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Organic Agriculture


ORGANIC AGRICULTURE. Organic agriculture originated as a response to a growing awareness that the health of the land is linked to the health and future of the people. It is a holistic and philosophical approach to agriculture, which has as its goals the protection and conservation of the land for future generations, the production of high-quality food, the return to many traditional agricultural methods, and the harmonious balance with a complex series of ecosystems. Land, water, plants, animals, and people are all seen as interlinked and interdependent.


The final rule of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which implements the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, describes organic production as one which will "respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity." Organic agriculture promotes linkages and connections between land and water, plants and people. Soil fertility is enhanced through the use of composted waste to be generated at the farm site and recycled into it, multiple crops and rotations, a belief in the beneficial results of encouraging biodiversity through numerous species, and no use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Further, stringent inspections, record keeping, and certifications are required to verify and maintain the organic status of the land and the food produced.

The terms "alternative," "sustainable," and "ecological" agriculture are also sometimes used, in place of organic, although not everyone believes that these terms are interchangeable. The European Union protects three terms: "organic," "ecological," and "biological" and abbreviations like "bio" and "eco" in all European Union languages. This is to prevent their use in a misleading or false manner. In the United States, the definition of organic agriculture by the National Organic Standards Board is "an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on the minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony."

Today, organic agriculture is practiced in almost every country in the world, and the amount of certified organic land is growing as well. The total area is more than 42 million acres worldwide. The bulk of the organic land (45 percent) is in Oceania; Europe has 25 percent; North America, almost 8 percent; and Latin America, 22 percent. The emphasis in organic agriculture is on sustainability, local resources, and the stewardship of the environment, as well as expanding its global impact beyond food supply and into ecological health. Economically, the International Trade Center estimates the world retail market for organic food and beverages increased from $10 billion in 1997 to $17.5 billion in 2000. Revenue distribution by 2001 is estimated to be at 46 percent in Europe and 37 percent in the United States.


At the beginning of the twentieth century, 39 percent of the United States population lived on farms, compared with less than 2 percent in 1990. Large land holdings were designed as federal lands to protect the natural environment and provide public access. Food quality, adequacy of supply, and public health were concerns. Issues with food quality led to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Extensive research was carried out to make plants disease resistant, and to improve yield. In the 1920s Rudolf Steiner, an extremely charismatic and complex individual, gave a series of eight lectures about agriculture that were the foundation of biodynamics, a concept in which all life forms and the land are in balance and combine with agriculture to address the health of the land with a spiritual dimension. By the 1930s hybrid seed corn had became common, and the devastation of the dust storms destroyed millions of acres of farmland in the Plains states. Two world wars had decimated farms and farmlands in much of Europe. Food supply for present and future populations was becoming a global concern. The vitality of the soil was seen by many as the key to a healthy future population.

Sir Albert Howard of England was one of the visionary leaders, if not the founder, of the organic agricultural movement in Europe. Philosophically, he linked the health of the land to the health of the people. Howard believed that agriculture as mainly practiced, with chemical fertilizers and a single crop, was out of balance with the environment and that many traditional agricultural practices should be revived. His major concern was for the health of the soil, which he felt could be maintained by a diversity of plant and animal crops, recycling of waste to enrich the soil, minimal depth in plowing, natural pest control, and smaller labor-intensive farms, emulating traditional methods.

By the 1940s, chemical fertilizers and pesticide and insecticide use had increased. However, a USDA report from the same time warned that insecticides were present in food and advocated the use of naturally occurring products as insecticides. Some believed that conservation practices like cover crops, crop rotation, strip planting, and contouring of the planting were critical to preserve the soil both by keeping it in place and by maintaining its fertility. At the same time, conventional farming was stressing yields, mechanization, and modern practices. In 1949, official guidance was issued from the U.S. government on how to appraise the toxicity of chemicals in foods.

In America, J. I. Rodale had founded Organic Gardening Magazine and the Soil and Health Foundation (now the Rodale Institute). Many credit him from the mid-1940s onward with promoting and supporting organic agriculture in America. He went on to create numerous publications and with his research and publishing delivered his core message of "healthy soil = healthy food = healthy people."

In 1959, the cranberry crop in the United States was recalled due to the presence of a cancer-causing chemical used to kill weeds. In 1962, Rachel Carson's work Silent Spring had a massive impact: Many Americans, for the first time, saw the link between the loss of plant and animal populations and the use of pesticides. By that time organic farming was well established as an alternative approach. Further environmental activism in the 1970s made many aware of organic agriculture and organic foods.

Alice Waters opened her restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1971 and has been a promoter and champion of quality ingredients, supporting growers who farm organically. Her influence in turn promoted and sustained many other organic growers. The fame and growing impact of Chez Panisse have affected chefs and the public alike. Numerous chefs today provide details about ingredients on their menu, and many base their entire approach to food on organic products.

Likewise, vegetarians have long focused on the quality of the ingredients in their diet. John and Karen Hess in their landmark book The Taste of America decried the quality of food in America in the 1970s, stating that "[t]he health food and organic movements and the counterculture generally, have made some small but enormously promising steps toward reviving the taste of our food. . . . They are our hope" (p. 298). Organic agricul ture has slowly grown, spurred by various scares but hampered by the counterculture label. Reports and findings in the 1990s with regard to the effect of pesticides and chemicals in food on humans, particularly children (for example, the use of alar on apples), drove the increasing demand for organically produced food, which in turn spurred the growth of organic farms.

Application of Principles

Although many people associate organic agriculture primarily with fruits and vegetables, organic agricultural practices are applied effectively to all crops and animals. All cropsgrains, citrus, nuts, fruits, herbs, vegetables, oilseeds like flax and sunflower, beans, cotton, grasses for pasturelandcan reinforce a basic organic tenet: grow a variety of crops in a rotation system. Many people prefer organic agriculture because of its systemic approach that ties food production to ecology, and connects land, people, plants, and animals to a common goal, a healthy vital environment for all. Food produced organically is thought to be more flavorful, have higher nutritional values, be safer to eat, and be ecologically sound. Each food safety crisis, environmental scare, and dietary concern has increased the steadily growing pool of organic farmers and consumers.

The founders of the organic agricultural movementRodale, Balfour, and Howard, to name a fewpassionately shared the belief that the health and vitality of the soil were key to the future of the land and food production. A fundamental principle of organic agriculture is that no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides are permitted. Complex ecosystems that encourage a rich diversity of plants, animals, and insects are considered necessary for a viable and living soil. Composting, worms and beneficial insects in the environment, recycled farm wastes, use of manures, composts, ash, and crop residues contribute to the vitality of the soil, which in turn leads to healthy plants and animals. Further, organic agriculture addresses the broader environmental issues of pesticide and fertilizer residues, run-offs, and concentrations, which affect, not just the health of the organic farm system, but the ecosystems around it. The concept of balance between nature and human actions and stewardship of the land is integral to organic agriculture; in fact, it cannot be maintained otherwise. The inspection process leading to organic certification usually requires a minimum of three years in the United States (two years in the United Kingdom) to allow all traces of past land use practices to disappear. The first usable harvest follows the third year, assuming all other criteria are met for organic certification. This sizable commitment of resources is economically difficult and is one reason that many countries, although not the United States, have subsidies to help farmers certify their land for organic production.

Many feel strongly that organic foods, which are grown without synthetic pesticides, eliminate the concern for ingesting the residues or additives.

Organic Foods

Most consumers believe, and some studies have shown, that there are more nutrients and flavor in organic products. Generally, organic products are more costly than foods grown by conventional agriculture. They are more labor intensive and must meet much stricter regulation, and therefore the cost of organic foods reflects the cost of production. Organic agricultural practices, which utilize local resources and eliminate outside needs as much as possible, fit developing countries' needs very well as well as countries with food supply issues, for example, Cuba.

Cuba is considered one of the success stories of organic agriculture. Heavily dependent upon the Soviets for food and agricultural support, the collapse of the former USSR in 1989 left Cuba desperate for food. Over-night, supplies of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and mechanized equipment all disappeared. Urban spaces were turned into gardens, plot sizes decreased, and organic practices were followed, as there was no alternative. The results have been dramatic, both in creating a new career for many and dramatically changing both the diet of the population and the appearance of Cuba. Now many people have access to fresh organic foods and unused land is turned to food production. Over one-half million tons of food were grown in Havana alone in 1998.

Before the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act, Title XXI of the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990, many state and other organizations certified organic production. The 1990 rules, published in December of 2000 after a decade in development, review, and revisions, set national standards for certification of agricultural products as organic. Certification for all but the smallest growers and compliance for all agricultural products sold under these standards must be completed by late 2002. Certain practices and types of substances, like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, are prohibited. The use of the word "organic" is now nationally regulated. In the United States, a raw or processed product labeled "100 percent organic" must contain only organic ingredients, although it can contain water and salt; if labeled "organic" it must be at least 95 percent organic and if labeled "made with organic ingredients" it must have at least 70 percent organic ingredients. Both the "100 percent organic" and "organic" designations can use an approved "USDA Organic" seal and penalties can be levied if there is any deliberate misrepresentation.

Land under Organic Cultivation

In 1997, 1.3 million acres in forty-nine states were certified organic, and although this number had more than doubled in the 1990s, certified organic land still represents just 0.2 percent of all cultivated land (828 million acres). These totals include crop, range, and pasture lands. All indicators are that the amount of certified organic land is increasing rapidly, however. For example, in California, certified organic acreage increased by 38 percent between 1995 and 1997 and in Washington it increased by 150 percent between 1997 and 1999. The highest production crops that are certified organic are corn and wheat, although thirty-five states are producing a variety of certified organic grains. Tomatoes, lettuce, and carrots are the primary organic vegetables, with about 48,227 acres in organic vegetable production (in 1997); grapes produced on 39 percent of the acreage and apples on 18 percent of the certified organic farm land account for about 2 percent of the certified land that is devoted to producing these crops. Organic herbs are grown in thirty-two states; three states have certified specific land for harvesting wild herbs.

Prior to this national legislation for organic certification, organic land certification was given by over 40 organizations, which included twelve state programs. For example, California grew almost half of all certified organic vegetables in 1997; vegetable farming in Vermont, which has been promoting organics for 30 years, was 24 percent organic. Many states have started to develop incentives for organic conversion.


Most organic farms are about one-third the size of the conventional farm and average about 140 acres. Organic vegetables are generally grown on even smaller holdings, with the majority less than 10 acres in size. They are frequently marketed directly to the consumer primarily through farmers' markets and restaurant chefs, accounting for 3 percent of total organic sales. A very popular form of direct marketing is subscription farming, sometimes known as CSA, an innovative way of connecting the consumer directly with the farm and crop. In 1998, there were 2,746 farmers' markets operating in the United States. Natural food stores, long a source for all organic products, recorded sales of $4 billion in 1999, and an annual sales growth rate of at least 20 percent. Total retail sales of all organic products are estimated at $7.8 billion in 2000, and $833 million of fresh organic fruits and vegetables were sold in natural food stores in 1999.

Organic Agriculture Worldwide

On a global level, in Europe, Japan, the United States, and the United Kindom, retail organic food and beverage sales accounted for about 2 percent of the total, about $13 billion in 1998, with an anticipated annual growth rate of 20 percent.

In 2001, Canada reported of 246,923 farms, 2,230 produced certified organic products, and 614 of these, or 27.5 percent, produced fruits, vegetables, or greenhouse products. Nearly fifteen hundred farms, or 64.7 percent, reported organic field crops. In Canada, the formation of the Land Fellowship in Ontario in the 1950s provided the foundation of the organic farming movement. As in the United States, these early visionaries were joined in the 1970s by a host of individuals and organizations whose concerns for the environmental health of the planet made an immediate linkage to the principles of organic agriculture. Numerous organizations, like the Canadian Organic Advisory Board, which is composed of volunteers, promote and support organic agriculture in a variety of ways throughout the provinces. Canada's National Standard for Organic Agriculture is a voluntary standard for organic production, whose principles and practices focus on protection of environmental biodiversity, a comprehensive and systematic use of organic practices for the production of foods, and a verification process to ensure the standards are met.

Sir Albert Howard is not the only founder of the early organic movement in the United Kingdom to have a global impact. Lord Walter Northbourne is credited with creating the phrase "organic farming" in his 1940 book Look to the Land, and Lady Evelyn Balfour, whose book The Living Soil was based on years of comparative farming data, inspired many to support the principles of organic agriculture put forward by Howard. Lady Balfour was also involved in the founding of the Soil Association in the United Kingdom in 1946. The Soil Association remains an active advocacy group for organic standards. Throughout the United Kingdom, there is a wide range of organizations, government ministries, colleges, and research centers focused on research, education, advocacy, and sustaining organic agricultural practices. The first organic standards were published by the Soil Association. The group performs the majority of the inspections, although several other approved inspection groups also perform certification inspections.

In the United Kingdom there were 2,865 licensed organic farmers in production, or in conversion, in 2000, a dramatic increase from the 828 listed in 1997. In late 1999, 2 percent of all agricultural land (a little over 1 million acres) was farmed organically (fully organic or in conversion). Organic vegetable production value for 1999 was $28.8 million in the United Kingdom. Nearly half of the consumers interviewed said they bought organic produce for the taste.

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has published the Codex Alimentarius to establish global food standards and guidelines for organically produced foods. The FAO states:

Foods should only refer to organic production methods if they come from an organic farm system employing management practices which seek to nurture ecosystems which achieve sustainable productivity and provide weed, pest and disease control though a diverse mix of mutually dependent life forms, recycling plant and animal residues, crop selection and rotation, water management, tillage, and cultivation. Soil fertility is maintained and enhanced by a system which optimizes soil biological activity and the physical and mineral nature of the soil as the means to provide a balanced nutrient supply for plant and animal life as well as to conserve soil resources. Production should be sustainable with the recycling of plant nutrients as an essential part of the fertilizing strategy. Pest and disease management is attained by means of the encouragement of a balanced host/predator relationship, augmentation of beneficial insect populations, biological and cultural control and mechanical removal of pests and affected plant parts.

In Europe, the European Union countries have a total of 10 million acres held in 145,113 organic farms, which represent about 2 percent of farms and about 3 percent of the farming acreage. This figure represents a rapid rate of growth, about 25 percent over the last ten years in European Union member countries. For example, as of 2001, France had over 10,000 organic farms, an increase of 12 percent from the previous year. Ongoing research in organic agriculture is being conducted in most countries, and some have adopted educational programs that support the organic farmers as well as the consumers. Uniformity of standards and dissemination of research are critical to the future of organic agriculture. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) was founded in 1972 to coordinate research and represent organic agriculture worldwide in forums for policy and law. Currently, IFOAM is working in 100 countries with more than 690 member organizations. Perhaps most important, it sets, maintains, and revises the IFOAM Basic Standards of Organic Agriculture and Food Processing, which are translated into eighteen languages and ensure the quality of and equal application of the organic certification through the IFOAM Accreditation Programme.

See also Agriculture, Origins of; Agronomy; Canada; Codex Alimentarius; Crop Improvement; Ecology and Food; Environment; Farmers' Markets; Food Politics: United States; Food Production, History of; Green Revolution; Organic Farming and Gardening; Organic Food; Pesticides; Tillage; Toxins, Unnatural, and Food Safety.


Altieri, Miguel. Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agriculture. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1995.

Balfour, Evelyn. The Living Soil. London: Faber and Faber, 1943.

Barton, Gregory. "Sir Albert Howard and the Forestry Roots of the Organic Farming Movement." Agricultural History, 75, no 2 (2001): 168187.

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.

Codex Alimentarius Commission and the FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme. Codex Alimentarius: Organically Produced Foods. Rome: FAO/WHO, 2001.

Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). 2000 Statistics on the Organic Sector. London, 2001.

EarthPledge Foundation. Sustainable Cuisine White Papers. New York: 1999.

FIBL (Research Institute of Organic Agriculture). Organic Farming in Europe. Provisional Statistics 2001. Available at Organic-Europe,

Funes, Fernando, Luis Garcia, and Martin Bourque, eds. Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance: Transforming Food Production in Cuba. Oakland, Calif.: Food First, 2002.

Gates, Jane Potter. "Tracing the Evolution of Organic/Sustainable Agriculture: A Selected and Annotated Bibliography." Bibliographies and Literature of Agriculture 72. Beltsville, Md.: Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1988.

Greene, Catherine. U.S. Organic Agriculture. Washington, D.C.: USDA, 2001.

Greene, Catherine. "U.S. Organic Farming Emerges in the 1990s: Adoption of Certified Systems." Agricultural Information Bulletin 770. Washington, D.C.: USDA, 2001.

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Hess, John, and Karen Hess. The Taste of America. New York: Penguin, 1977.

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Yussefi, Minou, and Helga Willer. Organic Agriculture Worldwide 2002. Biofach in collaboration with International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), SOEL, Foundation for Ecology and Agriculture, Germany.

Daphne L. Derven

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Organic Farming

Organic farming

Organic farming is the process by which crops are raised using only natural methods to maintain soil fertility and to control pests. The amount of crops produced by conventional farming methods is often larger than that of organic farming. But conventional farming, with its heavy use of manufactured fertilizers and pesticides (agrochemicals), has a greater negative effect on the environment. In comparison, organic farming produces healthy crops while maintaining the quality of the soil and surrounding environment.

Soil fertility

Soil fertility is a measure of the soil's ability to grow crops and plants. Fertility is affected by a soil's tilth and the amount of nutrients it contains. Tilth refers to the physical structure of soil. Good tilth means that soil is loose and not compacted. It holds a great amount of water without becoming soggy and permits air to penetrate to plant roots and soil organisms. It also allows plant roots to grow and penetrate deeper.

The nutrients in soil are directly related to the soil's concentration of organic matter (living or dead plants and animals). Plants require more than 20 nutrients for proper growth. Some of these nutrients are obtained primarily from the soil, especially inorganic compounds of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. In natural ecosystems, microorganisms (bacteria and fungi) in the soil break down organic matter, releasing the inorganic nutrients necessary for plant growth.

In conventional farming, soil tilth is destroyed by the use of heavy machinery, which compacts the soil. Very little organic material is added to the soil in conventional farming, decreasing the amount of nutrients that are naturally produced. Instead, inorganic nutrients are added directly to the soil in the form of synthetic fertilizers, which are manufactured from raw materials. These fertilizers are often applied at an excessive rate. As a result, they pass through the soil to contaminate groundwater and flow along the surface of soil to pollute surrounding bodies of water, threatening native species.

In contrast, organic farmers try to increase soil fertility by increasing the organic matter in the soil. They do so by adding the dung and urine of animals (which contains both organic matter and large concentrations of nutrients), by plowing under growing or recently harvested plants (such as alfalfa or clover), or by adding compost or other partially decomposed plants. These methods rely more heavily on renewable sources of energy and materials rather than on nonrenewable materials and fossil fuels.

Managing pests

In agriculture, pests are any living thing that causes injury or disease to crops. This can occur when insects eat foliage or stored produce, when bacteria or fungi cause plant diseases, or when weeds interfere excessively with the growth of crop plants. In conventional farming, pests are usually managed using various types of pesticides, such as insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides. In the short term, these methods can be effective in reducing the influence of pests on crops. However, the long-term use of these chemicals has been shown to have a severe effect on the environment.

Words to Know

Fertilizers: Substances added to agricultural lands to encourage plant growth and higher crop production.

Organic matter: Any biomass of plants or animals, living or dead.

Pesticides: Substances used to reduce the abundance of pests, any living thing that causes injury or disease to crops.

Tilth: The physical structure of soil.

Organic farmers do not use synthetic, manufactured pesticides to manage their pest problems. Rather, they rely on other methods. These include using crop varieties that are resistant to pests and diseases, introducing natural predators of the pests, changing the habitat of the crop area to make it less suitable for the pest, and (when necessary) using a pesticide derived from a natural product.

Animal husbandry

In conventional farming, livestock animals are generally kept together under extremely crowded and foul conditions. Because of this, they are highly susceptible to diseases and infections. To manage this problem, conventional farmers rely on antibiotics, which are given not only when animals are sick but often on a continued basis in the animals' feed. Since the mid-1990s, however, scientists have known that this practice has led to the development of new strains of bacteria that are resistant to the repeated use of antibiotics. These bacteria are not only harmful to the animals but are potentially harmful to the humans who consume the animals.

Organic farmers might also use antibiotics to treat infections in sick animals, but they do not continuously add those chemicals to the animals' feed. In addition, many organic farmers keep their animals in more open and sanitary conditions. Animals that are relatively free from crowding and constant exposure to waste products are more resistant to diseases. Overall, they have less of a need for antibiotics.

Some conventional farmers raising livestock use synthetic growth hormones, such as bovine growth hormone, to increase the size and productivity of their animals. Inevitably, these hormones remain in trace concentrations, contaminating the animal products that humans consume. Although risk to humans has yet to be scientifically demonstrated, there is controversy about the potential effects. Organic farmers do not use synthetic growth hormones to enhance their livestock.

[See also Agriculture; Agrochemical; Crops; Slash-and-burn agriculture ]

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Organic Agriculture

Organic Agriculture

Organic agriculture uses the principles of diversity and nutrient cycling found in nature to raise crops and livestock. All kinds of food are grown using organic practices, from fruits and vegetables to grains and dairy products. Organic agriculture is popularly understood to mean farming without the chemical herbicides and pesticides used in conventional agriculture. Just as important are the techniques used by organic growers that make chemical use unnecessary. These include intelligently managing the agroecosystem by using crop rotation, cover crops, and tillage.

Principles of Organic Agriculture

Crop rotation means growing a different crop in a field each year. When the same crop is grown year after year in an artificial monoculture , a habitat is created for weeds, pests, and diseases that attack that crop. Organic growers imitate the complexity found in nature by changing the crops grown in a field from year to year. Rotation continually disrupts pest habitat and reduces weeds and diseases.

Crop yields also increase because of the "rotation effect." A basic two-year rotation involves alternating a grass family crop such as wheat or corn with a broadleaf crop such as tomatoes or soybeans. Any pests that become established in the wheat will no longer have a habitat the following year when tomatoes are planted. Similarly, most corn pests do not find what they need to survive in a soybean field.

Many organic growers use more sophisticated four- to eight-year rotations carefully designed to optimize yield and the ecological function of each crop. Often, the complexity of such an organic system is similar to the complexity found in nature, and weeds, insects, and diseases are almost eliminated from the system.

Using cultural control of pests rather than chemical control makes organic farming better for the environment and for wildlife.

Organic farmers will often plant a cover crop in the fall that protects the soil from wind and rain erosion during the winter. Usually the cover crop will provide other benefits as well. If the cover crop is a member of the bean plant family (a legume), it will bring nitrogen into the soil that will be available for the next crop to use. If the cover crop has allelopathic, or toxic, properties, as does rye, it can help control weeds.

From handheld hoes to tractor-pulled cultivators, organic farmers use a wide range of cultivation equipment to control weeds during the growing season. All of these implements operate on the same principle: drag weeds out of the soil onto the surface to dry out and die.

Commercial Organic Farming

A national law provides a set of standards that farmers in the United States must follow in order to sell what they grow as "organic." Organic growers must be certified, or have their farming practices verified by an application and inspection process, every year in order to sell into the organic market.

Increasing awareness of the pesticides used in conventional farming has made many people decide to buy organic food. Because of increased labor costs in organic farming, organic produce may be priced higher than conventional produce. Farmers' markets and roadside stands are places where consumers can purchase organic produce directly from the growers and eliminate retail mark-up costs.

Since the mid-1990s, sales of organic products have increased by at least 20 percent every year. Between 1995 and 1997, certified organic acres in the United States increased by 47 percent, making organic agriculture the largest growing segment of U.S. agriculture.

see also Agriculture; Agronomist; History of Agriculture; Nitrogen Fixation

Jane Sooby


Howard, Albert. An Agricultural Testament. New York: Oxford University Press, 1943. Reprint, Kutzton, PA: Rodale Press, 1979.

Magdoff, Fred, and Harold van Es. Building Soils for Better Crops, 2nd ed. Beltsville, MD: Sustainable Agriculture Network, 2000.

National Research Council. Alternative Agriculture. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1989.

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Organic Farming


ORGANIC FARMING coalesced as a movement in the United States in the 1940s with the work of J. I. Ro-dale of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, who followed the British agricultural botanist Sir Albert Howard in the belief that healthy soil produces healthy people. Beginning in 1942, Rodale published Rodale's Organic Gardening, a magazine dedicated to organic gardening and farming, which drew subscribers ranging from home gardeners to truck farmers. Spurning synthetic fertilizers, he advocated natural soil-builders, such as composted organic materials and ground rock. He and his disciples reacted against synthetic pesticides such as DDT, and livestock antibiotics such as penicillin, which were just finding their way onto farms and into farm produce. After the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), many Americans became concerned with human health and permanence. Thus, organic farming found many adherents in the late 1960s and the 1970s among both antitechnology members of the counterculture and environmentally concerned consumers. Synthetic agricultural chemicals, which had become a staple in U.S. agriculture in the post–World War II period, increasingly came under attack as scientists recognized many of them as carcinogenic. The back-to-basics philosophy of the environmental movement boosted the popularity of organic agriculture as a healthy alternative to the seemingly apocalyptic results of high technology.

For decades the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had advocated use of synthetic agricultural chemicals while bemoaning the loss of humus and topsoil. Responding to environmental concerns, petroleum shortages, and rampant inflation in the 1970s, the USDA began to advocate research into conversion of urban and industrial organic wastes into composted soil-builders that farmers could use to increase fertility and restore soil structure. The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 called for federally funded pilot projects to help introduce organic techniques as supplements to chemical-intensive agriculture. Advocates maintained that organic farming would support family farms by lowering costs, increasing yields, and raising quality, as well as by helping farmers to conserve soil and other natural farm resources. By the mid-1980s organic techniques such as low-till and no-till farming, in which farmers leave crop residues in fields to increase humus and to decrease water and wind erosion, were common practice among cereal farmers in the Midwest.

Public awareness of these issues continued to grow. In the late 1980s a widely publicized controversy erupted over Alar, a chemical sprayed on apples and other produce to enhance color and prolong shelf life, which had been linked to cancer in laboratory studies. The Environmental Protection Agency attempted to reconcile 1950s legislation prohibiting carcinogenic pesticide residues on food with the highly sensitive measuring devices of the 1990s. Projects such as Biosphere 1 and 2 experimented with a sustainable lifestyle in a closed ecosystem. Organic farmers hoped to tap into the antichemical sentiment that drove these activities by selling produce labeled "organically grown" in supermarkets. Initially organic farming was an attempt to preserve "good farming" practices in the face of a rapidly changing agriculture. By the 1990s organic farming techniques had gained wide acceptance as a result of environmental regulation, rising energy prices, and consumer demand.


Hays, Samuel P. Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955–1985. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Wolf, Ray, ed. Organic Farming: Yesterday's and Tomorrow's Agriculture. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, 1977.

DennisWilliams/c. w.

See alsoAgriculture ; Agriculture, Department of ; Cancer ; Gardening ; Hydroponics ; Soil .

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organic farming

organic farming, the practice of raising plants—especially fruits and vegetables, but ornamentals as well—without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. In the United States, as elsewhere, awareness of the environmental damage and threats to health (see pollution; environmentalism) caused by DDT, dieldrin, and other insecticides and by the excessive use of chemical fertilizers has fostered interest in organic gardening, particularly among home gardeners. Organic gardeners use short-lived, biodegradable pest-killers or biological pest control and prefer manure for fertilizer. Organic farming on a large scale is both difficult and costly, but a small, steady market for organically grown, or "natural," foods supports a limited commercial effort in the United States. See also Integrated Pest Management; organic food.

See J. I. Rodale et al., ed., The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening (1959, repr. 1971); C. O. Foster, The Organic Gardener (1972).

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Agriculture, Organic

Agriculture, Organic

Organic farming is a production system that sustains agricultural productivity while avoiding or largely excluding synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Whenever possible, external resources, such as commercially purchased chemicals and fuels, are replaced by resources found on or near the farm. These internal resources include solar or wind energy, biological pest controls, and biologically fixed nitrogen and other nutrients released from organic matter or from soil reserves. Thus organic farmers rely heavily on the use of crop rotations , crop residues, animal manures, compost, legumes , green manures , off-farm organic wastes, mechanical cultivation, mineral-bearing rocks, and aspects of biological pest control to maintain soil productivity and tilth , to supply plant nutrients, and to control insect pests, weeds, and diseases. In essence, organic farming aims to promote soil health as the key to sustaining productivity, and most organic practices are designed to improve the ability of the soil to support plant and microorganism life.

In contrast, conventional farming is characterized by monoculture systems that are heavily dependent on the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Although such systems are productive and able to furnish low-cost food, they also often bring a variety of environmental effects such as pesticide pollution, soil erosion, water depletion, and biodiversity reduction. Increasingly, scientists, farmers, and the public in general have questioned the sustainability of modern agrochemically based agriculture. A large number of organic farmers do use modern machinery, recommended crop varieties, certified seed, sound livestock management, recommended soil and water conservation practices, and innovative methods of organic waste recycling and residue management. Clearly, though, there are sharp contrasts between organic and conventional agriculture.

Most management systems used by organic farmers feature legume-based rotations, the application of compost, and several diversified cropping systems, including crop-livestock mixtures. Through the adoption of such practices, organic farmers aim at:

  • building up soil organic matter and soil biota
  • minimizing pest, disease, and weed damage
  • conserving soil, water, and biodiversity resources
  • long-term agricultural productivity
  • optimal nutritional value and quality of produce
  • creating an aesthetically pleasing environment.

Features of Organic Farming

Organic farming is widespread throughout the world and is growing rapidly. In Germany alone there are about eight thousand organic farms occupying about 2 percent of the total arable land. In Italy organic farms number around eighteen thousand, and in Austria about twenty thousand organic farms account for 10 percent of total agricultural output. In 1980 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that there were at least eleven thousand organic farms in the United States and at least twenty-four thousand farms that use some organic techniques. In California, organic foods are one of the fastest-growing segments of the agricultural economy, with retail sales growing at 20 percent to 25 percent per year. Cuba was the only country undergoing a massive conversion to organic farming, promoted by the drop of fertilizer, pesticide, and petroleum imports after the collapse of trade relations with the Soviet bloc in 1990.

Given new market opportunities, farmers grow all kinds of crops, including field, horticultural, and specialty crops, as well as fruits and animals such as cattle, pigs, poultry, and sheep.

Although research on organic farming systems was very limited until the early 1980s, pioneering studies of R. C. Oelhaf (1978), the USDA (1980), W. Lockeretz and others (1981), D. Pimentel and others (1983), and the National Research Council (1984) on organic farming in the United States provide the most comprehensive assessments of organic agricultural systems. These studies concluded the following:

  1. As farmers convert to organic farming, initially crop yields are lower than those achieved in conventional farms. In the corn belt, corn yields were about 10 percent less and soybean yields were about 5 percent less on organic farms than on paired conventional farms. Under highly favorable growing conditions, conventional yields were considerably greater than those on the organic farms. Under drier conditions, however, the organic farmers did as well or better than their conventional neighbors. Beyond the third or fourth year after conversion and after crop rotations became established, organic farm yields began to increase, so that their yields approached those obtained by conventional methods.
  2. Conventional farms consumed considerably more energy than organic farms largely because they used more petrochemicals. Also, organic farms were considerably more energy-efficient than conventional farms. Between 1974 and 1978 the energy consumed to produce a dollar's worth of crop on organic farms was only about 40 percent as great as on conventional farms.
  3. Studies conducted in the Midwest between 1974 and 1977 found that the average net returns of organic and conventional farms were within 4 percent of each other. Organic farms had a lower gross income by 6 percent to 13 percent, but their operating costs were less by a similar amount.
  4. The USDA formulated Midwest farm budgets in order to compare crop rotations on organic farms with continuous conventional crop practices. The analysis assumed that yields on organic farms were 10 percent lower. In addition, rotations tie up part of the cropland with forage legumes, such as alfalfa; on conventional farms this land would be producing either corn or soybeans. Since corn and soybeans command a higher price, potential income is reduced in proportion to the amount of land tied up in forage legumes. In essence, organic farmers are turning part of their potential income into renewal of the soil (by adding organic matter) in order to assure sustainability of future crop production. The conventional system maximizes present income and is not as concerned about viewing soil as a long-term investment. In conclusion, although initially yields are likely to be lower in organic farms, variable costs are likely to be much lower. With little or no expenditure on agrochemicals, and the availability of premium prices for certain crops, the net result may be similar or higher gross margins for organic farmers.
  5. Many organic farms are highly mechanized and use only slightly more labor than conventional farms. When based on the value of the crop produced, however, 11 percent more labor was required on the organic farms because the crop output was lower. The labor requirements of organic farmers in this study were similar to those of conventional farmers for corn and small grains, but higher for soybeans because more hand weeding was necessary. A number of other studies indicated that organic farms generally require more labor than conventional farms, but such needs can be kept to a minimum if hand weeding or handpicking of insects is not used. The labor required to farm organically is a major limitation to the expansion of some organic farms and an important deterrent for conventional farmers who might consider shifting to organic methods.
Characteristics Conventional Organic
Petroleum dependency High Medium
Labor requirements Low, hired Medium, family or hired
Management intensity High Low-medium
Intensity of tillage High Medium
Plant diversity Low Medium
Crop varieties Hybrids Hybrid or open pollinated
Source of seeds All purchased Purchased, some saved
Integration of crops and livestock None Little (use of manure)
Insect pests Very unpredictable Unpredictable
Insect management Chemical Integrated pest management, biopesticides, some biocontrol
Weed management Chemical, tillage Cultural control
Disease management Chemical, vertical resistance Antagonists, horizontal resistance, multiline cultivars
Plant nutrition Chemical, fertilizers applied in pulses, open systems Microbial biofertilizers, organic fertilizers, semi-open systems
Water management Large-scale irrigation Sprinkler and drip irrigation

In many ways, organic farming conserves natural resources and protects the environment more than conventional farming. Research shows that soil erosion rates are lower in organic farms, and that levels of biodiversity are higher in organic farming systems than in conventional ones. In addition, organic farming techniques tend to conserve nitrogen in the soil/plant system, often resulting in a buildup of soil organic nitrogen. Organically managed soils have more soil microorganisms and enhanced levels of potentially available soil nitrogen.

Conversion to Organic Farming

In order for farmers to become certified organic producers, they must complete a certification procedure. The United States and most European countries have created regulations that apply to the production and sale of organically grown produce. All organic produce must carry a quality mark authorized by the government and provided to farmers by legal organizations that conduct strong verification systems with on-site annual inspections. Farmers willing to convert to organic farming must adhere to specific production standards and can be certified as organic only after three years of strictly following such standards.

From a management perspective, the process of conversion from a high-input conventional management to a low-input (or low-external input) management is a transitional process with four marked phases:

  1. Progressive chemical withdrawal
  2. Rationalization of agrochemical use through integrated pest management (IPM) and integrated nutrient management
  3. Input substitution, using alternative, low-energy inputs
  4. Redesign of diversified farming systems with an optimal crop/animal assemblage so that the system can support its own soil fertility, natural pest regulation, and crop productivity.

During the four phases, management is guided in order to ensure the following processes:

  1. Increasing biodiversity both in the soil and aboveground
  2. Increasing biomass production and soil organic matter content
  3. Decreasing levels of pesticide residues and losses of nutrients and water
  4. Establishment of functional relationships between the various farm components
  5. Optimal planning of crop sequences and combinations and efficient use of locally available resources.

It is important to note that the conversion process can take anywhere from one to five years depending on the level of artificialization or degradation of the original high-input system. In addition, not all input substitution approaches are ecologically sound, as it is well established that some practices widely encouraged by some organic farming enthusiasts (such as flame-weeding and applications of broad spectrum insecticides) can have serious side effects and environmental impacts.

For scientists involved in transition research, an important outcome of these studies is the realization that the process of converting a conventional crop production system that relies heavily on synthetic, petroleum-based inputs to a legally certifiable, low-external input, organic system is not merely a process of withdrawing external inputs, with no compensatory replacement or alternative management. Considerable ecological knowledge is required to direct the array of natural flows necessary to sustain yields in a low-input system.

see also Agricultural Ecosystems; Agriculture, History of; Agriculture, Modern; Agronomist; Compost; Soil, Chemistry of; Soil, Physical Characteristics of.

Miguel Altieri


Altieri, Miguel A. Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agriculture. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995.

Gliessman, Stephen R. Agroecology: Ecological Processes in Sustainable Agriculture. Chelsea, MI: Ann Arbor Press, 1998.

Lampkin, N. Organic Farming. Ipswich, UK: Farming Press Books, 1990.

Lockeretz, W., G. Shearer, and D. H. Kohl. "Organic Farming in the Corn Belt." Science 211 (1981): 540-47.

National Research Council. Alternative Agriculture. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1984.

Oelhaf, R. C. Organic Agriculture. New Jersey: Allanheld, Osmon and Co. Pub., 1978.

Pimentel, D., G. Berardi, and S. Fost. "Energy Efficiency of Farming Systems: Organic and Conventional Agriculture." Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 9 (1983): 359-72.

Pretty, J. N. Regenerating Agriculture: Policies and Practice for Sustainability and Self-reliance. London: Earthscan, 1995.

Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1980.

Youngberg, G. "Organic Farming: A Look at Opportunities and Obstacles." Soil and Water Conservation 35 (1980): 254-63.

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