How Organic Farming Works

Organic farmer Johann Schaffer greets one of his organically raised cows on his farm in Arnbruck, Germany. Demand for organic products has increased in the wake of food-industry related scares like mad cow disease.
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­Artificial bovine growth hormone -- rBGH. Partially hydrogenated. Monosaturated fat. Low fat. Reduced fat. As if label deciphering wasn't already difficult, we're now facing down labels claiming a variety of organic messages, many with happy, smiling cartoon cows.

The organic food trend that began making headlines in 2000 now appears to be a mainstream lifestyle for some -- which translates into big business. So where do organic foods and fibers come from, and what makes them organic?


Organic farming is based on holistic, ecologically balanced agricultural principles involving soil fertility, crop rotation and natural pest control. It may sound like an elusive concept, but the basis for organic farming is actually very simple: Allow nature to do what nature does best.

Many everyday products can be produced on organic farms, including vegetables, grains, meat, dairy, eggs and fibers such as cotton. What makes these things organic is how close to their natural state they stay. When growing organic goods, farmers do not use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers on crops, and they reject the use of synthetic hormones, antibiotics or other medications in their livestock. Animals are provided with organic feed and allowed access to the outdoors.

When the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) began its tracking program in 1994, there were approximately 2,500 to 3,000 certified organic farmers in the United States. In 2005, all 50 states had some certified organic farmland. Today there are more than 10,000 certified organic farmers who produce 2 percent of the U.S. food supply.

In this article, we will explore various organic farming methods, as well as genetically modified food. We'll also find out why some people criticize the organic movement.


Composting and Crop Rotation

New York Department of Parks and Recreation workers load Christmas trees into a mulch machine for use in compost and landscaping.
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Organic farming methods emphasize the use of renewable resources and conservation of soil and water. But this isn't a new idea, in the United States or worldwide. The term "organic farming" can be traced back to 1940, when Lord Northbourne, an agronomist, wrote about the concept of a farm as a living entity. In his book, "Look to the Land," Northbourne posits that we're all connected to each other, to our food and to our soil.

It all starts with good soil. The right mix of soil leads to healthier crops and animals, reduces their susceptibility to disease, and increases the overall productivity of the farm. Common techniques used by organic farmers to manage soil quality -- which involves not just the soil itself but also water, weeds, disease and pests -- include the use of animal manure, compost, cover crops, green manures and crop rotation.


Compost is organic material used with success in both home gardens and farms. It is made of decaying and decayed organic wastes and is spread on garden beds and organically farmed fields. Examples include:

  • Yard trimmings -- wood chips, grass clippings and leaves
  • Food waste -- coffee grounds, tea bags, and fruits and vegetables
  • Manures -- poultry, cow and horse

Using compost can encourage beneficial bacteria and fungi to grow, helping to create nutrient-rich, moist soil while also eliminating or reducing the need for chemical fertilizers.

Green manures and cover crops also improve soil quality. Plants are grown specifically to benefit the soil and the main crops on the farm -- farmers choose from a variety of cover crop plants depending on the needs of their fields.

Cover crops in general are used to protect the soil's surface from water and wind erosion, help maintain soil structure, and help maintain the level of organic matter of the soil, all of which keeps soil healthy. Green manure is a type of cover crop grown specifically to add nutrients back into the soil; manure is plowed together with the soil, positively increasing the soil's organic matter.

Cover crops are also used in place of conventional pesticides to keep weeds at bay and as a distraction to pests. Have you ever noticed that weeds always seem to take over a bare patch of your lawn? They flourish where no other plants are growing in their way. Cover crops take up space where weeds would love to make their home. The idea behind using cover crops in pest control is to both lure beneficial pests, such as ladybugs, to the field all year round and to deter unwanted pests from the main crops by offering an attractive and tasty alternative.

Crop rotations are also part of the strategy organic farmers use to help sustain soil fertility. For example, this year an organic farmer may grow wheat on a field, graze sheep on that field next, and plan to plant a cover crop of clover the year after. When the same crop is grown on the same land year after year, known as mono-cropping, the soil can become depleted of nutrients it needs to stay healthy. Variety here really is the spice of life.

There is also a variety of sustainable and organic management techniques used in raising livestock, depending on the types of animals on the farm.

In the next section, we'll look at genetically modified crops and why many countries refuse to grow them.


Genetically Modified Foods

A single seed of hybrid cherry tomatoes, named Summer Sun.
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All livestock share the same basic standards of care in order to be considered organically raised, including humane treatment and living conditions similar to the animals' natural habitat. They are fed a diet of 100 percent organic feed products; they do not receive hormones to promote growth, nor are they given antibiotics for any reason, although they may be given vaccinations as preventative care.

These methods are significantly different from conventional farming methods. Before the 1940s, farms practiced what we'd now consider organic farming methods. However, a revolution in agricultural technologies around the beginning of the 20th century, and specifically after World War II, reshaped the way farmers managed crops; as a result, productivity skyrocketed.


Conventional farmers take advantage of the latest scientific and agricultural technological advances meant for greater efficiency and high output, including chemical and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, mono-cropping, genetic-engineering and modification (in seeds and breeds) and antibiotic and hormone use in livestock.

Genetically modified crops, also known as GM or GMOs (genetically modified, or genetically modified organisms), are plants with altered DNA, giving them greater resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content. GM foods were originally intended to reduce disease in crops, leading to larger output at less cost. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are more than 40 plant varieties that have met federal requirements so far.

There are several criticisms of GM foods, including risks to both human health and to our environment. In humans, GM foods are assessed for nutritional content, toxicity levels and any allergic reactions that might occur from eating them. Of concern to the environment is the possibility that a GMO can be introduced into wild populations, with the development of pesticide-resistant insects. Possible detrimental consequences to plant and wildlife biodiversity are also under investigation.

Unlike the strict standards in place for organic farmers, there is no mandate that foods containing GMOs must be labeled as such in the U.S.

At the 12th Scientific Conference of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) in 1988, more than 60 countries voted unanimously against the use of GMOs in food production and agriculture because they felt there were unacceptable risks involved: threats to human health, a negative and irreversible environmental impact, incompatibility with sustainable agriculture, and a violation of rights for both farmers and consumers.

Growing your own produce can minimize any anxiety you may have about where your food comes from, but not all of us were born with a green thumb. Finding organic products is getting easier, and your local grocery store may be stocking more than you remember seeing last time you looked. Another place where you can feel good about the tomatoes you buy is at your local farmers' market, and depending on where you live, you may be able to join a local co-op or buy a share in a community-supported organic farm. Or, try ordering by mail or online -- some producers will ship.

In the next section, we'll discuss the government standards for organic farming and how organic farmers become certified.


Organic Standards and Certifications

Liz Walker, a cofounder of EcoVillage at Ithaca
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Ask a few conventional farmers why they haven't transitioned to organic farming and each will give you a different answer. The answers usually have to do with one larger reason, though: agricultural economics. Some studies show organic farms produce smaller yields than conventional farms; organic farms yield only 75 to 90 percent of the crop of conventional farms. Farming organic foods and products requires meeting federal rules and regulations, often making the process more labor and management intensive.

It takes about three years to transition from conventional farming techniques to organic methods, and it requires documentation of an organic plan along with additional paperwork and inspections.


In 1990, the U.S. Congress adopted the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) as part of the 1990 Farm Bill, and the USDA issued uniform standards used to certify organic methods. All products sold as organic must come from certified producers.

Since 2002, the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) oversees organic certification. Third-party independent organizations accredited by the USDA handle evaluations and inspections of producers, processors and handlers -- it's not just the farmers who must follow the rules, but also the people they work with -- to determine whether or not they uphold organic methods and practices. Those who meet the guidelines are certified and allowed to use organic labeling and to market their products as organic. USDA regulations allow products with at least 95 percent organic ingredients to be labeled "USDA Organic" [source: USDA].

Organic certification is costly but is not intended to be prohibitive. The NOP set the organic certification rate at $750 per farm, but the actual cost varies based on the certifying agency and the size of the farm. The NOP also offers some financial assistance, up to $500. Small farms producing less than $5,000 worth of organic products a year do not require certification.

Data shows that only 0.4 percent of USDA's $2.5 billion budget focuses on organic agricultural research (about $10 million). While the government is not spending its money on organics, consumers are. The market grew 20 percent to 24 percent annually during the 1990s. And recently the Hartman Group reported that 90 percent of American consumers were either buying or considering buying organic products, up from 60 percent two years ago [source: Hartman Group].

Organics get good press because they appear in studies to be healthier for our planet and us. The American Cancer Society estimates that 85 percent of cancers are from environmental toxins, such as pesticides, and not from genetic causes. Eating an organic diet (as prescribed by federal guidelines)  has shown in a study supported by the Environmental Protection Agency to decrease detectable levels of pesticides in children.

Current studies also confirm that organic farming is good for the environment: It requires less water, there are fewer toxic pesticides released, soil erosion is minimal, and a recent study by the Soil Association saw improved nutrient levels in organic foods [source: Soil Association].

Researchers are continuing to look at ways to improve upon organic farming practices, including methods of animal health care (such as homeopathy), uses of organic pesticides and the environmental impacts of organic and conventional farming.

In the next section, we will look at the criticisms of organic farming along with how organic farming may cure some ills of the modern-day agriculture industry.­


Organic Farming Criticism

An Earthbound Organic Farm/Natural Selection Foods sign hangs on a building on Sept. 23, 2006 in San Juan Bautista, Calif. With the outbreak of E. Coli being linked by the FDA to bagged spinach from a Natural Selection Foods plant, growers are trying to recoup losses.
David Paul Morris/Getty Images

There are mixed feelings from conventional farmers and the agricultural industry about organic farming. Many in the industry are not convinced organic foods are more nutritious or that organic methods trump scientific advances, citing for example that farming with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) to help lessen world hunger outweighs any potential environmental risk.

Restricted use of antibiotics in organic farming has led to concern about high levels of microbes in manure, in turn causing food poisoning such as E. coli. There is a lack of sufficient evidence to prove organics suffer from a higher than conventional level of microbes, but right now studies favor organic products. The Soil Association suggests the handling of manures on organic farms are actually more likely to reduce levels of organisms, and that less than 5 percent of food poisoning outbreaks are due to fruit and vegetable contamination. Research continues to be conducted on the use of organic waste in all types of farming.


Additionally, a report in 2002 suggests organic and free-range chickens might be more likely to have Campylobacter infections, a known cause of food poisoning. Subsequent studies are underway.

Even as organic farming methods work to protect the environment by building healthy soils and emphasizing natural systems, without proper management and knowledge, organic practices can create pathogen problems.

The environmental benefits of organic farming are a hotly debated topic, and researchers continue to study how sustainable methods may help cure -- or at least help negate -- some of the effects of any environmental hazards produced by the modern-day agricultural system, hopefully reducing levels of chemicals put into the soil and atmosphere and our bodies. Conventional wisdom follows that the more we understand about our food sources and how they affect our bodies and the environment, the better.

For more organic-related articles and links, visit the next page.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

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  • "Transitioning to Organic Production." USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), 2006.
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  • Bessin, Rob. "Ladybugs." University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. 2007.
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  • Natural Marketing Institute, Health & Wellness Trends Database, March 2006<!--[if !supportLists]-->· Northbourne, Lord. "Look to the Land" 1940.
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  • "20 questions on genetically modified foods." World Health Organization. 2007.