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Organic agriculture is a method of producing crops without synthetically derived chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Indeed, soil fertility is the central goal of organic farming, as healthy soil produces abundant crops and diminishes the occurrence of pests. Preemptive measures focusing on soil quality are the main way that organic farmers reduce the need for chemical inputs.
Organic farmers use techniques such as crop rotation (changing the crops grown in a field each season) to build healthy fertile soil that has fewer pest problems. Organic farming techniques may also include the use of beneficial insects such as ladybugs to destroy crop-eating aphids. Likewise, companion cropping of certain plants together helps ward off pests.
Organic farming is also based on diversity: Growing a large number of crops both for ecological diversity and for sales diversity. Organic farming is unique in terms of crop choice, planning, harvesting, and marketing. Marketing is accomplished through specific channels as farmers seek out independent sales outlets, often selling to numerous wholesalers, brokers, or directly to consumers. Such direct marketing activities are exemplified in organic farmer participation in farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), both of which have increased rapidly in the past decade.
Organic farming is distinct from “conventional agriculture,” which is based on chemical applications and large-scale specialized production of one or two crops. Indeed the geographic distribution of organic cropland varies substantially from the patterns of conventional production. For example, 80 percent of U.S. conventional cropland is in just four crops: Corn, wheat, hay, and soybeans, but these crops represent less than half of certified organic cropland. On the other hand, organic vegetables comprise 12 percent of certified organic cropland, compared to only 1 percent of total U.S. cropland.
These cropping variations are seen in regional variation as well, with the Pacific and mountain regions comprising two-thirds of organic cropland, but only one-third of total U.S. cropland. The opposite is seen in the Corn Belt, which comprises only 11 percent of certified organic cropland, but represents 25 percent of total U.S. cropland. Overall, organic farmers grow more types of crops and more diverse crops that are not common among conventional farmers in the same region. It is a challenge for organic farmers to identify reliable, distinct organic marketing avenues that will provide the necessary price premiums on the numerous crops they grow.
Estimates place the growth of U.S. organic markets at 20 percent annually since 1990. The year 2000 marked the first year that more organic foods were sold in mainstream supermarkets than in any other venue. In fact, three-fourths of conventional grocery stores now carry some organic food. Natural food stores and direct marketing continue to play a role in the distribution of organic products. Organic food sales are led by fresh produce, nondairy beverages, breads and grains, packaged foods, and dairy products. Organic dairy items increased by 500 percent in the 1990s as a result of consumers seeking to avoid rBGH, a genetically engineered hormone injected to increase milk production in convention dairy cows. Sales of organic snacks, candy, and frozen foods have increased by 70 percent in recent years.
Consumer demand for all organic products is likely linked to concerns about pesticide residues and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food. Indeed, a study by the Consumers Union shows significantly lower pesticide residues on organic compared to conventional food. Parental concern about food safety often motivates parents to buy organic food for their children. A recent study shows that children who eat organic food have significantly lower levels of pesticides in their urine.
Certified organic is an important term because it signifies a specific process of certification, which varies by country but typically indicates that farmers omit synthetic agrochemicals for at least three consecutive years. Detailed farm histories must be written and every input to the organic fields must be documented. An annual inspection by an independent inspector is required and farms must show soil building through rotation and use of green manure (crops planted and plowed under to fertilize the soil).
According to a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) report, in 2001 certified organic cropland totaled 2.34 million acres. There are wide variations by crop types, with approximately 2 percent of the major fruit and vegetable crops, apples, carrots, lettuce, and grapes, and 2 percent of all tomatoes, grown by certified organic methods. For grains, these figures are much lower: only 0.1 percent of corn, soybeans, and wheat are organically grown. But significant amounts of specialty grains are certified organic, such as spelt (37 percent) and buckwheat (30 percent).
Geographic variation is seen among the states, as California, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Montana have the largest certified organic acreage (influenced by large areas of pasture and rangeland), and California, Washington, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Vermont, and Maine have the largest numbers of certified organic farmers.
Research and Standards
Although consumer demand is high, research and information on organic agriculture is sorely lacking. Even by 2003, when land-grant universities had 885,863 acres of field plots and research lands in the United States, only 0.02 percent (151 acres) were certified organic. This is 100 times less than the 0.2 percent of total U.S. cropland that is certified organic and hundreds of times less than the percentage of some crops; for example, 2 percent of tomatoes grown in the United States are certified organic.
The lack of research attention indicates the general disregard for organic farming within the conventional agricultural research system. Because of this indifference, organic farmers have experimented and developed their own pest management and soil fertility techniques, which they often share with other organic farmers. Current research information is a particularly acute need for organic farmers, as information needs intensify with the adoption of reducedchemical methods. Even programs in sustainable agriculture have been irrelevant for organic farmers, as exemplified by the most important national initiative for sustainable agriculture (the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program) of which only 19 percent of the funds are for organic production and marketing projects.
Organic farmers are highly diverse; some have moved from conventional methods to organic methods, others started farming more recently and have only employed organic farming techniques. Demographic characteristics also vary greatly, but in general these farmers have strong convictions that have compelled them to undertake something different. They are independent and innovative, as they try new crop rotations, seek out sources of information, solve pest concerns on their farms, and market their numerous crops to meet growing consumer demand for organic food.
Implementation of organic agricultural policy in the United States has been fairly recent. The 1990 Farm Bill initiated the establishment of a USDA organic farming office to draft standards with the assistance of an advisory board. Finally, in 2002, the National Organic Certification Standards were put into effect. Labeling now indicates three designated levels, with products labeled “100 percent organic” containing only organically produced ingredients. The “organic” label indicates products that are at least 95 percent certified organic and “made with organic ingredients” are for items with at least 70 percent of organic components. Any product containing less than 70 percent of organic ingredients may not be marketed as an organic food. Foods that fall into these organic categories qualify to display the “USDA Organic” seal.
The natural foods retail industry strongly supports the national certification standards. The Grocery Manufacturers of America represents major food producers and they note that national organic standards increase consumer confidence through uniformity of organic products. This highlights the conflict between the market-driven success of organic products and the grassroots ethical concerns of organic farming, as national standards will not necessarily support a locally-based organic food network. It is not clear how these divergent ideas will be balanced within the framework of the national certification standards, but it seems that market growth is currently driving the process.
In addition to policy issues, business concerns also influence the future of organic farming. As organic farming sees rapid growth in demand, it is pulled into the conventional mode of production. Agri-business corporations realize the large market growth in organic products and are well aware of the trends. For example, several multinational corporations have controlling interests in many organic food labels. In addition, in mid-2006, Wal-Mart made a public statement indicating that they seek to vastly expand the organic products they sell. Wal-Mart is already one of the world’s largest retailers of organic foods, so this recent move could further increase their influence on the organic food marketplace.
Such corporate involvement exemplifies the growing pains associated with organic agricultural production and consumption: local versus international; and farmer versus multinational. The organic farming system of producing food based on soil health, innovation, and earlier “hippie” movements, is now becoming big business. The potential negative aspects of this evolution are that it may become dominated by the large scale agri-business corporations seen in conventional agriculture.
On the other hand, the positive aspects of the success of organic agriculture are that more diverse consumers can afford to buy organic products and there are environmental benefits to reduced agrichemical use. In the future, organic agriculture will likely struggle to keep its roots in local farming and sales.
- Cynthia L. Curl, Richard A. Fenske, and Kai Elgethun, “Organophosphorus Pesticide Exposure of Urban and Suburban Preschool Children with Organic and Conventional Diets,” Environmental Health Perspectives (v.111, 2003);
- Carolyn Dimitri and Catherine Greene, “Recent Growth Patterns in the S. Organic Foods Market,” Agriculture Information Bulletin (U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] Economic Research Service, no. 777, 2002);
- A. Duram, Good Growing: Why Organic Farming Works (University of Nebraska Press, 2005);
- Catherine Greene, “U.S. Organic Farming Emerges in the 1990s: Adoption of Certified Systems,” Agriculture Information Bulletin (USDA Economic Research Service, 770, 2001);
- Catherine Greene and Amy Kremen, “U.S. Organic Farming in 2000-2002: Adoption of Certified Systems,” Agriculture Information Bulletin (USDA Economic Research Service, 780, 2003);
- P. Howard, “Consolidation in Food and Agriculture: Implications for Farmers and Consumers,” California Certified Organic Farmers Magazine (v.21, 2003);
- Nicolas Lampkin, Organic Farming (Farming Press, 1990);
- Jane Sooby, State of the States: Organic Farming Systems Research at Land Grant Institutions, 2000-2001 (Organic Farming Research Foundation, 2003).