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 tastier—it 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 farm—and 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.
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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.
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 2000–2001. Santa Cruz, Calif.: Organic Farming Research Foundation, 2001.
Stonehouse, B., ed. Biological Husbandry: A Scientific Approach to Organic Farming. London: Butterworths, 1981.
Organic foods are not specific foods, but are any foods that are grown and handled after harvesting in a particular way. In the United States, organic foods are crops that are raised without using synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or sewage sludge fertilizer, and they have not been altered by genetic engineering. Organic animal products come from animals that have been fed 100% organic feed and raised without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics in an environment where they have access to the outdoors. Standards for organic foods vary from country to country. The requirements in Canada and Western Europe are similar to those in the United States. Many developing countries have no standards for certifying food as “organic.”
The organic food movement has the following goals:
- improve human health by decreasing the level of chemical toxins in food
- decrease the level of agricultural chemicals in the environment, especially in groundwater
- promote sustainable agriculture
- promote biodiversity
- promote genetic diversity among plants and animals by rejecting genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
- provide fresh, healthy, safe food at competitive prices
Organic farming is the oldest method of farming. Before the 1940s, what is today called organic farming was the standard method of raising crops and animals. World War II accelerated research into new chemicals that could be used either in fighting the war or as replacements for resources that were in short supply because of their usefulness to the military. After the war ended, many of the new technological discoveries were applied to civilian uses and synthetic fertilizers, new insecticides, and herbicides became available. Fertilizers increased the yield per acre and pesticides encouraged the development of single-crop mega-farms, resulting in the consolidation of agricultural land and the decline of the family farm.
Organic farming, although only a tiny part of American agriculture, originally offered aniche
Pesticides in fruits and vegetables
|Highest level||Lowest level|
|Sweet bell peppers||Corn, sweet, frozen|
|Strawberries||Peas, sweet, frozen|
|SOURCE: Developed by the EnvironmentalWorking Group|
market for smaller, family-style farms. In the early 1980s this method of food production began to gain popularity, especially in California, Oregon, and Washington. The first commercial organic crops were vegetables that were usually sold locally at farmers’ markets and health food stores.
By the late 1980s interest in organic food had reached a level of public awareness high enough that the United States Congress took action and passed the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. This act established the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB ) under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA ). NOSB has developed regulations and enforcement procedures for the growing and handling of all agricultural products that are labeled “organic.”These regulations went into effect on October 21, 2002.
Since the 1990s, the market for organic food has expanded from primarily fruits and vegetables to eggs, dairy products, meat, poultry, and commercially processed frozen and canned foods. In 2000, for the first time, more organic food was purchased in mainstream supermarkets than in specialty food outlets. By 2005, every state had some farmland that was certified organic, and some supermarket chains had begun selling their own brand-name organic foods. The demand for organic food is expected to continue to grow rapidly through at least 2010.
Organic certification is voluntary and applies to anyone who sells more than $5,000 worth of organic produce annually. (This exempts most small farmers who sell organic produce from their own farm stands). If a product carries the USDA Organic Seal indicating that it is ‘‘certified organic’’ it must meet the following conditions:
Biodiversity —The presence of many different species of plants and animals within a limited geographical region.
Pathogen —An organism that causes a disease.
Toxin —A general term for something that harms or poisons the body.
- The product must be raised or produced under an Organic Systems Plan that demonstrates and documents that the food meets the standards for growing, harvesting, transporting, processing, and selling an organic product.
- The producer and/or processor are subject to audits and evaluations by agents certified to enforce organic standards.
- The grower must have distinct boundaries between organic crops and non-organic crops to prevent accidental contamination with forbidden substances through wind drift or water runoff.
- No forbidden substances can have been applied to the land organic food is raised on for three years prior to organic certification.
- Seed should be organic, when available, and never genetically altered through bioengineering.
- Good soil, crop, and animal management practices must be followed to prevent contamination of groundwater, contamination of the product by living pathogens, heavy metals, or forbidden chemicals, and to reduce soil erosion and environmental pollution.
To meet these requirements, organic farmers use natural fertilizers such as composted manure to add nutrients to the soil. They control pests by crop rotation and interplanting. Interplanting is growing several different species of plants in an alternating pattern in the same field to slow the spread of disease. Pest control is also achieved by using natural insect predators, traps, and physical barriers. If these methods do not control pests, organic farmers may apply certain non-synthetic pesticides made from substances that occur naturally in plants. Weed control is achieved by mulching, hand or mechanical weeding, the use of cover crops, and selective burning.
Animals products that are USDA certified organic must come from animals that are fed only organic feed, are not given growth hormones, antibiotics, or other drugs for the purpose of preventing disease, and have access to the outdoors. This last requirement is rather vague, as regulations set neither a minimum amount of time the animal must spend outdoors nor any minimums concerning the amount of outdoor space available per animal.
The USDA allows three label statements to help consumers determine if a food is organic.
- Labels stating “100% organic”indicate that all of the ingredients in the product are certified organic. These items have the USDA Organic Seal on the label.
- Labels stating “organic”indicate that at least 95% of the ingredients are certified organic. These items also carry the USDA Organic Seal on the label.
- Labels stating “made with organic ingredients”indicate that at least 70% of the ingredients are certified organic. These items are not permitted to have the USDA Organic Seal on the label.
- Items that contain fewer than 70% organic ingredients are not permitted to use either the word “organic” or the USDA Organic Seal on the label.
Consumers may be bewildered by other words on food labels such as “natural”or “grass-fed”that may be confused with organic. Natural and organic are not interchangeable. “Natural”foods are minimally processed foods but, they are not necessarily grown or raised under the strict conditions of organic foods. “Grass-fed”indicates that the livestock were fed natural forage (“grass”), but not necessarily in open pasture or for their entire lives.
Debate continues about the exact requirements to label animal products “cage-free,”“free-range,”or “open pasture.” Cage-free simply means the animals were not kept caged, but does not necessarily mean that they were raised outdoors or allowed to roam freely. There is no certification process for the designation “cage-free.”Animals can spend as little as five minutes per day outdoors and still be considered “free-range.”Animal rights organizations are working to clarify these designations and improve the conditions under which all animals, are raised.
Certified organic food requires more labor to produce, which generally makes it more expensive than non-certified food. Some consumers buy organic food primarily because the way it is raised benefits the environment. Others believe absolutely in the health benefits of organic food. A larger group of consumers are uncertain if organic food offers enough health benefits to justify the additional cost.
Discussions of the health benefits of organic food can become quite heated and emotional. Advocates of buying organic foods firmly believe that they are preserving their health by preventing their bodies from becoming receptacles for poisonous chemicals that can cause cancer, asthma, and other chronic diseases. Non-organic food buyers take the position that the level pesticide and fertilizer residue in non-organic food is small and harmless. Neither side is likely to change the other’s view. However, below are some conclusions from studies done comparing organic and non-organic foods.
- The food supply in the United States, whether organic or non-organic, is extremely safe.
- Fresh organic and non-organic produce are equally likely to become contaminated with pathogens such as E. coli that cause health concerns.
- Many, but not all, chemical contaminants can be removed from non-organic food by peeling or thorough washing in cool running water.
- Organic foods are not 100% pesticide and chemical free. However, their chemical load appears to be lower than that of non-organic foods.
- The nutrient value of identical organic and nonorganic foods is the same.
- The long-term effect on humans of trace amounts of hormones, antibiotics, and drugs found in milk, meat, and other non-organic animal products is unclear.
- The long-term effect of genetically modified foods on both humans and the environment cannot yet be known.
Individuals should be informed about food labeling requirements and read food labels carefully so that they can make informed decisions about their purchases.
Organic food does not interact with drugs or other foods in a way that is different from non-organic foods.
No complications are expected from eating organic food.
Chemicals found in foods may have a greater effect on the growth and development of younger children than older ones. Young children are rapidly growing while still developing their nervous system, immune system, and other organs. Chemicals may have a greater effect on these developing tissues than on adult tissues.
Meyerowitz, Steve. The Organic Food Guide: How to Shop Smarter and Eat Healthier Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 2004.
Fromartz, Samuel. Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2006.
Goodman, Myra, with Linday Holland, and Pamela McKinstry, Pamela. Food to Live By: The Earthbound Farm Organic Cookbook New York: Workman Pub.,2006.
Lipson, Elaine. The Organic Foods Sourcebook. Chicago, IL:Contemporary Books, 2001.
National Organic Program. USDA-AMS-TM-NOP,ROOM 4008 s. Bldg, Ag Stop 0268, 1400 Independence Avenue, S.W., Room 1180, Washington, DC 20250. Telephone: (202)720-3252. Website: “http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop>
Organic Trade Association. PO Box 547, Greenfield MA 01302. Telephone: (413) 774-7511. Fax: (413) 774-6432. Website: “http://www.ota.com>
Barrett, Stephen. “Organic’ Foods: Certification Does Not Protect Consumers.”Quackwatch, July 17, 2006. “http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/organic.html>
Mayo Clinic Staff. “Organic Foods: Are They Safer? More Nutritious?”MayoClinic.com, December 26, 2006. “;http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/organic-food/NU00255>
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Nemours Foundation. “Organic and Other Environmentally Friendly Foods.” March 2007. <http://kidshealth.org/teen/food_fitness/nutrition/organics.html>
“Organic Foods in Relation to Nutrition and Health Key Facts.” Medical News Today. July 11, 2004. <http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/medicalnews.php?newsid=10587>
Organic Trade Association. “Questions and Answers About Organic.”2003. <http://www.ota.com/organic/faq.html>
Pames, Robin B. “How Organic Food Works.” How Stuff Works, undated, accessed April 26, 2007. <http://home.howstuffworks.com/organic-food.htm;>
Helen M. Davidson
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 1950–97, 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 KunkelBarbara H. D. Luccia
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At the most basic level, organic food is grown or raised without the use of synthetic chemicals. In the production of vegetables and fruits, no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers may be used, and no hormones or antibiotics may be used in the rearing of livestock or poultry. The concept of organic food, however, remains fuzzy. Beyond restricting the use of synthetic chemicals, other issues sometimes incorporated into the idea of organic food include: no sewage-sludge fertilizers, no food irradiation, no genetically modified organisms, humane conditions for livestock and poultry, sustainable land use practices, and just treatment of workers in the food production process.
Until the twentieth century, all human food was organic. At the dawn of World War II, the few pesticides in use were derived from plants (for example, nicotine, rotenone, pyrethrum) or minerals (for example, arsenic and sulfur compounds). Paul Müller's 1939 discovery of the insecticidal properties of DDT, in conjunction with military needs to control infectious disease, propelled the chemical industry to full-scale production, which continued after the war as DDT and other pesticides were put to agricultural use. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers, along with new crop hybrids, farm machinery and irrigation techniques, enabled industrial agriculture, which aims to increase agricultural yield while decreasing the costs of production in order to maximize both food production and profits. Following World War II, the United States exported industrial agriculture across the globe for humanitarian and economic purposes. The green revolution began in the 1940s according to Norman Norlaug, Nobel laureate and widely recognized father of the green revolution. New hybrid crops were only one part of the green revolution, new agricultural techniques, including the heavy use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation techniques, and new farm equipment played a significant role in both the green revolution and the viability of the new plant hybrids.
Meanwhile, Lady Eve Balfour of England investigated, practiced, and promoted organic farming starting in 1938. She published The Living Soil in 1943, which led to the 1946 formation of the Soil Association, still the United Kingdom's leading organic foods organization. In the United States J. I. Rodale popularized organic gardening through the soil and health foundation, founded in 1947. He created several publications including Organic Farming and Gardening (est. 1942) and Prevention Magazine (est. 1950). His son, Robert, expanded this work by establishing the Rodale Institute and Rodale Press to promote the healthy land/healthy human connection. It was not until the environmental movement began in the 1960s, however, that organic foods flourished. In 1962, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring called attention to the public health and environmental consequences of industrial agriculture and unchecked pesticide use. The resulting concern over public health and the environment created a demand for organic food throughout the industrialized world.
In 1990 the United States Congress passed the U.S. Organic Foods Production Act, mandating the U.S. department of agriculture "(1) to establish national standards governing the marketing of ... organically produced products; (2) to assure consumers that organically produced products meet a consistent standard; and (3) to facilitate interstate commerce in fresh and processed food that is organically produced." But the debate over the development of organic standards between the initial 1994 recommendations and the final rules implemented in October 2002, and the global debate more generally, exposed significant ethical and scientific disagreements.
Organizations such as the Soil Association (est. 1946), Organic Trade Association (est. 1985), and the Organic Consumers Association (est. 1998) claim that organic foods promote a healthy, safe, and sustainable system of food production. But critics such as the Hudson Institute Center for Global Food issues and the American Council on Science and Health point out that no scientific evidence exists that organic foods are significantly more nutritious, safer, or tastier than conventionally grown foods. These critics have suggested that government promotion of organic foods undermines confidence in conventionally grown foods to the detriment of the poorest members of society and perpetuates a kind of fraud whereby organic food producers charge extra for products with no significant benefit.
Arguments for industrial agriculture rest on efficiency and the elimination of hunger, while arguments for organic food emphasize environmental and sometimes social sustainability. Some people accuse advocates of organic agriculture of elitism in prioritizing the environment over the needs of the poor. At the same time, organic advocates accuse industrial agriculture of prioritizing profits over environmentally and socially sustainable agriculture. Issues over how to define organic standards, how to enforce standards in an international food market, the appropriate burden of proof for the organic foods industry, and the relative importance of feeding the poor versus creating a sustainable system of food production pervade the organic debate.
Underlying this debate is the critical issue of global population growth. The Green Revolution succeeded in the sense that it prevented the starvation catastrophe predicted by Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834) and Paul R. Ehrlich (b. 1932). But with rapid increases in agricultural yield diminishing, one must explicitly consider the roles of organic and conventional food production in a world with a still burgeoning population.
JASON M. VOGEL
Balfour, Eva B. (1943). The Living Soil and the Haughley Experiment. London: Faber & Faber.
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U.S. Congress. Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. Public law 101–624.
Organic Consumers Association. Available at http://www.organicconsumers.org/