Agriculture: Organic

Authored by: Kathleen Delate

Managing Soils and Terrestrial Systems

Print publication date:  July  2020
Online publication date:  July  2020

Print ISBN: 9781138342651
eBook ISBN: 9780429346255
Adobe ISBN:




Organic agriculture is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, or enhance ecological harmony. The term “organic” is defined by law, but the labels “natural,” “eco-friendly,” and similar statements do not guarantee complete adherence to organic practices as defined by law.

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Agriculture: Organic


The USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) defines organic agriculture as “an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity.[ 1 ] It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, or enhance ecological harmony. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.”[ 1 ] The term “organic” is defined by law. The labels “natural,” “eco-friendly,” and similar statements do not guarantee complete adherence to organic practices as defined by law.


In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA). This law was heralded as the first U.S. law established to regulate a system of farming. The OFPA requires that anyone selling products as “organic” must follow a set of prescribed practices that include avoidance of synthetic chemicals in crop and livestock production, and in the manufacturing of processed products. “Certified organic” crops must be raised on land to which no synthetic chemical (any fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, or fungicides) inputs were applied for three years prior to the crops’ sale. Organic certification agencies became established in the United States to deal with a required “third-party certification.” There are at least 20 private certification agencies and 15 state agencies certifying organic production and processing in the United States. Proposed rules implementing the federal OFPA law were promulgated in 1997, after seven years of revisions. Unfortunately, these rules did not meet private certification agencies’ standards, and a record number of complaints (275,000) were issued in the public comment period. Now that the federal rules are established (released in 2001), all certifiers must utilize the federal standards as the minimum standard for the “certified organic” label in the United States. European regulation is under the auspices of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) with national certification agencies in each country.[ 2 ] Japan currently certifies under the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Certification for the European Union and Japan is extended to several U.S. certifiers that meet international standards.

Organic agriculture is the oldest form of agriculture on earth. Farming without the use of petroleum-based chemicals (fertilizers and pesticides) was the norm for farmers in the developed world until post–World War II. The war era led to technologies that were adapted for agricultural production. Ammonium nitrate used for munitions during WWII evolved into ammonium nitrate fertilizer; organophosphate nerve gas production led to the development of powerful insecticides. These technical advances since WWII have resulted in significant economic benefits, as well as unwanted environmental and social effects. Organic farmers seek to utilize those advances that yield benefits (e.g., new varieties of crops, more efficient machinery) while discarding those methods that have led to negative impacts on society and the environment, such as pesticide pollution and insect pest resistance.[ 3 ] Instead of using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, organic farmers utilize crop rotations, cover crops, and naturally based products to maintain or enhance soil fertility.[ 4 , 5 ] These farmers also rely on biological, cultural, and physical methods to limit pest expansion and increase populations of beneficial insects on their farms. By managing their ecological capital through efficient use of on-farm natural resources, organic farmers produce for diverse and specialized markets that provide premium prices.

Because genetically modified organisms (GMOs) constitute synthetic inputs and pose unknown risks, GMOs, such as herbicide-resistant seeds, plants, and product ingredients are disallowed in organic agriculture. Organic livestock, like organic crops, must be fed 100% organic food or feed in their production. Synthetic hormones and antibiotics are dis- allowed in organic livestock production. Traditional farmers throughout the world have relied on natural production methods for centuries, maintaining consistent yields within their local environment. While “green revolution” technologies have led to increased yields in many less developed countries, many farmers have seen an increase in pest problems with new varieties and high input–based systems.

Motivations for organic production include economic, food safety, and environmental concerns. All organic farmers avoid the use of synthetic chemicals in their farming systems, but philosophies differ among organic farmers regarding methods to achieve the ideal system. Organic farmers span the spectrum from those who completely eschew external inputs, create on-farm sources of compost for fertilization, and encourage the activity of beneficial insects through conservation of food and natural habitats, to those farmers who import their fertility and pest management inputs. A truly sustainable method of organic farming would seek to eliminate, as much as possible, reliance on external inputs.

Worldwide Statistics

USDA does not publish systematic reports on organic production in the United States. The most recent census in 1994 identified 1.5 million acres of organic production in the United States with 4050 farmers reporting organic acreage.[ 6 ] This figure underrepresents current production because many organic farmers opt to sell their products as organic without undergoing certification. The U.S. organic industry continues to grow at a rate of 20% annually. The industry was listed as a $4.5 billion industry in 1998, with predicted future growth to $10 billion by 2003. The organic industry is a consumer–driven market. According to industry surveys, the largest purchasers of organic products are young people and college–educated consumers. Worldwide consumption of organic products has experienced tremendous growth, often surpassing U.S. figures of 20% annual gain. Much of the increase in consumption worldwide has been fueled by consumers’ demand for GMO–free products. Because GMOs are disallowed in organic production and processing, organic products are automatically segregated as GMO–free at the marketplace. European consumers have led the demand for organic products, particularly in countries such as the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Two percent of all German farmland, 4% of Italian farmland, and 10% of Austrian farmland is managed organically.[ 2 ] Prince Charles of England has developed a model organic farm and established a system of government support for transitioning organic farmers. Major supermarket chains and restaurants in Europe offer a wide variety of organic products in their aisles and on their menus. Industry experts predict that the establishment of federal rules will advance organic sales in the United States. Although the organic industry began as a niche market, steady growth has led to its place in a “segment” market since 1997. The organic dairy industry, for example, expanded by 73% from 1996 to 1997, and continues to grow today. Organic markets can be divided into indirect and direct markets. Indirect or wholesale markets include cooperatives, wholesale produce operations, brokers, and local milling operations. Many supermarket chains buy directly from farmers or from wholesalers of organic products. Because meat can now be labeled as “organic,” as of 1999, the marketing of organic beef, pork, chicken, and lamb has been significantly simplified. Roadside stands, farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) farms constitute the direct marketing end of the organic industry. Most consumers relate their willingness to pay premium prices for food that has been raised without synthetic chemicals because of their concern for food safety and the environment. Supporting local family farmers also enters into their purchasing decisions.

Crop and Pest Performance in Organic Systems

The basis for all organic farming systems is the health of the soil.[ 4 , 7 ] In addition to maintaining adequate fertility, organic farmers strive for biologically active soil, containing microbial populations required for nutrient cycling.[ 8 , 9 ] Crop rotations (required for all organic operations) provide nutrients such as nitrogen in the case of legume crops (alfalfa and clover) and carbonaceous biomass upon which beneficial soil microorganisms depend for survival.[10,11] A crop rotation plan is required as protection against pest problems and soil deterioration.[ 12–15 ] Ideally, no more than four out of six years should be in agronomic crops, and the same row crop cannot be grown in consecutive years on the same land. Legumes (alfalfa, clovers, and vetches) alone, or in combination with small grains (wheat, oats, and barley), must be rotated with row crops (corn, soybeans, amaranth, vegetables, and herbs) to ensure a healthy system. A typical six–year rotation in the Midwestern United States would be corn (with a cover of winter rye)–soybeans–oats (with an underseeding of alfalfa)–alfalfa–corn–soybeans.[ 16 , 17 ] Horticultural crops must be rotated with a leguminous cover crop at least once every five years.

Pest management in organic farming systems is based on a healthy plant able to withstand some pest injury and on the inherent equilibrium in nature, as most insect pests have natural enemies that regulate their populations in unperturbed environments.[ 18 , 19 ] Because only naturally occurring materials are allowed in organic production, insect predators, parasites, and pathogens exist without intervention from highly toxic insecticides.[ 20 ] Most organic farmers rely on naturally occurring beneficial insects on their farms, but some farmers purchase and release lacewings and other natural enemies every season, for example. There are also commercial preparations of natural insect pathogens, such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which are used to manage pestiferous larvae, such as corn borers. Botanical insecticides, such as neem and ryania, are also allowable in organic production, but as with all insecticides, sprays should be used only as a last resort. Although these materials are naturally based, some materials may affect natural enemies. Prevention is a cornerstone of organic farming.[ 21 ] Pest–free seeds and transplants, along with physical and cultural methods, are used to prevent pest infestations. Physical methods include the use of row covers for protection against insects such as cabbage butterflies and aphids. Cultural methods include sanitation and resistant varieties. Plant varieties are used that have been bred traditionally (i.e., no manipulated gene insertion or engineering involved) for insect, disease, and nematode resistance or tolerance.

Most organic farmers rely on multiple tactics for their weed management.[ 22 , 23 ] Allelopathic crops, cultivation, mulching, and flame burning are all methods available for organic farmers. Allelopathic crops, such as rye and oats, produce an exudate that mitigates against small weed seed germination. Depending on the crop, cultivation offers the least labor–intensive method of organic weed management. Timely cultivation is key; without specific schedules, weeds proliferate. Propane flame burning is generally used in conjunction with cultivation, particularly during times of high field moisture. Mulching with straw or wood chips is commonly used in many organic horticultural operations.

Yields comparable to conventional crops have been shown for organic crops in three university long–term experiments in the United States (South Dakota State University,[ 24 ] Iowa State University,[ 16 ] and the University of California–Davis.[ 25 ] and in many European studies.[ 26 ] Factoring in an organic premium (ranging from 50 to 400%, depending upon crop and season), organic systems consistently out–performed conventional systems in terms of economics.[ 17 , 27 , 28 ] Pest problems were not a critical factor in these organic systems. Other studies have shown the benefits of organic practices, such as composting, in mitigating root–borne diseases.[ 8 ]

Key Issues Requiring Additional Research

Continued verification of the long–term benefits of organic versus conventional farming in terms of soil quality,[ 29 ] pest management, and nutritional benefits.[ 30 ] is needed. Key issues include the development of management practices to increase nutrient cycling for maintenance of crop yields and optimize biological control of plant pests and diseases[ 31 ] Economic analysis, including risks of the three–year transition required for organic certification, will provide useful information for growers interested in alternative systems.[ 26 , 32 ] Appropriate tillage systems, which protect soil quality and provide adequate soil preparation, remain as important issues for organic producers. The improvement of natural parasiticide formulations, such as diatomaceous earth, is required for optimum organic livestock production. Marketing and support needs include the availability of reliable statistics for organic operations and prices. Although many European countries support their farmers in their organic production practices through environmental subsidies,[ 33 ] the United States has made small gains in this area. Some state agencies (Minnesota Department of Agriculture) and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) through the Environmental Quality Indicators Program (EQIP) offer financial incentives to organic farmers during their transitioning years. More of these support services are needed to encourage farmers interested in the conversion to alternative production.[ 34 ]


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