goals, and standards, policymakers and members of the organic movement advocated for federal regulation of organic food production. In 1990, the Organic Foods Production Act authorized the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish a National Organic Program and develop national standards for organic farming and production. The resulting organic standards, finalized in 2002, form the basis of current USDA organic certification.
Worldwide, around 187 countries now practice organic agriculture to some degree, with over 70 million hectares of organic land under cultivation as of 2019. The expanding organic market in countries like the US, Germany, and France illustrates the value people place on healthy food that is produced as fairly and sustainably as possible.
WHAT IS THE MAIN GOAL OF ORGANIC AGRICULTURE?
According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Standards Board, the goal of organic agriculture is “to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.” This goal is achieved through farming practices that protect and support the integrity of biological cycles, biodiversity, and fertile soil—which collectively help to ensure the longevity of productive agroecosystems and deliver healthier, more nutritious food.
WHAT ARE THE PRINCIPLES OF ORGANIC AGRICULTURE?
There is no strict definition of organic agriculture or its principles that can encompass the full diversity of economic, environmental, and societal conditions of organic agriculture worldwide. Different countries or regions maintain varying organic standards and practices, while individual farms may implement organic principles to their fullest extent or employ a mixture of conventional and organic methods.
Yet, there are nevertheless some basic tenets of organic agriculture regardless of geographical location. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, a global umbrella organization for the organic movement, identified four fundamental principles that can be applied to organic agriculture in any country: health, ecology, fairness, and care. Each is explored below.
Organic agriculture acknowledges the intimate and inextricable ties between human and environmental health, embracing the unavoidable truth that environmental degradation leads to undesirable human consequences. Organic agriculture aims to foster methods of food production that enable the sustainable use of resources—both human and environmental—and support a healthy, resilient environment capable of regenerating and thriving for generations to come.
Industrial agriculture seeks to control yields of commercial crops by drastically reducing ecological complexity and species diversity within farming landscapes; fungi, insects, animals, and non-target plants are eliminated using pesticides and fungicides. Applying synthetic fertilizers boosts crop growth artificially by bypassing the need for healthy, fertile soil while reducing or eliminating the worms, insects, and microorganisms that plants normally require to thrive.
In contrast, organic agriculture works in harmony with surrounding biodiversity. Organic farming strives to achieve a greater balance between food production and natural processes by relying on ecosystem services as alternatives to agrichemical inputs. By respecting natural processes and incorporating wise and sustainable use of resources, the organic agroecosystem can produce healthy food while supporting a robust agroecosystem.
Justice is a cornerstone principle within organic agriculture and is applied to people, animals, and the environment. Organic farming strives to provide farmers with economic opportunities that can support thriving rural communities. While the transition from conventional to organic practices can involve higher upfront costs—especially for farmers who choose to become certified organic—organic growing methods can lead to long-term savings from reduced fuel and agrichemical costs. Organic farms also tend to be more resilient to environmental and economic instability because they provide higher-value goods and are often more ecologically diversified. Organic agriculture also contributes to improved food sovereignty for small-scale subsistence farmers and may play an important role in food system transformation to benefit farmers and food production worldwide.
Organic farming strives to improve the treatment of farmed animals through better living conditions and higher welfare, particularly when compared with concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Certified organic US farms that raise animals must do so without the cages, antibiotics, and synthetic growth hormones that are routinely used in CAFOs.
However, organic requirements do not preclude intensive practices, and some industrial dairies and chicken farms have found ways to obtain organic certification while still raising animals in CAFOs. Even in less-intensive organic settings, animals may still be highly controlled throughout their lives, denied some of the freedoms of their wild counterparts, and face slaughter well before the end of their natural lifespans. While organic animal farming is more compatible with high animal welfare than conventional animal agriculture, there are many benefits of farming organically without using animals or their byproducts.
Cultivating food has always relied upon the development and use of technology, from simple hand tools and plows to tractors. Yet novel technologies inherently come with the risk of unintended consequences, a risk no less real on farms than in any other realm of human society. If technological development is not pursued within a broad and well-considered impact assessment framework, new technologies may play unexpected, and sometimes damaging, roles within agricultural systems and the broader environment.
The principle of care in organic farming refers to recognizing and preserving the living and dynamic nature of farming ecosystems by applying the precautionary principle before adopting new farm technologies to reduce unnecessary harm. This precautionary approach is why organic farming prohibits the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in crops, inputs, animal feed, and ingredients in prepared foods. Precautionary analysis of the risks to human and environmental health is used by proponents to justify the avoidance of synthetic agrichemicals in organic agriculture, the prohibition against antibiotic use in organically farmed animals, and the focus on protecting ecosystem health.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF ORGANIC AGRICULTURE?
The dominant industrial food system results from nearly a century of investment in a narrow view of agricultural efficiency that prizes food output and ignores or minimizes ongoing costs to human health, environmental health, and animal welfare. The conventional food system became dominant through technological development, public financial incentives, and corporate consolidation—establishing structures and norms that support industrial food production. Conventional agriculture has remained dominant because those structures and norms make it difficult to deviate from the industrial path. The dominant industrial food system captures value from agriculture by maximizing economies of scale and sets expectations for agricultural yields and commodity prices. The result is a very well-worn track, with a social and economic system built to facilitate those who move along it.
Organic agriculture—especially at smaller scales—runs against the grain. Avoiding synthetic chemicals to control pests or substitute for soil health means forgoing artificially high crop yields in favor of reaping the intangible benefits of long-term ecosystem health. Farming at smaller scales means fewer buyers and uncertain access to large markets. Finding natural and locally appropriate ways to fortify soils, reduce competition from weeds, or minimize pest damage to crops means investing time and energy into custom solutions, rather than reading from a playbook of one-size-fits-all solutions like the typical duo of industrial hybrid seeds and their companion agrichemicals.
The uphill battle of producing organic food in a food system that is optimized for farming conventional foods means that organic foods are generally more expensive to produce. These costs are often passed on to consumers in the form of more expensive products. The costs of inexpensive foods produced through conventional agriculture are far greater—including harm to public health, cruel exploitation of animals, and environmental degradation. However, retail prices do not reflect these externalized costs, nor does industrial agriculture include them in its narrow view of agricultural efficiency.
For those who can afford organic foods, the benefits of purchasing organic products can outweigh the costs—a values-driven calculation made by a growing number of consumers who are able and willing to purchase organic foods.
Compared to conventional agriculture, organic agriculture takes a longer-term perspective that considers the farm’s broader ecosystem and its future impacts. This expansive view contrasts with conventional agriculture’s narrow view of cost efficiency and its focus on short-term profits.
Organic agriculture’s longer view and more comprehensive accounting of costs and benefits contribute to a style of farming that invests in resilience and future productivity. Long-term perspectives are necessary for endeavors like building up soil fertility to support future crop growth and maintaining or improving ecosystem biodiversity as a bulwark against the impacts of a changing climate. Long-term thinking can also foster a proactive approach to problems, enabling earlier and more effective solutions than tackle problems with technology after their negative consequences are apparent.
Ecosystems are the result of an incredibly complex interplay of natural elements and living organisms existing in balance. Together these relationships provide services for crop farmers, including pollination, nutrient cycling, fertile soils, water retention, and protection against erosion. Conventional agriculture attempts to replace these services with artificial inputs.
Organic agriculture integrates the agroecosystem with surrounding ecosystems and naturally occurring ecological services. This integrated approach can yield more nutritious food and a healthier surrounding environment. When farmers include a diversity of plants in their fields and avoid spraying with toxic pesticides, local insects can pollinate fields. Planting cover crops can enable farm fields to sequester carbon, prevent soil erosion, and build soil fertility. Allowing wild habitats to proliferate along the borders of fields can help to purify air and groundwater. Planting a variety of crops and managing them without industrial methods can strengthen biodiversity and ecosystem services.
For most of the US population who do not work in agricultural fields or in chemical factories, ingestion of residues in food is the primary mode of exposure to toxic agrichemicals., Consuming organic foods reduces or eliminates exposure to these compounds, which are associated with negative impacts on human health and cognition. Organic food production leads to higher micronutrient concentrations in some foods, though more research is needed to fully understand the effect of organic farming on nutrition.
SAFER WORKING CONDITIONS
Farming has always been challenging and demanding work, but conventional farming can present additional dangers for farmworkers who are exposed to toxic pesticides and other agrichemicals through their work. Reducing or eliminating artificial inputs can improve farmers’ and farmworkers’ working conditions and health outcomes.
WHAT ARE SOME METHODS OF ORGANIC AGRICULTURE?
Organic agricultural methods differ from farm to farm due to regional variations in climate, soil, and other conditions. The USDA maintains a handbook outlining some of the more common practices used by organic farms in the US:
ORGANIC SEED SELECTION
Every crop begins with seeds, so selecting organic seeds is crucial to producing organic yields. Organic production prohibits the use of genetically modified seeds. Organic seeds also must not be treated with inorganic compounds like synthetic fungicides. Industrial agriculture and the corporate agrichemical giants that profit from it have amassed great wealth from genetic modification of seeds and have drastically reduced the number of seed companies that provide organic seeds.
Fertile soil is essential for crop health. Organic agriculture works to preserve and amplify soil fertility by providing it with nutrients through compost or green manure crops and eliminating chemicals that damage the microorganism communities that play a major role in soil health. Cover crops are also planted on fields to protect soil from wind or water erosion.
MAINTAINING ORGANIC CROP INTEGRITY
Farms don’t exist in a vacuum: contamination from conventional fields can occur, potentially compromising the integrity of organic harvests. To comply with organic requirements, organic crops must not come into contact with conventional crops or be contaminated by pesticides and fungicides sprayed onto conventional fields. If contamination occurs, crops cannot be sold as organic, which can cause economic losses for farmers. Creating barriers between fields, for example, by planting trees or hedgerows, is one way to help prevent contamination.
WHO REGULATES ORGANIC AGRICULTURE IN THE UNITED STATES?
In the US, organic agriculture is regulated by the National Organic Program (NOP), which is overseen and enforced by the USDA. The NOP mandates national standards for organically grown animals and plant crops produced, processed, or sold within the US. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) makes recommendations to the NOP regarding allowed and prohibited substances in organic US agriculture.
WAYS TO SUPPORT ORGANIC AGRICULTURE
The organic agriculture movement in the US is robust—backed with solid policy and fueled by growing consumer demand. These supports must continue if organic agriculture is to become the norm for agriculture nationwide.
For the federal and state departments of agriculture in the US, it is essential to promote organic methods and support organic farmers. Many of the public services available at the state level for conventional farmers are inadequate or inconsistent for organic farmers, making it harder for farmers to consider transitioning to organic. To maintain meaningful standards capable of ensuring the original intentions of organic production—including positive ecosystem impacts from crops and higher welfare for animals—the NOP and NOSB must continue to ensure that organic standards are comprehensive and undiluted by industrial lobbying.
For consumers who have the ability to do so, purchasing organic products as often as possible helps to maintain financial incentives for organic production. Increased demand will also help achieve the economies of scale for some producers, which is one factor in lowering the price of organic foods and making them more accessible for lower-income consumers.
For funders interested in supporting the organic agriculture movement and sustainable food systems, there are many organizations working to promote organic farming and increase the accessibility of healthy organic foods, especially within disadvantaged communities:
- Rodale Institute, a pioneering alternative farming center growing the organic movement through research, farmer training, and consumer education.
- Southeast African American Farmers Organic Network, a network formed by Black farmers dedicated to strengthening their collective power to build an alternative food system through land access, farmer training, and collective bargaining.
- Pesticide Action Network North America, an advocacy group working at state and national level to reduce pesticide use in US farming and contribute to reductions worldwide.
- Healthy Food Access, a partnership between PolicyLink, The Food Trust and Reinvestment Fund, shares information on sources of public funding for food businesses aiming to increase community access to healthy food and information resources for food system advocacy.
- Communities in Partnership, a grassroots community-based organization in North Carolina that runs food distribution programs connecting people in need of food with healthy products from local farmers, in addition to addressing the systemic roots of income inequality and food insecurity through workforce development and housing programs.
- Organic Farmers Association, a farmer-led initiative to expand organic farming in the US by advocating for supporting policy and strengthening the capacity of organic farmers.
- Ecological Farming Association, an expansive grassroots network building alliances between farmers, distributors, and the public.
- Kiss the Ground, an organization addressing climate change through rebuilding soil health, working with policymakers, scientists, students, and NGOs to develop more sustainable supply chains.
Organic farming in the US cannot singlehandedly deliver global food system transformation, but it can contribute to the necessary transition to sustainable agriculture to conserve resources and protect the continued productivity of agroecosystems. Supporting the US organic farming movement through public incentives, economic assistance for farmers in transition, and a growing market for organic products will help challenge the dominance of industrial farming—normalizing sustainable farming practices that benefit the environment, farmed animals, and public health worldwide.
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