Organic Farming and Gardening

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ORGANIC FARMING AND GARDENING. Organic farming is the practice of growing crops and livestock without applying any synthetic products such as inorganic fertilizers, growth hormones, genetically modified organisms, or pesticides. In contrast, the modern practice of growing crops that relies largely on theuse of synthetic (human-made) products is termed "conventional" agriculture. Organic farming not only consists of using a different set of production tools to grow crops, but its philosophical approach to farming also differs from that used by "conventional" farmers. In general, organic farmers intend to establish a production system that works with nature instead of one that dominates nature. For instance, organic farmers strive to maximize natural nutrient cycles that mimic those found in natural ecosystems. Similarly, organic farmers strive to exploit natural pest control mechanisms, such as biological controls, which are also typical of natural ecosystems. In contrast, conventional growers rely on capital-and energy-intensive production methods, such as those that use inorganic fertilizers and pesticides, to overcome problems of poor soil fertility or to manage the outbreak of damaging pests and diseases.


The organic farming movement was born in the twentieth century as a response to the concerns of some agricultural ecologists that so-called conventional farming practices were causing environmental harm, and that in the long term were basically unsustainable. Concerns that organic farming practitioners have with conventional farming include contamination of ground waters with fertilizers and pesticides, loss of genetic crop diversity, eutrophication of aquatic habitats, and depletion of soil fertility. Organic farming proponents used production techniques that built upon those long used by traditional farmers prior to the discovery of agricultural chemicals. In fact, even today, millions of small farmers in the developing world continue to follow chemical-free production techniques. Most of these subsistence farmers, located in tropical areas, follow chemical-free practices by default, because they lack the capital or access to relatively expensive synthetic products. In the developed world, organic farming increased rapidly in popularity in Europe, Japan, Oceania, and the United States, beginning in the second half of the twentieth century. Even though organic farms still represent less than 5 percent of all the agricultural acreage, their popularity continues to increase in both developed and developing countries. Despite the fact that the acreage under organic farming is rapidly increasing, to date the demand for organic produce has actually outpaced the available supply. Because of the real or perceived safety of organic produce, the appeal and demand for organic products are expected to continue to increase exponentially in the foreseeable future.

Organic farmers normally undergo a rigorous on-farm certification process before they can label their products as organic. This process, created to protect the consumer, simply certifies the production process, but the organic label itself makes no claims as to the safety or chemical composition of the labeled product. The recently established federal organic standards in the United States, and similar standards already established worldwide, will further facilitate the expansion and trade of organic products on a global basis.

Production Practices

One of the fundamental principles of organic farming is the goal to maintain and improve soil quality. Proponents believe that having a healthy soil is the basis for having a sound crop production system. According to this perspective, crops grown on healthy soils will grow faster, will better tolerate or resist pests and diseases, will have better quality, and will result in adequate yields, year after year. Important tactics to improve soil quality include increasing the organic matter content of the soil, crop rotations, and growing a diversity of crops on the farm. Organic matter is added to the soil by applying composts, using organic mulches, or by growing cover crops as part of the crop rotation program. 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. A healthy soil is also believed to result in crops that better resist or outgrow pest invasions. Other important cultural practices used to minimize pest attack include crop rotations, field sanitation, planting resistant varieties or cultivars, crop diversification, and the conservation of natural enemies. When pest outbreaks occur, as a last resort, organic farmers may apply naturally occurring pesticides (such as sulfur), use botanicals, release beneficials purchased from a commercial supplier, or use other tactics approved by the organic certification guidelines.

Historically, organic farmers have received little support from established research universities, as the overall research focus to date has been to increase yields of conventionally grown crops. However, as the demand for organic products continues to increase worldwide, more and more research resources are gradually being devoted toward improving organic systems. Thus, in the foreseeable future, research will improve our knowledge of how organic systems function, revealing new alternative methods to maintain long-term fertility of the soil, and ways to manage important pests and diseases.

Risks and Benefits of Organic Farming

Farmers throughout the world have adopted organic farming mainly because of a concern about the environment, to protect the health of the family farm and its hired labor, and with the goal of marketing crops that are free of pesticide residues or genetically modified products. However, the label of an organically certified crop only makes claims about the production process, and not about the quality or nutritional composition of the crop being sold. While organic produce sold in the marketplace is, for the most part, considered safe for human consumption, critics point out that organic produce may pose a health risk due to the possible presence of biological contaminants (such as E. coli ), or toxic botanical pesticides. Other real or perceived problems with organic farming include a higher cost of production, lower relative yields, lower quality due to a greater incidence of blemishes in the produce caused by insects and diseases, and the general lack of technical information currently available to manage large-scale organic production systems to supply a large consumer base with high-quality produce on a year-round basis.

Future Trends and Opportunities

The organic farming industry is currently undergoing a fast transformation from a relatively small niche market, into a part of the mainstream global produce production and distribution system. As the demand for organic produce continues to increase at about 20 percent annually, the supply cannot currently keep up with the growing demand. As the size of the organic industry grows and as the international markets develop, the industry will grow in sophistication from a production and marketing standpoint to meet the quality and service standards expected by consumers. Thus, the organic industry will need the support of universities and government agencies to continue to develop the technological know-how and marketing infrastructure needed to establish a dynamic and competitive world-class organic produce industry.

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


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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.

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Hector Valenzuela


Eutrophication. Oxygen depletion in aquatic habitats due to excessive nutrient leaching (especially phosphorus) from agricultural runoff, resulting in the death of aquatic biota.

Community supported agriculture (or CSA; also termed subscription farming). Members of the community purchase "shares" from local growers, "investing" in the current production season, and thereby sharing in both the risk and bounty of agriculture. Produce from the farm is distributed to members on a weekly basis during the harvest season.

Soil quality. In general terms soil quality refers to a combined number of physical and biological soil attributes that result in optimal crop growth. The particular attributes that affect soil quality may vary across locations and by the crop being grown. Some traits that promote soil quality include high organic matter content, good texture, no compaction, good drainage, optimal temperature, and a deep soil profile.

Natural enemies, or beneficials. The typical farm is a host to a wide number and diversity of macro-and microorganisms living both above and below ground. Only a very small percentage of these organisms is considered harmful to crop growthand thus categorized as a pest. Organisms in the soil or in the plant canopy that feed on, or that in some way antagonize, crop pests are called natural enemies or "beneficial" organisms.

Organic certification guidelines. Written guidelines have been established for growing crops organically in many parts of the world. Farms that follow these guidelines can become certified, which allows farmers to label their products as organic in the marketplace. Federal organic standards in the United States will facilitate the global expansion and consumer awareness of this growing eco-industry.

Cultural Practices Typical of Organic Farming

  • Increased soil organic matter through organic amendment applications
  • Rotations
  • Use of cover crops and green manures to break pest and disease cycles and to improve soil fertility
  • Increased vegetational diversity
  • Enhanced biological control
  • Alternative marketing techniques such as Community Supported Agriculture or direct marketing to health-food stores.
  • Use of organic fertilizers and organic pesticides approved by the Federal Organic Standards list of approved products.

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Organic Farming and Gardening

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