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Organic vegetables at a farmers' market in Argentina.

Organic foods are made according to certain production standards. For the vast majority of human history, agriculture can be described as organic; only during the 20th century was a large supply of new synthetic chemicals introduced to the food supply. This more recent style of production is referred to as "conventional," though organic production has been the convention for a much greater period of time. Under organic production, the use of conventional non-organic pesticides, insecticides and herbicides is greatly restricted and saved as a last resort. However, contrary to popular belief, certain non-organic fertilizers are still used. If livestock are involved, they must be reared without the routine use of antibiotics and without the use of growth hormones, and generally fed a healthy diet. In most countries, organic produce may not be genetically modified. It has been suggested that the application of nanotechnology to food and agriculture is a further technology that needs to be excluded from certified organic food. The Soil Association (UK) has been the first organic certifier to implement a nano-exclusion.

Organic food production is a heavily regulated industry, distinct from private gardening. Currently, the European Union, the United States, Canada, Japan and many other countries require producers to obtain special certification in order to market food as "organic" within their borders. Most certifications allow some chemicals and pesticides to be used, so consumers should be aware of the standards for qualifying as "organic" in their respective locales.

Historically, organic farms have been relatively small family-run operations, which is why organic food was once only available in small stores or farmers' markets.. However, since the early 1990s organic food production has had growth rates of around 20% a year, far ahead of the rest of the food industry, in both developed and developing nations. As of April 2008, organic food accounts for 1–2% of food sales worldwide.

Meaning and origin of the term

In 1939, Lord Northbourne coined the term organic farming in his book Look to the Land (1940), out of his conception of "the farm as organism", to describe a holistic, ecologically-balanced approach to farming—in contrast to what he called chemical farming, which relied on "imported fertility" and "cannot be self-sufficient nor an organic whole". This is different from the scientific use of the term "organic", to refer to a class of molecules that contain carbon, especially those involved in the chemistry of life.

Identifying organic food

  • See also: Organic farming for information on the production of organic food.

Processed organic food usually contains only organic ingredients. If non-organic ingredients are present, at least a certain percentage of the food's total plant and animal ingredients must be organic (95% in the United States and Australia) and any non-organically produced ingredients are subject to various agricultural requirements. Foods claiming to be organic must be free of artificial food additives, and are often processed with fewer artificial methods, materials and conditions, such as chemical ripening, food irradiation, and genetically modified ingredients. Pesticides are allowed so long as they are not synthetic.

Early consumers interested in organic food would look for non-chemically treated, fresh or minimally processed food. They mostly had to buy directly from growers: "Know your farmer, know your food" was the motto. Personal definitions of what constituted "organic" were developed through firsthand experience: by talking to farmers, seeing farm conditions, and farming activities. Small farms grew vegetables (and raised livestock) using organic farming practices, with or without certification, and the individual consumer monitored. As demand for organic foods continued to increase, high volume sales through mass outlets such as supermarkets rapidly replaced the direct farmer connection. Today there is no limit to organic farm sizes and many large corporate farms currently have an organic division. However, for supermarket consumers, food production is not easily observable, and product labeling, like "certified organic", is relied on. Government regulations and third-party inspectors are looked to for assurance. A "certified organic" label is usually the only way for consumers to know that a processed product is "organic".

Of the 30 third party inspectors 15 of them have been placed under probation after an audit. The USDA does not inspect organic farmers. Organic food not grown in the US is not inspected by anyone. The labeling of organic food grown outside of the US is based on the farmer's word.

Legal definition

To be certified organic, products must be grown and manufactured in a manner that adheres to standards set by the country they are sold in:

Environmental impact

Several surveys and studies have attempted to examine and compare conventional and organic systems of farming. The general consensus across these surveys is that organic farming is less damaging for the following reasons:

  • Organic farms do not consume or release synthetic pesticides into the environment—some of which have the potential to harm soil, water and local terrestrial and aquatic wildlife.
  • Organic farms are better than conventional farms at sustaining diverse ecosystems, i.e., populations of plants and insects, as well as animals.
  • When calculated either per unit area or per unit of yield, organic farms use less energy and produce less waste, e.g., waste such as packaging materials for chemicals.

However, some critics of organic farming methods believe that organic farms require more land to produce the same amount of food as conventional farms (see 'Yield' section, below). They argue that if this is true, organic farms could potentially destroy the rainforests and wipe out many ecosystems.

A 2003 investigation by the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs in the UK found, similar to other reports, that organic farming "can produce positive environmental benefits", but that some of the benefits were decreased or lost when comparisons are made on "the basis of unit production rather than area".


One study found a 20% smaller yield from organic farms using 50% less fertilizer and 97% less pesticide. Studies comparing yields have had mixed results. Supporters claim that organically managed soil has a higher quality and higher water retention. This may help increase yields for organic farms in drought years.

One study from the Danish Environmental Protection Agency found that, area-for-area, organic farms of potatoes, sugar beet and seed grass produce as little as half the output of conventional farming. Findings like these, and the dependence of organic food on manure from low-yield cattle, has prompted criticism from scientists that organic farming is environmentally unsound and incapable of feeding the world population. Among these critics are Norman Borlaug, father of the "green revolution," and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, who asserts that organic farming practices can at most feed 4 billion people, after expanding cropland dramatically and destroying ecosystems in the process. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, responds to this by pointing out that the average yield of world agriculture is substantially lower than modern sustainable farming yields. Bringing average world yields up to modern organic levels could increase the worlds food supply by 50 % .

A 2007 study compiling research from 293 different comparisons into a single study to assess the overall efficiency of the two agricultural systems has concluded that methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base. (from the abstract)The researchers also found that while in developed countries, organic systems on average produce 92% of the yield produced by conventional agriculture, organic systems produce 80% more than conventional farms in developing countries, because the materials needed for organic farming are more accessible than synthetic farming materials to farmers in some poor countries. On the other hand, communities that lack sufficient manure to replenish soils would struggle with organic farming, and the soil would degrade rapidly .

Energy efficiency

A study of the sustainability of apple production systems showed that in comparing a conventional farming system to an organic method of farming, the organic system is more energy efficient. However, this is debatable due to organic farming's large use of tillage for weed control. Also increased fuel use from incorporating less nutrient dense fertilizers results in higher fuel consumption rates. The general analysis is that organic production methods are usually more energy efficient because they do not use chemically synthesized nitrogen. But they generally consume more petroleum because of the lack of other options for weed control and more intensive soil management practices.

Energy efficiency is hard to determine; in the case listed above the author cites a book written in 1976. The true value of efficiency and energy consumption in relation to organic farms has yet to be determined.

Pesticides and farmers

There are studies detailing the effects and side effects of pesticides upon the health of farm workers. Even when pesticides are used correctly, they still end up in the air and bodies of farm workers. Through these studies, organophosphate pesticides have become associated with acute health problems such as abdominal pain, dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, as well as skin and eye problems. In addition, there have been many other studies that have found pesticide exposure is associated with more severe health problems such as respiratory problems, memory disorders, dermatologic conditions, cancer, depression, neurologic deficits, miscarriages, and birth defects. Summaries of peer-reviewed research have examined the link between pesticide exposure and neurological outcomes and cancer in organophosphate-exposed workers.

Imported fruits and vegetables from South America are more likely to contain high level of pesticides, even pesticides banned for use in the United States. Migratory birds, such as Swainson's hawks, have wintering grounds in Argentina where thousands of them were found dead from monocrotophos insecticide poisoning.

Pesticide residue

A study published in 2002 showed that "Organically grown foods consistently had about one-third as many residues as conventionally grown foods."

Monitoring of pesticide residues in the United States is carried out by the Pesticide Data Program (part of USDAmarker, which was created in 1990. It has since tested over 60 different types of food for over 400 different types of pesticides – with samples collected close to the point of consumption. Their most recent results found in 2005 that:

Several studies corroborate this finding by having found that 25 percent of organic food carries synthetic pesticide residues, in comparison to 77 percent of conventional food.

A study published by the National Research Council in 1993 determined that for infants and children, the major source of exposure to pesticides is through diet. A recent study in 2006 measured the levels of organophosphorus pesticide exposure in 23 schoolchildren before and after replacing their diet with organic food. In this study it was found that levels of organophosphorus pesticide exposure dropped dramatically and immediately when the children switched to an organic diet. Food residue limits established by law are set specifically with children in mind and consider a child's lifetime ingestion of each pesticide.

There are controversial data on the health implications of certain pesticides. For example, the herbicide Atrazine has been shown in some experiments to be a teratogen, causing demasculinization in male frogs exposed to small concentrations. Under the effects of Atrazine, male frogs were found to have greatly increased occurrences of either malformed gonads, or testicular gonads which contain non-degenerate eggs. Effects were however significantly reduced in high concentrations, as is consistent with other teratogens affecting the endocrine system, such as estradiol.

Organic farming standards do not allow the use of synthetic pesticides, but they do allow the use of specific pesticides derived from plants. The most common organic pesticides, accepted for restricted use by most organic standards, include Bt, pyrethrum, and rotenone. Some organic pesticides, such as rotenone, have high toxicity to fish and aquatic creatures with some toxicity to mammals. It causes Parkinson's disease if injected into rats.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies periodically review the licensing of suspect pesticides, but the process of de-listing is slow. One example of this slow process is exemplified by the pesticide Dichlorvos, or DDVP, which as recently as the year 2006 the EPA proposed its continued sale. The EPA has almost banned this pesticide on several occasions since the 1970s, but it never did so despite considerable evidence that suggests DDVP is not only carcinogenic but dangerous to the human nervous system—especially in children. The EPA "has determined that risks do not exceed levels of concern", a study of longterm exposure to DDVP in rats showed no toxic effects.

Nutritional value and taste

In April 2009, results from Quality Low Food Input (QLIF), a 5-year integrated study funded by the European Commission, confirmed that "the quality of crops and livestock products from organic and conventional farming systems differs considerably." Specifically, results from a QLIF project studying the effects of organic and low-input farming on crop and livestock nutritional quality "showed that organic food production methods resulted in: (a) higher levels of nutritionally desirable compounds (e.g., vitamins/antioxidants and poly-unsaturated fatty acids such as omega-3 and CLA); (b) lower levels of nutritionally undesirable compounds such as heavy metals, mycotoxins, pesticide residues and glyco-alkaloidsin a range of crops and/or milk; (c) a lower risk of faecal Salmonella shedding in pigs." The QLIF study also concludes that "further and more detailed studies are required to provide proof for positive health impacts of organic diets on human and animal health." Alternatively, according to the UK's Food Standards Agency, "Consumers may choose to buy organic fruit, vegetables and meat because they believe them to be more nutritious than other food. However, the balance of current scientific evidence does not support this view." A 12-month systematic review commissioned by the FSA in 2009 and conducted at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine based on 50 year's worth of collected evidence concluded that "there is no good evidence that consumption of organic food is beneficial to health in relation to nutrient content." Other studies have found no proof that organic food offers greater nutritional values, more consumer safety or any distinguishable difference in taste.

Regarding taste, a 2001 study concluded that organic apples were sweeter by blind taste test. Firmness of the apples was also rated higher than those grown conventionally. Limited use of food preservatives may cause faster spoilage of organic foods. Such foods in the stores, on the other hand, are guaranteed of not having been stored for extended amounts of time, still being high in decaying nutrients that food preservatives fail to preserve. Organic food may also potentially have higher amounts of natural biotoxins, like solanine in potatoes, as to compensate for the lack of externally applied fungicides and herbicides etc. However, in current studies, there have been no indications of difference in amounts of natural biotoxins between organic and conventional foods.


Organic products typically cost 10 to 40% more than similar conventionally produced products. Processed organic foods vary in price when compared to their conventional counterparts. An Australian study by Choice magazine in 2004 found processed organic foods in supermarkets to be 65% more expensive, but noted this was not consistent.Prices may be higher because organic produce is produced on a smaller scale, and may need to be milled or processed separately. Furthermore, there is an increase in shipping costs from more centralized production in otherwise regional markets. In the case of dairy and eggs, the animal's requirements such as the number of animals that can be raised per acre, or the breed of animal and its feed conversion ratio affects the cost.

Related movements

Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is an approach where members prepurchase "shares" in a season's harvest, and pick up their weekly portions from distribution sites. Thus, consumers provide direct financing for farms, participate in the risks and rewards of annual growing conditions, and distribute food directly from the farm.

Local food is buying food that was produced geographically closer to the consumer. Local food is seen as a way to get fresher food and invest in one's own community.

The fair trade movement, based on the principle that social and environmental sustainability are inextricably interdependent, is often linked to organic food.

Biodynamic agriculture, a method of organic farming, is closely related to the organic food movement.

Beyond organic

Beyond Organic is a concept aligned with the idea of creating sustainable and ecological systems of food production capable of transcending the standards currently affixed to foods and processes now categorized by the term "organic". Since the organic food movement has been increasingly industrialized and often forced to undergo processes similar to those of conventional agriculture (such as monocultural plantings on massive scales) due to market pressures, many members of the what was originally the organic food movement are demanding that new standards be established for sustainable organic foods. Many ardent supporters of organic foods are frustrated that the integrity of what constitutes "organic" foods and farming methods have been compromised by FDA legislation that allows for synthetics to be introduced into organic processed foods and other unsustainable industrial attributes associated with "organic" foods.

Facts and statistics

While organic food accounts for 1–2% of total food sales worldwide, the organic food market is growing rapidly, far ahead of the rest of the food industry, in both developed and developing nations.

  • World organic food sales jumped from US $23 billion in 2002 to $52 billion in 2008.
  • The world organic market has been growing by 20% a year since the early 1990s, with future growth estimates ranging from 10%–50% annually depending on the country.

North America

United Statesmarker:
* Organic food is the fastest growing sector of the American food marketplace .
* Organic food sales have grown by 17 to 20 percent a year for the past few years while sales of conventional food have grown at only about 2 to 3 percent a year.

* In 2003 organic products were available in nearly 20,000 natural food stores and 73% of conventional grocery stores.
* Organic products account for 2.6% of total food sales in the year 2005.

* Two thirds of organic milk and cream and half of organic cheese and yogurt are sold through conventional supermarkets.

* Organic food sales surpassed $1 billion in 2006, accounting for 0.9% of food sales in Canada.
* Organic food sales by grocery stores were 28% higher in 2006 than in 2005.
* British Columbians account for 13% of the Canadian population, but purchased 26% of the organic food sold in Canada in 2006.


In the European Union (EU25) 3.9% of the total utilized agricultural area is used for organic production. The countries with the highest proportion of organic land are Austria (11%) and Italy (8.4), followed by Czech Republic and Greece (both 7.2%). The lowest figures are shown for Malta (0.1%), Poland (0.6%) and Ireland (0.8%)

* 11.6% of all farmers produced organically in 2007. The government has created incentives to increase the figure to 20% by 2010.

* 4.9% of all food products sold in Austrian supermarkets (including discount stores) in 2006 were organic. 8000 different organic products were available in the same year.

* Since 2005 all school lunches must be organic by law.

* In 2005 168,000 ha of land were under organic management. 7 percent of Polish consumers buy food that was produced according to the EU-Eco-regulation. The value of the organic market is estimated at 50 million Euros (2006).

* Organic food sales increased from just over £100 million in 1993/94 to £1.21 billion in 2004 (an 11% increase on 2003).


* After the collapse of the Soviet Unionmarker in 1990, agricultural inputs that had previously been purchased from Eastern bloc countries were no longer available in Cuba, and many Cuban farms converted to organic methods out of necessity. Consequently, organic agriculture is a mainstream practice in Cuba, while it remains an alternative practice in most other countries. Although some products called organic in Cuba would not satisfy certification requirements in other countries (crops may be genetically modified, for example), Cuba exports organic citrus and citrus juices to EU markets that meet EU organic standards. Cuba's forced conversion to organic methods may position the country to be a global supplier of organic products.

Organics Olympiad

Organics Olympiad 2007 awarded gold, silver and bronze medals to countries based on twelve measures of organic leadership.. The gold medal winners were:
* Australia with 11.8 million organic hectares.
* Mexicomarker with 83,174 organic farms.
* Romaniamarker with 15.9 million certified wild organic hectares.
* Chinamarker with 135 thousand tonnes of organic wild harvest produce.
* Denmarkmarker with 1805 organic research publications recorded.
* Germanymarker with 69 members of IFOAM.
* Chinamarker with an increase of 1,998,705 organic hectares.
* Liechtensteinmarker with 27.9% of its agricultural land certified organic.
* Malimarker with an 8488% annual increase in its organic hectares.
* Latviamarker with an annual 3.01% increase in its organic share of agricultural land.
* Liechtensteinmarker with a 10.9% 4-yearly increment of the organic share of its total agriculture.
* Switzerlandmarker with a per capita annual spend on organic produce of 103 Euros.

See also


  1. Paull, J. & Lyons, K. (2008) , Nanotechnology: The Next Challenge for Organics, Journal of Organic Systems, 3(1) 3–22
  2. Paull, J. & Lyons, K. (2008), Nanotechnology: The Next Challenge for Organics, Journal of Organic Systems, 3(1) 3–22
  3. John Paull, "The Farm as Organism: The Foundational Idea of Organic Agriculture", Elementals: Journal of Bio-Dynamics Tasmania, vol. 80 (2006): pp. 14–18.
  4. Labeling: Preamble
  6. Stolze, M.; Piorr, A.; Häring, A.M. and Dabbert, S. (2000) Environmental impacts of organic farming in Europe. Organic Farming in Europe: Economics and Policy Vol. 6. Universität Hohenheim, Stuttgart-Hohenheim.
  7. The Bichel Committee. 1999. Report from the main committee. Danish Environmental Protection Agency. Conclusions and recommendations of the Committee: 8.7.1 Total phase-out. Report not available in print but posted online at: [Excerpt] "A total abolition of pesticide use would result in an average drop in farming yields of between 10% and 25%, at the farm level; the smallest losses would occur in cattle farming. On farms that have a large proportion of special crops, such as potatoes, sugar beet and seed grass, the production losses in terms of quantity would be closer to 50%. These crops would probably be ousted by other crops."
  8. Perfecto et al., in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems (2007), 22: 86–108 Cambridge University Press: cited in New Scientist 13:46 12 July 2007
  10. Ecobichon DJ. 1996. Toxic effects of pesticides. In: Casarett and Doull's Toxicology: The Basic Science of Poisons (Klaassen CD, Doull J, eds). 5th ed. New York:MacMillan, 643–689.
  11. Consumers Union. December 15, 1997. Are organic foods as good as they’re grown? A landmark consumer reports study. Consumers Union Press Release. “One-quarter of the organic produce samples that Consumer Reports tested had some pesticide residues on them, compared with 77 percent of the conventional samples.”
  12. Consumers Union. January, 1998. Greener Greens: The Truth About Organic Food. Consumer Reports 63(1): pages 12–18.
  13. Baker et al. May, 2002. Pesticide residues in conventional, IPM-grown and organic foods: Insights from three U.S. data sets. Summary: Analysis and Results: Frequency of Positive Samples. Food Additives and Contaminants: volume 19, No. 5, pages 427–446. “Frequency of Positive Samples: Organically grown samples consistently had far smaller percentages with residues: 23, 6.5 and 27 percent in the USDA, DPR and CU data, respectively.”
  14. Environmental Science & Technology Online. January 11, 2006. Organic vegetables not pesticide-free. Science News.
  16. Monitoring of imported processed fruit and vegetable products by specific commodity, country and tests
  17. Fresh fruit and vegetables
  18. Report On Pesticides, Agricultural Chemicals, Environmental Pollutants and Other Impurities in Agri-Food Commodities of Plant Origin
  19. Dairy products
  20. Canadian Food Inspection Agency. 2003. Report on Pesticides Residues in Baby Food 2002 – 2003. Infant and Junior Baby Food Chemical Residues Project.
  21. Pesticide Information Profiles: Rotenone. June, 1996. Pesticide Information Project of Cooperative Extension Offices of Cornell University, Oregon State University, the University of Idaho, and the University of California at Davis and the Institute for Environmental Toxicology, Michigan State University.
  22. Reregistration Eligibility Decision for Dichlorvos(DDVP)
  23. 90 day dermal toxicity of DDVP in male rats, Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology
  24. Niggli, Urs et al. (2009). "QLIF Integrated Research Project: Advancing Organic and Low-Input Food." [1]Retrieved on 23 Nov 2009
  25. Leifert, Carlo & Lars Elsgaard. (2009). "QLIF Subproject 2: Effects of Production Methods: Determining the Effect of Organic and Low-Input Production Methods on Food Quality and Safety." [2]Retrieved on 23 Nov 2009.
  26. Niggli, Urs et al. (2009). "QLIF Integrated Research Project: Advancing Organic and Low-Input Food." [3]Retrieved on 23 Nov 2009
  27. The Food Standards Agency’s Current Stance
  28. Bourn D, Prescott J. January 2002. A comparison of the nutritional value, sensory qualities, and food safety of organically and conventionally produced foods Critical Reviews in Food Science Nutrition. 42(1): 1–34.
  29. Williams, C. M. February 2002. Nutritional quality of organic food: shades of grey or shades of green? Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 61(1): 19–24
  30. Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA). Organically Grown Produce: Does organic produce taste better? & Is organic produce more nutritious?
  31. Sir John Krebs. June 5, 2003. Is organic food better for you? Speech given by the then-chair of the Food Standards Agency (UK), Sir John Krebs, to the Cheltenham Science Fair on June 5, 2005. Posted on the Food Standards Agency website:
  32. Swedish National Food Administration --> Ekologisk mat Translated from: I studierna går det heller inte att påvisa några skillnader mellan ekologiskt och konventionellt odlade produkter när det gäller halter av naturliga gifter, till exempel mögelgifter, i spannmål eller solanin i potatis. Retrieved on June 11, 2009
  33. Winter, CK and SF Davis, 2006 "Organic Foods" Journal of Food Science 71(9):R117–R124.
  34. Pollan, Michael. The Omnivores Dilemma. Penguin Books. London, 2006.
  36. Warner, Melanie. "What Is Organic? Powerful Players Want a Say". New York Times: Nov. 1, 2005.
  37. Paull, John "Organics Olympiad 2007 – Perspectives on the Global State of Organic Agriculture, Acres Australia, (2008) 16 (1): 36–38.

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