WHAT IS ORGANIC?
Organic refers to the way agricultural products—foods and fibers—are grown and processed. It is an ecological system of management that at its core
relies on a healthy rich soil to produce strong plants that resist pests and diseases.
Organic farming prohibits the use of toxic and persistent chemicals
in favor of more “earth friendly” practices that work in harmony with nature and preserve biological diversity—the multitude and variety of life.
ORGANIC AT A GLANCE
Organic Crop Production
• Land must have no prohibited substances
applied to it for at least three years before the
harvest of an organic crop.
• Use of genetic engineering, irradiation, and
sewage sludge is prohibited.
• Soil fertility and crop nutrients must be
managed through tillage and cultivation
practices, supplemented with animal and crop
waste materials and allowed synthetic materials.
• Preference must be given to use of organic
seeds and other plant stock, but a farmer can
use non-organic seeds and plant stock under
• Crop pests, weeds, and diseases must be controlled
primarily through management practices including
physical, mechanical, and biological controls. When
these practices are not sufficient, a biological,
botanical, or synthetic substance from a specific list of
approved synthetics may be used.
• Antibiotics and synthetic
hormones are prohibited.
• 100% organic produced feed is
required with some vitamins
• Animals for slaughter must be
raised organically from birth, or
no later than the 2
day of life
• Vaccines are allowed.
• Access to outdoors, including access to pasture for
ruminants is required. Animals can be temporarily
confined only for reasons of health, safety, or to
protect soil or water quality.
• Withholding treatment from a sick animal is prohibited;
animals treated with a prohibited medication (ex.
antibiotics) must be removed from the organic operation.
*Adapted from U.S. Organic Agriculture Gaining Ground by Catherine Greene,
Economic Research Service of USDA, Agricultural Outlook, April 2000
ORGANIC STANDARDS INFO
Organic standards require that land on which organic food or fibers are grown must not be treated with any prohibited substances (such as toxic and
persistent chemicals and fertilizers) for three years prior to certification.
Farmers and processors must keep detailed records of methods and materials
used in growing and/or processing organic products, and be able to verify the origin of the raw materials from finished product all the way back to the
fields from which they came.
An audit trail must document that organic and non-organic products are not co-mingled anywhere in the chain from
farmer to consumer.
A third-party USDA-accredited certifier must inspect all methods and materials annually.
Organic farmers use a variety of techniques to build healthy soil and to grow a
diversity of crops.
Organic practices include:
Crop rotation. Conventional farming can contribute to soil
depletion by growing the same crops year after year. Organic
farming, by alternating the kinds of crops grown in each
field, builds healthier soil. Crop rotation also eliminates pest
breeding grounds created by growing the same crop annually.
Planting cover crops. Cover crops such as rye, vetch and
clover add nutrients to the soil, prevent weeds and increase
organic matter to feed soil microorganisms. Soil with high
organic matter resists erosion and holds water better,
requiring less irrigation.
Releasing beneficial insects. Many insects are highly
beneficial in preying on pests and helping farm ecosystems
eliminate the need for chemical insecticides that can remain in the soil for
years or leach into ground water.
Adding composted manure. Manure, processed for safety according to strict
guidelines, and composted plant wastes, help the soil retain moisture and
nutrients. Just as falling leaves fertilize forest soil, composted manures and
plant material replenish the farm soil.
Organic is not simply a return to traditional agricultural practices. Innovative,
cutting edge, technological solutions to problems are key to organic farming.
example, many organic orchardists, unable to use synthetic persistent pesticides to
prevent worms in apples, now use a “pheromone mating disruptive”. Throughout
the orchard a series of small tubes are hung containing a scent matching that of the
female moth. The scent confuses the male moth preventing him from mating with
the female and producing the larvae which ultimately can lead to a damaged apple.
The approach is highly technical, non-toxic and species specific.
Livestock can also be raised under an organic management system. Organic
livestock must be fed organically grown feed; no antibiotics or synthetic
hormones are allowed; and access to the outdoors is required. Successful organic
livestock farming depends on preventing illness and maintaining strong animals
through good nutrition and minimal stress.
Processed products can also bear the organic label. To do so, they must contain a
minimum of 95 percent certified organic ingredients. The remaining 5 percent of
ingredients must be natural ingredients, or synthetic ingredients approved by the
USDA, and cannot be genetically modified.
It may be helpful to think of organic as a process—not a product. The organic
label indicates how the product was grown and processed—under an organic
system of ecological management.
BIG DEMAND FOR ORGANIC PRODUCTS
Organic products are everywhere today. They’re sold at
farmers’ markets, supermarkets, and the finest gourmet
shops, in every department from dairy to produce to the
snack foods and frozen foods aisles. In fact, there’s an
organic choice in almost every food and beverage
category and many fiber categories, including such
products as certified organic chocolates, cotton sheets and
even beer and wine.
Organic products comprise one of the fastest-growing
segments of the food industry, with growth rates of at
least 20 percent annually throughout the 1990s for a total
U.S. market of about $6.6 billion in 2000, and
expectations of continued rapid growth.
Although at present less than 1 percent of U.S. farmland
is under organic cultivation, certified organic cropland in
the United States more than doubled during the 1990s.
With new national standards for organic labels,
consumers are likely to show increased confidence,
further driving sales, and increasing acreage under
The expansion of the organic marketplace is not limited
to the United States. In fact, the organic movement is a
global trend with exceptional success in Japan, Britain,
and other European Union countries. Global retail sales
of organic products have been forecasted at $21.5 billion
for the year 2000.
One example of organic’s success in
European markets is in Austria where over 8.4 percent of
the farmland is under organic cultivation.
As concerns continue to grow about damage to our soil,
water and air from conventional farming, about the
health consequences of pesticides in food and the
environment, and about genetically modified ingredients
in the food supply, demand for organic foods is growing.
Around the world, consumers are showing that they
want, and will often pay more for, products that are
healthy, wholesome, flavorful, and grown and produced
in ways that protect and restore the environment for a
This guide will help you understand the fundamentals
of organic agriculture—exactly what ‘organic’ means,
what organic doesn’t mean, the best reasons to support
organic, what the national organic standards mean to
you, and answers to other basic questions, please see related links.