Organic Food

organic food

The demand for organic products is increasing and so is the number of organic products available for consumers. Since 1990, the U.S. organic market has grown an average 20% annually. The original philosophy that guided organic farming emphasized the use of on-farm or local resources and avoided the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The prevailing approach was to rely on biological and ecological processes for soil fertility and pest control, and was accomplished through the use of crop rotations, the addition of crop residues and animal manures to the soil and the use of biological pest control to maintain soil productivity and tilth, supply plant nutrients, and regulate insects, weeds and diseases. Original organic farmers saw these strategies as a way to produce food for their community in a manner that was in synchrony with nature. Due to the efforts of these pioneers and the support and advocacy of a diverse group of consumers, scientists, and policy makers, the practice of organic farming is now widespread.

What Does 'Organic' Mean?

wetlandAccording to the USDA National Organic Program (NOP), the definition of 'organic' is as follows:

Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled "organic," a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet NOP organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too. In addition, all imported organic food must meet USDA standards, and some countries’ standards even exceed those of the U.S.

Pesticides & Fertilizers

In organic production, management strategies are selected to restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony among the components of the farming system. A common misconception is that organic farming merely involves the substitution of organic for mineral fertilizers and biological and cultural pest controls for synthetic pesticides. However, the misapplication of organic materials or pest control strategies will effectively disrupt the function of ecological and biological cycles and may lead to detrimental outcomes. To help producers manage these natural cycles in a proactive manner, the NOP requires them to complete a soil and pest management plan unique to their operation called the Organic System Plan (OSP). The OSP, or Farm Plan as it sometimes called, is submitted to the certification agency for review and approval. Producers may get assistance with the development of their plan from a county Extension agent or other service providers.

Producers are required to design and subscribe to a soil management plan to ensure that they are managing plant and animal materials in a manner that does not contribute to the contamination of crops, soil, or water by crop nutrients, pathogens, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substances. Rotation, tillage, irrigation, fertility management, and a soil and plant nutrient monitoring program are all factors that affect soil and water quality and should be included in the plan. The pest management plan provides producers with a road map to manage pests through mechanical, physical and cultural control methods. Approved non-synthetic biological, botanical, or mineral inputs may be used to manage pests only if preventative methods fail to provide sufficient control.

Information about the NOP regulation, certification, marketing, and technical production assistance may be obtained locally from your Cooperative Extension Service.

Antibiotics, Hormones, and Vaccines

According to the US Food and Drug Administration, recent scientific research has demonstrated that the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals, which leads to antibiotic resistance, does impact human health. Animals raised on an organic farms are given no antibiotics or growth hormones, and they must be fed organic feed and given access to the outdoors. Farmers may use vaccines to protect the health of animals, and they are required to use antibiotics when necessary to treat a sick animal to prevent animal cruelty. However, when antibiotics must be used to treat an animal, that animal must be clearly identified and can no longer be sold as 'organic.' The practice of avoiding antibiotic use unless necessary helps to prevent the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and in the long run is better for human health.

(Source: USDA National Organic Program)

Increasing Biodiversity

Biodiversity is the variety of life and all the processes that keep life functioning. Organic farming allows a wider variety of species to coexist on the land where crops are grown, often along the edges of farms. One of the reasons organic farms can have more birds, bats, non-pest insects, and spiders is because they minimize pesticide use and instead rely on natural biological and ecological systems to control pests. Many pesticides kill not only the target pest species, but eliminate other (sometimes beneficial) species as well. An increasingly popular method of managing crop pests in farming systems is called Integrated Pest Management (IPM). IPM promotes the use of the least toxic method of pest control, pest-resistant plants, and the natural enemies of pests. Because it is environmentally responsible and can reduce production costs, farmer acceptance of IPM is growing rapidly. To learn more about IPM and bird conservation, please read this publication: "Farmers' Opinions about Bird Conservation and Pest Management on Organic and Conventional North Florida Farms."

Research demonstrates that organically managed systems have been shown to be healthier for wildlife due to management practices such as crop rotation, diversified crops, mechanical weeding, hedgerow management, use of organic fertilizers, and little or no use of chemical herbicides or pesticides. Soil management practices in organic systems also reduce soil erosion and increase the inherent fertility of the soil, which in turn increases the biodiversity of soil beneficial bacteria, fungi and earthworms. Above ground, the high diversity of crops contributes to an increase of beneficial birds, butterflies, beetles, and spiders compared to conventionally managed production systems.

(Source: ATTRA)