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Organic Food


ORGANIC FOOD. Organic food refers to crops or livestock that are grown on the farm without the application of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and without using genetically modified organisms. In contrast, the type of agriculture followed by most farmers, which does include the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, is termed "conventional" agriculture. In 2002, with a value in the United States of over $4 billion, organic foods still represent only a small segment of the entire food industry. However, since the early 1980s the organic food industry has increased considerably both in the acreage devoted to grow organic products and in its popularity with the general public.

Consumer surveys indicate that the public is concerned about the safety of the produce that they purchase in stores due to possible pesticide contamination. The media has also highlighted some environmental concerns that exist with "conventional" farming. These environmental concerns include pollution of aquatic habitats and aquifers by synthetic fertilizers and pesticides; agricultural labor and consumer exposure to pesticides; the short-term approach to "conventional" farming, which often results in unproductive unfertile soils a few years after intensive use of the land; the loss of biological diversity by replacing natural landscapes with extensive monocultures (the practice of growing the same crop, on the same location, year after year); the potential threats to native habitats and wild species from contamination by genetically modified organisms; and the displacement of the family farm by large plantations or corporate-style farming operations. The list of real or perceived health and environmental problems that exist with conventional farming, has in part, contributed to the increased popularity among the general public of organically produced food.

During the 1990s the U.S. organic food industry grew at a fast pace of over 20 percent annually. Because the supply has not been able to keep up with the high demand, organic food normally commands a premium price, compared to conventional food. Thus, organic farming is an attractive proposition for both established and new farmers concerned about human health and about the environment, and also because of the premium price obtained from selling organic produce in several countries.

History of the Organic Movement

The organic farming movement was born in the early twentieth century as a response to the concern that some agricultural ecologists had with conventional agriculture. Early critics of conventional agriculture and organic farming proponents included agricultural ecologists such as Sir Albert Howard in both England and India, and Scott Nearing and J. I. Rodale in the United States. For conventional agriculture, they claimed, short-term profits took a precedence over the environment, resulting in rapid degradation of fertile agricultural lands. From their perspective, the excessive reliance on external inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, and continuous monocultures, antagonized the natural nutrient cycles and pest suppression mechanisms that exist in natural ecosystems. They proposed and developed production systems that precluded the use of synthetic external inputs, and substituted them with alternative production methods, only allowing the use of naturally available amendments such as composted animal manures, botanical pesticides, and the use of green manures (a cover crop, such as clover, that protects the soil from erosion and is subsequently turned under to amend the soil). Early organic production techniques were actually built upon production practices that were originally used by subsistence farmers throughout the world before the discovery of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. These early farmers, over millennia, developed farming systems that worked closely with nature, resulting in a finely tuned system that periodically "regenerated" itself from an ecological standpoint, and thus ensured that the land would remain healthy and productive indefinitely. From the early twentieth century, organic farmers have continued to promote those well-tested techniques used originally by subsistence farmers, and have continued to modify and perfect them, and to introduce new innovative techniques as they learn more through research and experience.

From a production standpoint, the heart of organic farming is considered to be a healthy soil. Organic farmers consider the soil to be a living entity that needs to be cared for and nurtured. Furthermore, they claim, many of the ailments that today's farmers encounter in the field, in terms of nutritional problems or pest damage on their crops, is nothing but a symptom of an unhealthy soil. Modern research has actually substantiated that all aspects of the production system of the farm are interrelated. Some studies have found links between soil quality and pest, weed, or disease outbreaks. Key tactics used by organic farmers to improve soil quality include incorporation of organic amendments such as composts; the use of organic mulches, which also serve to smother weed growth and retain moisture; and the use of cover crops or green manures, which are incorporated into the soil after reaching a particular stage of growth. If the soil suffers from a nutrient imbalance or lacks a particular nutrient, this can be rectified by applying accepted natural materials such as lime, rock phosphate, or sulfur. Today, organic farmers can monitor the quality of their soils, not only by observing how well their crops are growing, but also by having their soils analyzed by certified diagnostic chemical laboratories.

Crop losses from pest attack can be one of the primary production problems for a farmer. Organic farmers believe that a healthy soil rich in organic matter will result in a balanced system that allows crops to better resist or outgrow pest invasions. The farmer's goal, concerning management of pests in the organic farm, is to establish a balanced system, in which pests and diseases are kept in check through natural pest suppression mechanisms, including the activity of natural enemies. Natural enemies are macro-or microorganisms that act as predators or parasites to reduce pest populations. Populations of natural enemies can be promoted in the farm through crop diversification, including intercropping, and by growing a diversity of crops concurrently on the farm. Other important cultural practices used to minimize pest attack include crop rotations, field sanitation, and planting resistant varieties. When pest outbreaks occur, as a last resort, organic farmers may apply naturally occurring pesticides (such as sulfur) and botanicals, release beneficials purchased from a commercial supplier, or use other tactics approved by organic certification guidelines.

The Organic Certification Process

Because the organic food industry is relatively small and new, it is important that consumers become aware of its claims, limitations, and potential benefits. In order to better protect the consumer, organic certification programs were created in many parts of the world to develop a label for organic food. An organic certification label makes a claim as to the production process used to grow a crop, but the label makes no claims concerning either the quality or the chemical composition of the product itself. Thus, an organic label does not claim that a particular product is more nutritious, pesticide-free, or tastierit only indicates that the product was grown following a defined set of organic practices as certified by an accredited state, federal, or international certifying agency.

As the organic food industry grows in size, popularity, and value, its products are increasingly traded across national borders and continents, as it joins the global food trade market. To further the national and international expansion of this industry, and the ability of local growers to export organic products, the United States published a set of federal organic production standards in early 2001. The new federal organic standards will cover the entire country, and replace the guidelines previously used by independent or state agencies in various parts of the country. Because a similar area-wide certification program also exists in Europe and in other regions, it will become easier in the future to trade organic products across borders. In the end, the certification process results in an organic label in every item sold as organic, and this label assures the consumer that this product was produced following a strict set of standards that are uniform across the United States, and similar to those followed in other parts of the world.

The process to certify a farm as organic is a rather rigorous task that involves a lot of planning, good management, and record-keeping. Farmers rely on published organic certification guidelines to find out what practices are acceptable and what products are allowed for use on the farm. For land to be certified as organic, no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides can be applied to it for three years prior to certification. Part of the application process involves a detailed plan provided by the farmer that describes the entire operation, with a focus on what organic techniques will be used to produce and market crops in the farm. If the original fertility of the soil is deficient, the plans detail what will be done to rectify this problem. The certification process also includes taking soil samples to evaluate soil fertility and to detect the possible presence of any unacceptable pesticides in the soil. To ensure that the farm remains in compliance, organic inspectors will visit the farm annually. The record-keeping maintained by the farm helps the inspector to double-check that the farm operations are being conducted as indicated in the original farm plans.

Risks and Benefits of Organic Foods

Currently, organic products are sold at premium prices in an ever-increasing number of stores, and increasingly compete for shelf space with conventionally grown produce in supermarkets. Reasons for the premium prices obtained for organic products include that they are grown without pesticides and thus may be more expensive to produce because of the added labor; because they are grown in a way that does minimal harm to the environment; because no genetically modified organisms are used in the production process; because of a perception that they are better tasting; and also because the produce may have been grown locally and the consumer wishes to support small family farms. Because conventionally grown products are often bred to withstand shipping and to withstand a long shelf life after harvest, often at the expense of flavor, consumers often prefer to purchase tastier varieties, grown locally under organic conditions. However, consumers should be aware that exceptions may occur, and that in some instances conventionally grown products may actually be more nutritious, tastier, and grown in ways that minimized damage to the environment. Also, in some instances some organic farms may not be managed correctly, resulting in environmental problems such as excess erosion. Botanical pesticides, even though they are "natural," should also be evaluated for their risk to humans, wildlife, and the environment. Similarly, improper handling of organic produce after harvest may result in product contamination and in food-borne illnesses. Thus, it is important that the consumer becomes educated about both the benefits and possible risks of purchasing either conventional or organic products, so that better decisions can be made about what products to buy, and whether it pays to invest in products with a premium price.

Current Trends for Organic Foods

Because of its popularity, the organic industry grew at a fast pace since the mid-1980s. Throughout the 1990s in the United States, the organic industry grew by 20 percent annually. Similar trends were observed in regions where affluent and educated consumers support environmentally sound production programs, small family farms, locally grown produce, and products free of pesticide residues or bioengineered materials. Thus the organic industry has also grown in Europe, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia, sometimes at a faster pace than in the United States. However, questions exist as to the future expansion of the industry. Even though many conventional farmers are interested in converting to organic production, this process becomes more difficult as the area under production increases. As the area of production increases significantly, from farming only a few acres, into farming hundreds of acres, problems of soil fertility or pest outbreaks become more difficult to manage with organic techniques. This lack of appropriate technology is explained in part because in the past little formal research was conducted by universities to support organic farmers. During the twentieth century, most agricultural researchers were busy supporting an agricultural system that relied on the use of expensive synthetic chemicals. Thus, considerable research support will be necessary in the future to develop production techniques that will allow for the successful production of organic crops on a wider scale than is possible today. Considerable consumer support will also be necessary to facilitate the expansion of the organic industry. Better informed consumers may learn to accept products with minor blemishes, realizing that the minor defects do not affect taste or nutrition and that these products were grown without the use of toxic chemicals. Educated consumers may also be willing to pay a premium price for organic products, knowing that a large organic industry translates in the long term into a healthier environment with cleaner lakes and rivers and potable aquifers.

If the organic farming movement is to expand the area under cultivation and into other countries, the industry will have to grow in sophistication, to establish a seamless delivery system from the farm to the dinner table. The organic industry also will need to better educate the public about what organic farming is, and what it is not. The newly released national organic standards in the United States, and equivalent certification programs in Europe and elsewhere, will facilitate this process. Because the certification standards clearly delineate the entire production system, the public will be better assured of what they are purchasing when they see an organic label. Misconceptions about organic products will have to be overcome to build public trust in the industry. For example, proponents often claim that organic products are tastier and more nutritious than conventional products. While some isolated studies have indicated that in some cases organic food was more nutritious (more vitamins, etc.), this cannot be generalized to all crops and locations. On the other hand, contrary to some public perceptions, organic produce is not often infected with microbial contaminants, and the risk of food-borne illnesses from organic produce is minimal.

Thus, from the consumer's standpoint, there are several important reasons to purchase organic products. These include supporting the production of farm products that are grown in a manner that minimizes negative impacts on the environment; advocating a system that protects the health of the agricultural workers by minimizing their exposure to toxic chemicals; supporting a system that helps to maintain a rich wildlife in rural areas; and standing for an agricultural system that provides a fair price for the food that is purchased, thus allowing small organic farmers to lead independent, productive lives. A number of innovative marketing techniques bring urban consumers into closer contact with the land. One example of this trend is called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), or subscription farming. With CSA, community members purchase "shares" of an organic farmand thus help the farmer to purchase needed inputs prior to the production season. By doing this, the community shares the risk of crop losses that farmers face every season. As part of the program, the CSA farm distributes to its members products from the farm on a weekly basis, providing a bounty of fruits, vegetables, and often dairy products. The urban family members also visit the farm, sometimes to help with the harvest, once or more during the growing season. This type of marketing program helps bridge the wide gap that exists between urban and rural areas, and both parties benefit from this innovative arrangement. The urban families, especially children, learn about where their food comes from, allowing them to become better consumers, and to understand the impacts of agriculture on the environment. In turn, this symbiotic association allows the CSA farmer to become more savvy about the likes and dislikes of the urban consumer, allowing the farmer to modify and improve the farm's menu of products year after year.

See also Adulteration of Food; Artificial Foods; Biodiversity; Biotechnology; Crop Improvement; Farmers' Markets; Genetic Engineering; Green Revolution; High-Technology Farming; Natural Foods; Organic Agriculture; Organic Farming and Gardening; Sustainable Agriculture.


Bradley, Fern Marshall, and Barbara W. Ellis, eds. Rodale's All- New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening: The Indispensable Resource for Every Gardener. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, 1997.

Gliessman, S. R., ed. Agroecosystem Sustainability: Developing Practical Strategies. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 2001.

Howard, A. The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture. New York: Schocken Books, 1947.

Lampkin, N. Organic Farming. Ipswich, U.K.: Farming Press, 1990.

Lampkin, N. H., and S. Padel. The Economics of Organic Farming: An International Perspective. Wallingford, U.K.: CAB International, 1994.

Oelhaf, R. C. Organic Agriculture: Economic and Ecological Comparisons with Conventional Methods. New York: John Wiley, 1978.

Powers, L. F., and R. McSorley. Ecological Principles of Agriculture. Albany, N.Y.: Delmar, 2000.

Rodale, J. I., ed. The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Books Inc., 1959.

Sooby, J. State of the States: Organic Farming Systems Research at Land Grant Institutions 20002001. Santa Cruz, Calif.: Organic Farming Research Foundation, 2001.

Stonehouse, B., ed. Biological Husbandry: A Scientific Approach to Organic Farming. London: Butterworths, 1981.

Hector Valenzuela

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Organic Foods

Organic Foods

In response to a need to standardize the use of such terms as organic and natural, the U.S. Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which established the U.S. National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). In 1995, the NOSB defined organic agriculture as "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." Organic production uses "materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole," though such practices "cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues" of pesticides, herbicides, and other additives or contaminants. However, "methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil, and water. Organic food handlers, processors, and retailers adhere to standards that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people" (NOSB).

Certification and Labeling of Organic Foods

According to regulations set forth by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic foods must come from farms or ranches certified by a state or private agency that has been accredited by the USDA. Foods labeled "100 percent organic" must contain only organically produced ingredients, excluding water and salt. Foods labeled "organic" must contain, by weight, at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients. Products meeting these requirements must display these terms on their principal display panel and may use the USDA seal and the seal or mark of certifying agents on packages and in advertisements. Foods labeled "made with organic ingredients" must contain, by weight, at least 70 percent organic ingredients. Up to three separate organic ingredients may be listed on the principal display label, and a certifying agent's seal or mark may be used on the package. The use of a USDA seal is prohibited, however. Livestock can be certified "organic" if they have been raised on organic foodstuffs for over one year.

Other labeling provisions include:

  • Packaging of any product labeled "organic" must state the actual percentage of organic ingredients and use the word "organic" to modify each organically produced ingredient.
  • The name and address of the certifying agent must be displayed on the label's information panel.
  • There are no restrictions on the use of truthful labeling claims, such as "pesticide free," "no drugs or growth hormones used," or "sustainably harvested."
  • Products made with less than 50 percent organic ingredients may make no claim other than designating specific organic ingredients with the ingredient information.

Advantages of Organically Grown Foods

  • Less artificial or synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer, and hormone residue.
  • May contain higher concentration of nutrients and phytochemicals.
  • May taste better.
  • Environmental advantages, such as enhanced soil fertility, higher biodiversity, and increased water conservation.
  • Decreased energy input for production.
  • May have higher animal welfare standards.

Disadvantages of Organic Foods

  • More expensive.
  • May be fertilized with manure or sewage containing potentially harmful organisms.
  • May have undesirable appearance.
  • May be cross-contaminated with chemicals from other farms (also a risk with conventionally grown foods).
  • Lower crop yield.
  • Uncertainty over long-term sustainability of crop.

Over ninety private organizations and state agencies (certifying agents) currently accredit farms that produce organic food, but standards for growing and labeling organic food may differ. For example, different agencies may permit or prohibit the use of specific natural pesticides or fertilizers in growing organic food. In addition, some of the language contained on seals, labels, and logos approved by organic certifiers may differ.

The Market for Organic Foods

The global market for organic foods is expected to expand from $26 billion in 2001 to $80 billion in 2008. The greatest market growth has been in the European Union, where market revenues were forecast to expand by a third in 2001 to reach $12 billion, largely due to growth in Germany, Italy, France, and the United Kingdom. In all these countries, except the United Kingdom, growth has resulted from organic foods moving into mainstream marketing channels and from increased consumer interest. Japan is the third largest market for organic foods and accounts for the bulk of Asian organic market revenues. High growth is also occurring in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, though these markets remain much smaller than the Japanese market.

The U.S. organic foods marketplace reached $6.95 billion in sales in 2001, up 19 percent from 2000. Sales are expected to increase in the United States, reaching $20 billion by 2008. The largest market for organic products worldwide is in fresh produce. Other popular organic foods include soy foods, meat, poultry, eggs, and meat and dairy alternatives.

Safety and Nutritional Value of Organic Foods

The nutrient content of plants is determined primarily by heredity, and organic foods generally contain no less fat or sodium, or more vitamins , minerals , or fiber , than the same food grown using conventional methods.

However, organic farming methods can enhance soil fertility, resulting in an increased concentration of some minerals and phtyochemicals in organic food. Organic food cannot be guaranteed pesticide-free, though organic farmers use only naturally occurring pesticides such as sulfur, copper, nicotine, and Bacillus thuringiensis (a naturally occurring bacterial disease of insects). Organic foods may contain pesticide residues that have drifted from farm to farm, or residual pesticides found in soil or water, though the amounts of such residues are certainly greater in conventionally produced foods, where pesticides are directly applied to the crops.

Furthermore, there is no evidence of consistent differences in appearance, flavor, or texture between organic foods and conventionally produced foods. Organic foods may be more susceptible to microbiological contamination. Several food-borne illness outbreaks resulting from Salmonella enteriditis, Listeria monocytogenes, and E. coli O157:H7 have been associated with consumption of organically grown produce.

Organic foods can be more costly than conventionally grown foods. The USDA Economic Research Service, in USDA/ERS Food Cost Review 195097, reports that in 1995 an average American household with two parents and two children spent $6,992 on food. Purchasing only organic foods would increase total food costs by $4,000 to $10,977 per year. However, as the organic market grows, the cost is likely to continue to drop.

Organic agriculture is generally seen to be environmentally friendly. Organic agriculture decreases the amount of nitrogen-containing chemicals that seep into groundwater supplies, decreases soil deterioration via crop rotation, and minimizes exposure of farm workers and livestock to potentially harmful compounds. However, use of animal manures may increase the risk of food-borne illness, and a dependence on nitrogen-fixing, green-manure crops uses large amounts of land. On the other hand, these methods can make nutrients more available to subsequent crops, increase crop productivity, and conserve water resources.

Many kinds of pesticides, including insecticides and herbicides, are commonly used in producing and marketing the food supply. High doses of some of these chemicals have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals, though the low concentrations found in some foods are generally well within established limits. Environmental pollution by slowly degrading pesticides can lead to food-chain bioaccumulation and persistent residues in body fat. These residues may increase the risk for certain cancers. Studies have shown that concentrations in tissues are low, and the evidence has not been conclusive. Continued research regarding pesticide use is therefore essential to insure food safety, improved food production, and reduced environmental pollution.

Sensible food practices can significantly reduce pesticide residue on foods. Such practices include washing and scrubbing fresh produce under running water, peeling and trimming produce when possible, removing the outer leaves of leafy vegetables, and trimming fat from meat and skin from poultry and fish. Eating a variety of foods from a variety of sources will reduce the likelihood of exposure to a single pesticide.

Organic foods are produced with ecologically based practices, such as biological pest management and composting. To be labeled "organic," foods must have been produced on certified organic farms and conform to established labeling requirements. From a scientific viewpoint, organic foods are no safer or nutritious than conventionally produced foods. Most major health organizations maintain that the health benefits of consuming a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains significantly outweigh any health risk from residual pesticide, herbicide, or fertilizer consumption. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, there is no convincing evidence that eating foods containing trace amounts of chemicals such as fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and drugs used on farm animals increases the risk for cancer. Organic agriculture provides consumers with an additional choice when purchasing food, however, and also provides some assurance of where a food was produced and how it was produced.

see also Food Labels; Food Safety; Vegetarianism.

M. Elizabeth Kunkel Barbara H. D. Luccia


Berlau, John (1999). "The Risky Nature of Organics: Growing Produce in Manure Raises Concerns." Investor's Business Daily, March 3.

Bourn, D., and Prescott, J. (2002). "A Comparison of the Nutritional Value, Sensory Qualities, and Food Safety of Organically and Conventionally Grown Produced Foods." Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 42(1):134.

Hartman Group (2000). Organic Lifestyle Shopper Study: Mapping the Journey of Organic Consumers. Bellevue, WA: Author.

Williams, P. R., and Hammitt, J. K. (2001). "Perceived Risks of Conventional and Organic Produce: Pesticides, Pathogens, and Natural Toxins." Risk Analysis 21(2):319330.

Internet Resources

Elitzak, Howard (1999). "USDA/ERS Food Cost Review 195097." Available from <>

National Organic Standards Board. "National Organic Program." Available from x<>

Nutrition Business Journal (2001). "Organic Foods Report 2001." Available from <>

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organic food

organic food, food raised without chemicals and processed without additives. Under standards adopted by the U.S. Agriculture Dept. (USDA) in 2000 and fully effective in 2002, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and antibiotics may not be used in raising organic foods, and the use of irradiation, biotechnology, and sewer-sludge fertilizer is also banned. Food whose ingredients are at least 95% organic by weight may carry the "USDA ORGANIC" label; products containing only organic ingredients are labeled 100% organic.

Proponents of organic food claim that it is more nutritious, safer to eat, and usually tastes better because it contains no synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, hormones, medicated feed, or antibiotics or chemicals used in food processing (see also organic farming); these claims are disputed by conventional-food growers and processors. Organic foods have become steadily more popular as the public has become more concerned about health risks associated with chemicals in food products. Organic produce is now available in many food outlets, including major supermarket chains. Organic food is generally more expensive because organic farming requires more manual labor and attention.

See D. Steinman, Diet for a Poisoned Planet (1990).

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