How Organic Food Works

By: Robin Brett Parnes
What does "organic" really mean? See more foods under $5 pictures.
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Or­ganic farming was among the fastest growing segments of U.S. agriculture during the 1990s. The value of retail sales of organic food was estimated to be more than $20 billion in 2005. And, according to the Food Marketing Institute, more than half of Americans now buy organic food at least once a month. Why is organic food becoming so popular?

In this article, we will explore the history and purpose behind organic food, what it means if a food is organic, how to tell if a food is organic, and the pros and cons of choosing organic food.


What is Organic Food?

­In D­ecember 2000, the National Organic Standards Board of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) established a national standard for the term "organic." Organic food, defined by how it cannot be made rather than how it can be made, must be produced without the use of sewer-sludge fertilizers, most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, genetic engineering (biotechnology), growth hormones, irradiation and antibiotics. A variety of agricultural products can be produced organically, including produce, grains, meat, dairy, eggs, and processed food products.

"Organic" does not mean "natural." There is no legal definition as to what constitutes a "natural" food. However, the food industry uses the term "natural" to indicate that a food has been minimally processed and is preservative-free. Natural foods can include organic foods, but not all natural foods are organic. Only foods labeled "organic" have been certified as meeting USDA organic standards.


Organic Farming

The phrase "organic farming" first appeared in Lord Northbourne's book "Look to the Land," published in 1940. But the truth is, organic farming is the oldest form of agriculture. Before the end of World War II, farming without the use of petroleum-based chemicals (synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) was the only option for farmers. Technologies developed during the war were found to be useful for agricultural production. For example, the chemical ammonium nitrate, which was used as munitions, became useful as fertilizer, and organophosphates used for nerve gas were later used as insecticide.

These days, farmers are switching to organic agriculture once again, but now with an ecologically based, systematic approach that includes long-term planning, detailed record keeping and major investment in equipment and supplies. Although it is still only a small industry, the number of organic farmers is growing by about 12 percent per year and now stands at more than 12,000 nationwide (source).


Organic Farming in the U.S. Today

The USDA's Economic Research Service reports that in 2003, the latest year for which data are available, farmers in 49 states used organic production methods and third-party organic certification services on 2.2 million acres out of a total of 828 million acres of farmland. Approximately two-thirds of the certified U.S. organic farmland was used for crops, and one-third was used as pasture.

Large farms, mostly located in the Midwest and West, produced processed tomatoes, organic wine grapes and other high-value crops on a commercial scale, whereas numerous small farms, concentrated in the Northeast, specialized in mixed vegetable production for direct marketing to consumers and restaurants.

While organic food can be found throughout the country, California was the leader in production of organic fruits and vegetables in 2003, with Washington and Oregon not far behind. Farmers and ranchers in 30 states raised a small number of certified organic cows, hogs and sheep. Wisconsin, California and New York were the top producers of organic dairy cows. The number of certified organic livestock increased more than fivefold from 1997 to 2003.

Beginning October 21, 2002, all farms and handling operations selling organic agricultural products worth more than $5,000 a year must be certified by a state or private agency accredited by the USDA. Organic farmers are, among other things, required to:

  • have an Organic Systems Plan (OSP) describing how their operation will achieve, document and sustain compliance with applicable regulations
  • maintain records concerning the production and handling of agricultural products that are sold, labeled or represented as organic
  • submit to audits and evaluations conducted by accredited certifying agents
  • have distinct, defined boundaries and buffer zones to prevent the unintended application of a prohibited substance to land under organic management (The national standards do not specify specific dimensions for buffer zones, but leaves the determination of their size to the organic producer and the certifying agent on a case-by-case basis.)
  • use organic seeds when commercially available
  • minimize soil erosion; implement crop rotations; and prevent contamination of crops, soil and water by plant and animal nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals or residues of prohibited substances
  • have had no prohibited substances applied to their land for at least three years prior to harvest

Production: Organic vs. Conventional

As you can imagine, organic agricultural practices are quite distinct from those of "conventional" farming.

Conventional farmers:

Organic farmers:

  • feed soil and build soil matter with natural fertilizer to grow their crops
  • use insect predators, mating disruption, traps and barriers to protect crops from pests and disease
  • make use of crop rotation, mechanical tillage and hand-weeding, as well as cover crops, mulches, flame weeding and other management methods to control weed growth

As a last resort, organic farmers may apply certain botanical or other non-synthetic pesticides (for example, rotenone and pyrethrins, both of which are from plants).


The meat, dairy products and eggs that organic farmers produce are from animals that are fed organic feed and allowed access to the outdoors.

Unlike conventionally raised livestock, organic livestock must be kept in living conditions that accommodate the natural behavior of the animals. For instance, ruminants (including cows, sheep and goats) must have access to pasture. Although they may be vaccinated against disease, organic livestock and poultry may not be given antibiotics, hormones or medications in the absence of illness. Instead, livestock diseases and parasites are controlled largely through preventive measures such as rotational grazing, balanced diet, sanitary housing and stress reduction.

How Do I Know if a Food is Organic?

Look for the word "organic" on vegetables or pieces of fruit, or on the sign above the organic produce display. The word "organic" may also appear on packages of meat, cartons of milk or eggs, cheese and other single-ingredient foods. Foods labeled "100 percent organic" must contain only organic ingredients. Products containing at least 70-percent organic content can be labeled "made with organic ingredients." Those foods labeled simply "organic" must have at least 95-percent organic ingredients, by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt. Anyone who knowingly sells or labels a product "organic" that is not produced and handled in accordance with these regulations can face a civil penalty of up to $10,000.

Foods grown and processed according to the federal standards will in most cases bear the seal "USDA Organic." As its use is voluntary, companies may choose not to display the seal.


If you see a food that is labeled "transitional," that means the farmer produced it during the three-year conversion period from conventional to organic.

Why Should I Care if a Food is Organic?

According to the USDA, organic food production allows farmers to lower input costs, decrease reliance on nonrenewable resources, capture high-value markets and premium prices, and boost farm income. Organic agriculture also has many important environmental benefits:

  • It promotes sustainability by establishing an ecological balance to prevent soil fertility or pest problems. In the long run, organic farms tend to conserve energy and protect the environment by maintaining ecological harmony.
  • It enhances biodiversity, or the presence of multiple plant and/or animal species. Having a highly diverse genetic pool becomes useful in the future when beneficial characteristics can be tapped (that is, growing a diverse mix of crops helps to support beneficial organisms that assist in pollination and pest management).
  • Because organic agriculture utilizes practices such as crop rotations, inter-cropping, symbiotic associations, cover crops and minimum tillage, the length of time that the soil is exposed to erosive forces is decreased, which minimizes nutrient losses and boosts soil productivity.
  • By not using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, organic agriculture reduces pollution of groundwater.
  • Organic agriculture helps to minimize the greenhouse effect and global warming through its ability to sequester carbon in the soil.


Why is Organic Food So Expensive?

Prices tend to be higher for organic than conventional products. As stated on the Web site of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN), certified organic products are generally more expensive than their conventional counterparts because:

  • The organic food supply is limited as compared to demand.
  • Production costs for organic foods are typically higher because of greater labor input and because farmers don't produce enough of a single product to lower the overall cost.
  • Post-harvest handling of relatively small quantities of organic foods results in higher costs because organic and conventional produce must be separated for processing and transportation.
  • Marketing and the distribution chain for organic products are relatively inefficient, and costs are higher because of relatively small volumes.

The FAO also notes that prices of organic food include not only the cost of the food production itself, but also a range of other factors that are not captured in the price of conventional food, such as:


  • Environmental enhancement and protection (and avoidance of future expenses to mitigate pollution)
  • Higher standards for animal welfare
  • Avoidance of health risks to farmers due to inappropriate handling of pesticides (and avoidance of future medical expenses)
  • Rural development by generating additional farm employment and assuring a fair and sufficient income to producers

The FAO believes that as the demand for organic food and products increases, technological innovations and economies of scale should reduce costs of production, processing, distribution and marketing for organic produce.

Is Organic Food Better than Conventional Food?

Organic and conventional food must meet the same quality and safety standards. Organic food differs from conventionally produced food simply in the way it is grown, handled and processed. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that it is more nutritious or safer than conventional food. A recently published report indicates that organic food is less likely to contain pesticide residues than conventional food (13 percent of organic produce samples versus 71 percent of conventional produce samples contained a pesticide residue when long-banned persistent pesticides were excluded). Yet, according to the National Research Council, the traces of pesticides left on conventionally grown products are unlikely to cause an increased cancer risk. Also, if fruits and vegetables are properly washed, most of the chemicals can be removed.

As for taste, that's up to you to decide what you like best. In general, people tend to find that the fresher a food is, the better it tastes, regardless of how it was produced.


Is There Any Downside to Organic Food?

In addition to the higher price, there are two main criticisms of organic food. First, some people argue that eating such products increases your exposure to biological contaminants, putting you at greater risk for foodborne illness. In particular, concerns have been raised about:

  • Manure - While manure is a well known carrier of human pathogens, when properly treated it is both safe and efficient. Plus, certified organic farmers are restricted from using untreated manure within 60 days before the harvest of a crop and are inspected to make sure these standards and restrictions are met.
  • Mycotoxins from molds - Fungicides are not permitted in the production and processing of organic foods. However, studies have not shown that consuming organic products leads to a greater risk of mycotoxin contamination.
  • E. coli bacteria - Particularly the virulent strain O157:H7, found in the intestinal tract of animals, is a concern. As it turns out, both conventional and organic foods are susceptible to contamination by E. coli.

The second criticism of organic agriculture is that organic farmers can't produce enough to feed everybody. Some experts contend that organic food production, and in particular the failure to implement genetic engineering techniques, will condemn millions worldwide to hunger, malnutrition and starvation because:

  • Yield (total harvest per unit area) for organic farming is lower than for conventional farming.
  • Organic farming is not economically or socially viable in poorer countries.

In contrast, proponents of organic farming argue that the problem isn't producing enough food -- the problem is getting the food that is already produced to the people who need it. The FAO says that under the right circumstances, the market returns from organic agriculture can potentially contribute to local food security by increasing family incomes. The issue remains under heated debate.

For more information on organic food and related topics, check out the links on the next page.